Category Archives: voices behind bars

Connect to Correctional Officers to gain understanding

This article published in Mother Jones gives excellent insight into the job of a private prison guard. The book, “NewJack: Guarding Sing Sing” by Ted Conover, is another excellent accoung by an undercover journalist. I found “NewJack” at my public library. It is well-written, informative and interesting.

To succeed in our movement to reform our police, justice and corrections systems, we must reach out to those responsible for enforcing our policies — the correctional officers and departments of corrections. These are worth reading.

My four months as a private prison guard
Shane Bauer, Mother Jones

This blockbuster first-person piece details Bauer’s undercover job as a guard in a Louisiana penitentiary run by Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison company in the U.S. (It has since rebranded as CoreCivic.) Bauer witnessed violence and cost-cutting at every turn, and — as journalist Ted Conover did in his similar 2000 book, “New Jack” — examined his own evolving reaction to a job spent keeping other people locked up.

— submitted to The Marshall Project by Beth Schwarztapfel

Justice & Equity Conference Saturday

When:          Sat., Oct 1, 9:30 Registration, 10 am to 2:00 PM – Lunch Included.
Where:         All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church
                        196 Elm St,, Braintree – Handicap accessible, Free.
Who:              YOU – open to the public, along with activists

This is a crucial time in the struggle for equity, issues of faith and the need for action.

Presenters will discuss justice and corrections reform in Massachusetts and the anticipated impact of the Council of State Government Study with recommended reform in Dec. 2016.
Hear from a formerly incarcerated person on what it’s like to be at the mercy of the Commonwealth’s justice system; as well as alternatives to courts and prison, such as restorative justice, and what you can do to support sane alternatives.
Another panel inform people on the progress of the Fair Share Amendment and what you can do help get this passed.

Join us for lively discussion and plan to the next steps on how individuals, groups and congregations can join the movement for justice.
Save the date – What do sheriffs do and why should I care?
When:         Monday, Oct. 24, 7-8 pm
Where:         From the comfort of your own home
Call in:         605 475 5900  access 618-9987#
 
Why:            Find out how the 14 county sheriffs in Mass. impact the county jails and who                             is up for election.
Who:           Activist Angel Cosme of Brockton Interfaith  will share information on why                               voters must care about this powerful role that impacts incarceration and                                    recidivism.

Race to the Finish & Mariposa

Until July 31, we are on the fast track in Massachusetts to refer bills out of committee [deadline today] and pass them by the end of session July 31. [New session starts Jan 2017].
WOULD YOU take a minute today to:
1) Contact your Representative and ask him/her to express support to House Chairman John Fernandes for H1475 (Solitary Reform Bill), H1381 (An Act to Require Data Regarding the Use of Solitary Confinement)
Solitary is cruel and inhumane after 15 days, and torture for people with mental illness. We treat our animals better. Some people are released directly to the street from solitary and end up rebounding back to jail because they are so disoriented.
And ask them to act on
H1628 (Medical Placement for Terminal and Incapacitated Prisoners)
 
It costs up to $200K/year to keep a person in jail at the end of life, versus releasing them to a nursing home where they go home or medicare takes over for $120,000-$140,000, which also creates jobs in the community.
2) Contact your Senator and ask him/her to express their support to Senate Chairman Brownsberger for S843 (Medical Placement for Terminal and Incapacitated Prisoners). The Senate version of the Solitary Reform Bill is pending in a different committee and the Solitary Data bill (H1381) is a stand alone bill- no Senate version. Still ask your Senator to let Chairman Brownsberger know that you are supporting the House versions of those bills.
To find your legislator, go to: http://openstates.org/.
3) Get a free ticket to attend Mariposa & the Saint,  
a powerful short play about the intense experience of solitary confinement based on a woman’s experience of living in a barren space the size of an elevator for nearly 3 years.
                     Performances March 23-26 in Boston and
                    Milford on Thursday March 24.  FREE Tickets HERE.
​ENCOURAGE your state legislators to attend.

While ‘affluenza’ teen went free, similar case led to prison

This Jan. 27, 2016 photo shows Jaime Arellano during an interview in the visitor’s room at the… Read more  [This story courtesy of The Marshall Project and the Associate Press]. 

HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) — One 16-year-old drove drunk, ran a red light and crashed into a pregnant woman’s car, killing her and her unborn child. Another drunken teenager rammed a pickup truck into a crowd of people assisting a stranded driver, killing four.

Jaime Arellano went to prison. Ethan Couch went free.

The stories of the two Texas teens illustrate how prosecutors’ decisions in similar cases can lead to wildly different outcomes. The poor immigrant from Mexico has been behind bars for almost a decade. The white kid with rich parents got 10 years of probation.

 Couch lost control as he drove his family’s pickup truck after he and his friends had played beer pong and consumed beer that some of them had stolen from Wal-Mart. The vehicle veered into a crowd of people helping the driver on the side of the road. Authorities later estimated that he was going 70 mph in a 40 mph zone.

The crash fatally injured the stranded motorist, a youth minister who stopped to help her and a mother and daughter who came out of their nearby home.

But prosecutors in Fort Worth said they didn’t ask to have his case moved to the adult system because they thought the judge would refuse. Instead, he stayed in juvenile court and became infamous for his psychologist’s assertion that his wealthy parents coddled him into a sense of irresponsibility the psychologist called “affluenza.”

Arellano was charged with intoxication manslaughter and intoxication assault, the same counts against Couch. But prosecutors in Arellano’s case moved quickly after his June 2007 crash to send him to adult court. Arellano took a plea deal and got 20 years in prison, where he remains today.

Sending Arellano’s case to the adult system opened the door to the kind of punishment many say Couch should have received from the beginning.

Matt Bingham, the Smith County district attorney and head of the office that prosecuted Arellano, declined to comment on Couch’s case but said he considered adult prison to be a fair option for any teenager who has killed someone.

Juveniles don’t always commit “what people think of as juvenile crimes,” Bingham said. “There is an appropriate punishment for what they have done. And the fact that they’re 16 years of age doesn’t negate that.”

Arellano could never have argued he had “affluenza.”

Arellano and his family crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally two years before the crash and settled in East Texas. He spoke little English and had little knowledge of the court system. Five months before the crash, he dropped out of high school.

Now 24, he spoke to The Associated Press about his case from behind a narrow glass partition at a Texas prison. Wearing a white inmate uniform, he spoke in soft, accented English that he said he learned while in prison.

Arellano had his first beer at 15 and had driven drunk a few times before. His parents tried to stop him from driving under the influence, but he said he wouldn’t listen.

“They talked to me way too many times,” he said. “But I just didn’t want to hear it.”

On the night of June 23, 2007, Arellano was driving an SUV through Tyler, about 100 miles east of Dallas, on his way to a party. He had an open beer and several more in a cooler.

Witnesses saw him swerve through the intersection and slam into a Ford Mustang making a left turn ahead, according to police reports.

Driving the Mustang was Martha Mondragon, a 31-year-old woman who was nine months’ pregnant. Mondragon and the child she was carrying were killed. Her 6-year-old daughter flew out of her booster seat and through a car window. She was hospitalized and survived.

Prosecutors quickly sought to have Arellano’s case moved to adult court, and a judge agreed.

At that point, Arellano faced two choices: a plea deal with the promise of 20 years in prison and possible parole after a decade, or a jury trial in one of the most conservative regions of the United States and the risk of 50 years in prison. He took the plea.

While he once thought he might have gotten probation if he were white, Arellano said he doesn’t feel that way today.

“I know it was serious,” he said. “It had to happen this way so I could better myself, so I could think better.”

Arellano becomes eligible for parole next year. Once released, he expects to be deported to Mexico, where he hopes to work on a ranch.

Couch faces possible detention for violating his probation when he returns to court on Feb. 19. Depending on the judge’s ruling, he could get three months in jail and adult probation, which if violated could land him in prison for up to 40 years.

In the juvenile system, intoxication manslaughter cases in Texas over the last decade were just as likely to result in probation as they are detention, according to figures from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. Juvenile justice experts say the state’s juvenile system places more weight on rehabilitation than the adult system, where punishments are tougher.

Since 2005, Texas has prosecuted 38 juveniles for intoxication manslaughter or intoxication assault. Only three were sent to the adult system, and half of all cases resulted in probation of some kind.

Those numbers do not include juveniles who commit similar offenses but might be charged with different crimes or cases not reported by local authorities to the state.

Once juveniles are in detention, it’s more likely than not that they will go free when they turn 19. Only 33 percent of all juvenile offenders are sent to adult prison, according to a study of juvenile sentencing conducted by the University of North Texas professor Chad Trulson.

Trulson said a probation sentence for killing four people might seem “absurd” to the average person.

But in the juvenile system, he said, that type of sentence for intoxication manslaughter and potentially more serious offenses “is probably more typical than we would think.”

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Follow Nomaan Merchant on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/nomaanmerchant .

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This story has been corrected to show that Mondragon was 31, not 33.

Taking My Students to Prison

By Jean Trounstine 

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 candrive 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.

Posted March 28, 2015 by Jean Trounstine, who is an activist, author and professor at Middlesex Community College in Lowell, Massachusetts who worked at Framingham Women’s Prison for ten years where she directed eight plays with prisoners. Her highly-praised book about that work, Shakespeare Behind Bars: The Power of Drama in a Women’s Prison has been featured on NPR,The Connection, Here and Now, and in numerous print publications here and abroad. In addition, she has spoken around the world on women in prison, co-founded the women’s branch of Changing Lives Through Literature, an award-winning alternative sentencing program featured inThe New York Times and on The Today Show, and co-authored two books about the program. She published a book of poetry, Almost Home Free, and co-edited the New England best-seller, Why I’m Still Married: Women Write Their Hearts Out On Love, Loss, Sex, and Who Does the Dishes. Jean is on the steering committee of the Coalition for Effective Public Safety in Massachusetts and is currently working on a new book about the tragedy of sentencing juveniles to adult prisons.