Prison Break: Can We Be Like Norway?

North Dakota’s Norway Experiment

I love this article from Mother Jones, August 2107. Two women prison administrators from North Dakota toured the famously humane prison in Norway and were profoundly moved. “We are hurting people,” said Leann Bertch, the warden. On their return, they made a huge shift from punitive policies to treatment that was more positive and compassionate. Staff members were willing to try new ways of relating to inmates, like being “social workers, friends and mentors.” Karianne Jackson, a deputy who was also in Norway, said, “When the environment feels less aggressive and contentious, you’re safer.” In Norway, violence is rare and assaults against guards do not happen.

With over two million people in prisons and jails across the country living in harsh and crowded conditions, we should not be surprised that recidivism, according to this article, is shockingly high. 77% of people across the country are rearrested within five years. I have never understood why people think that severe punishment and long sentences without any treatment programs prepare people adequately for living on the outside. These policies are “ineffective, costly and cruel.” I would add that they not only hurt people who need treatment and healing, but they hurt the families, especially children, in the their communities. And, they hurt the rest of us by damaging our national moral identity.

In my last years as a teacher in a federal prison, I taught a class called Educational and Employment Opportunities. I hoped there were opportunities, because having a prison record makes employers jittery. It is very hard in some places to even get an interview, according to men I knew who had come back to prison. Even my most competent students were very worried about going home—to children some hadn’t seen for decades, to families who had gotten along without them, and to being able to cope with a world they hadn’t seen in years.  Almost every man I knew worried about gettting a job. My high school completion program was and is the only one of its kind in the federal system, offering a diploma beyond the GED program. Even my good students had to take time to brush up on school skills. Going to college would have been difficult without building confidence and skill levels.

The article talks about a gradual release so that people have day passes home, shopping trips and a chance to wear their own clothes. Many of the men I knew yearned to see their children, and I know they would have benefitted from a more gradual release. I heard them talk about missing regular clothing. We need to do a lot with sentencing reforms, drug laws, and releasing people who’ve committed violent crimes but have outgrown their violent tendencies. If people do need to be incarcerated, I wish facilities would all add not only college classes, but rigorous and comprehensive high school completion programs. The Bureau of Prisons has an annual budget of 7.3 billion dollars annually. For that amount of tax money, the general public deserves to have the people who are released return as  healthy and self-sufficient citizens.

We could do so much better! Norway shows us how.

Voting is…Falling in Love!

 

Voting is…Falling in Love!

“When people asked me what it felt like to vote for the first time, I answered, “What does it feel like to fall in love?” said Desmond Tutu, social rights activist and retired Episcopal archbishop of South Africa. America is supposed to be the world’s beacon of democracy, so we should never take voting for granted—nor should we deny it to anyone who can legally vote.  It is no small thing—nor is voting responsibly easy.

2016 is a year filled with chatter about both rigged elections and voter suppression. Any search of voter fraud issues brings up lots of fact checks about how rare it is: Trump’s Bogus Fraud Claims.

Voter suppression is the other far more important story. People of color and women have endured all kinds of tactics since our beginnings. Abigail Adams cried to husband John, “Remember the ladies!” Though black men were given the vote after the Civil War, all kinds of tactics from poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses ensured they could not vote. (Black grandfathers had been enslaved, therefore black people could not vote, but the grandfather clause protected poor whites from literacy tests and poll taxes.) More modern kinds of intimidation continue from purging voter rolls; from flyers, billboards and robocalls that give false information; from tactics that make voting more difficult like ID laws, difficult procedures to register, cutting back on early voting and polling places that favor people of color.

I am interested in the disenfranchisement of many of our returning citizens coming out of prison, who face huge obstacles in voting in many states. The chart is this article: State Felon Voting Laws shows current laws and regulations: 20% of states may take people’s right to vote away permanently, once again saying, “We will never stop punishing you if you’ve served time in prison.” Only two states, Maine and Vermont, have unrestricted laws allowing people behind bars to vote.

I have fond memories of my students in prison organizing and carrying out presidential elections. As an election inspector in Michigan, I had access to the authentic forms and procedures needed to register, to vote and to count the votes. My students elected two co-chairmen each time, who took everything very seriously and followed the rules to the letter. It was painful to talk to my students about the importance of voting, because some of them were people going home to states that would make it very hard for them to vote—if ever. As an election inspector, I watched people voting for the first time look very nervous. Those of us who have voted comfortably need to recognize how intimidating it can be. I was moved by this man’s story from the Marshall Project and how much pride he takes in voting after being in prison.

A Former Prisoner on Voting for the First Time in his Life

Voting is no small thing. It says so much about taking charge of our lives in concert with other citizens. It says, “I count too.” It’s like falling in love to know you have a stake and a voice in your future and the future of your family and community. All of that makes it sacred. To make it difficult to vote, to make such a fundamental part of our democracy intimidating or to take it away completely is to deny someone their humanity. It should never happen.

Stories about Island Prisons

Stories about Island Prisons

Abuse continues on Rikers Island, the notorious prison sitting in the East River of New York City. Reading about the sordid record at Rikers prompts me to investigate other island prisons. Turns out, island prisons dot the waters all over the world in places like Venezuela, Italy, France and Panama. Alcatraz, America’s other infamous island, stands with its high imposing fortress rising up from San Fransisco Bay. Alcatraz was a maximum security federal prison from 1934-1963, It now functions as a tourist attraction as part of the U.S. National Park Service. Island prisons create a fitting metaphor for the way we regard and treat people who are incarcerated. Islands not only make it difficult to escape, but they create a natural barrier for the rest of us so that we are completely cut off and immune from the realties of lives inside. A prison on an island creates a more powerful sense of exile. more “Stories about Island Prisons”

The Danger of a Single Story

 

The Danger of a Single Story

Like most of us, I’m finding it hard to take in the news about so much more violence— more innocent black people killed by police and then five policeman killed in Dallas. The United States seems more violent to me right now than ever before, though I interpret what is going on through my privileged whiteness. I need to remind myself that black people have always endured violence from the authorities like racial profiling to arrests and imprisonments, not experienced nearly as much by white people, the violence in prisons, being shot at and killed. It breaks my heart to know how unsafe people of color feel, and I worry about the police too–how unsafe they feel and how a few men determine the reputation of so many good people trying hard to protect their communities. I worry about guns and the idea that they solve the problem. I realized after a few days that I needed to look for hope—again.

This blog post from OnBeing’s Courtney Martin speaks to me right now and includes the wonderful TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the end. She talks about our human tendency to ascribe only one story to a people, a group or an individual. Her TED Talk is called The Danger of a Single Story.

Adichie is Nigerian storyteller. She says stories about each other matter, because they humanize us and repair dignity. She states that she too is guilty of believing the single story about the negatives, darkness and difference in groups of people. She says single stories flatten other people’s experience and create stereotypes, which are incomplete pictures of people we don’t know. Single stories obscure the reality that we have much in common.

The idea of how  dangerous it is to see only  a single story about people is a powerful re-framing in the way we regard strangers—and applies to people we know too. She challenges us to be curious about people we don’t know and see them as complex, like we all are. The idea that the single story is dangerous is exactly what I’m trying to say about people in prison. The prison fence essentially implies that all the people inside are all bad and dangerous. It is simply not true.

The idea of a single story can be extended to our tendency to choose sides in this awful week: we are either on the side of black people or on the side of the police. We can choose to be on the side of all hurting people. Taking sides is neither necessary nor helpful. Looking at the roots of the problems, however painful and difficult, will move us closer to the solutions. We can choose to look at our fears and the divisions that rise out of our fears of each other. Chimamanda Adichie asks us to see people as more than the surface, often what the media portrays. She is asking us to listen. It is what we want other people to do for us.

The Well-Traveled Path

Our future doesn’t lie in the towers of power but in the well-traveled path from house to house.

Sometimes deep and sturdy wisdom comes in just a few words. This quote comes from NPR’s program OnBeing with David Stendl-Rast, a Benedictine monk known for his work with interfaith dialogue. This simple sentence speaks volumes to the people of Michigan right now as we grapple with the unbelievable crisis of poisoned water in Flint. Democracy has taken a huge hit, and the people in Flint and in Michigan feel that government has failed them.  

I taught the state-required course in government with my incarcerated students. They didn’t trust the government either.  In fact, the mere word put them in the red zone. Most of them, imprisoned for drug offenses with very long sentences—and most of them people of color—had just cause to distrust the system they labeled as racist, corrupt and unfair. In the early years as I was finding my way, I got a knot in my stomach at 9:30 when my students filed in and took their seats in their least favorite class. Let me simply say we had some miserably bad days. We stumbled along. My first mistake was in thinking that I had to be in charge.

While teaching the course for several years out of the standard high school textbook, I added subjects, watched  and listened carefully. My students were very interested in ideas like non-violence. They were fascinated with The Civil Rights Movement. Because they represented so many cultural backgrounds, mainly African, Hispanic, and Native American, discussions around diversity came up all the time. I had students of all ages and from several religious backgrounds, which made discussions lively and rich. I saw people all over the prison treat each other with remarkable civility and caring. They were interested in issues of integrity.

So, one summer I completely changed the course. At its heart, government is learning how to live together. My students were learning this lesson under some of the worst possible conditions in the country. I decided to focus on good citizenship, knowing they had much to teach each other—and me. Re-naming the course Civics helped a lot. I realized how much they already knew from their lives at home, and by then I knew how well they got along in class.

Prisons have towers, both real and symbolic. They have a top-down, military chain of command with a heavy focus on rules and regulations. Prisons are designed to take control away from inmates. But, I was hearing and seeing how much my students wanted to determine the course of their lives, and being in school gave them that opportunity. Whenever I asked for ideas about class structure and what we should discuss, I got wonderful feedback. I learned to ask each class at the end of every semester what they would add or change for the next group. One man suggested that students read a news article every week and then discuss them together. Nothing we ever did was as popular or successful as their beloved Round Table. I insisted on a circle so that everyone would feel a part of it, but it was their time together and I stayed at my desk where I listened carefully to make sure they were on track. We agreed together that no one was ever left out. If the facilitator didn’t get all the way around the circle, the class insisted on time the next day to finish. The Round Table gave them a voice in a place where they had almost no voice at all.

Being in school, and especially participating in the Round Table, created community and the men said that often. “It’s cool to greet a fellow student around the compound,” one man wrote, “because I know that without school, I never would know the guy.” They were making connections in class, in the Chow Hall, on the yard and in their housing units. They were creating “well-worn paths.” I was seeing many of them take exquisite care of each other. In a communications class one semester, a white man wrote me a note at the end of it voicing his gratitude for the opportunity to get to know black men. He regretted that it was so much harder in the community he had grown up in.

That’s how democracy functions best: when people create community, go door-to-door, sit in a circle and make sure no one is left out. It functions when people have a voice and are heard. It works best when there is a diversity of people and opinions. It functions when people feel important and when elected officials regard every single person as important as anyone else. It functions when the people living in poor communities of color are as important as the people living in middle class or wealthy neighborhoods. It functions best when we try to get to know and understand people who are far different than we are. Democracy flourishes when we  care about each other.

People don’t like to be fixed. It’s patronizing to be told you cannot solve your own problems.  The citizens of Flint are angry about being told they had no voice and no power when emergency managers were installed by the governor. Our emergency managers in Michigan take local control away from communities and school districts. The roots of the water crisis lie in the stripping of power from Flint citizens. From their towers of power, the elected officials in Lansing, our state capital, did not listen. Though the people of Flint went to Lansing and to local meetings with their bottles of brown water, they were not heard. Even when Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha tested her pediatric patients and found dangerous levels of lead, she was ridiculed and attacked.

“Children are routinely screened for lead poisoning at ages 1 and 2, Hanna-Attisha said. “So we had the data. It was the easiest research project I have ever done.” She found that levels of lead poisoning among children tested for lead poisoning had increased dramatically between 2013 and 2015, the year after the water supply started drawing from the Flint River. She immediately held a press conference, telling Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman:

“[T]hat evening, we were attacked. So I was called an ‘unfortunate researcher,’ that I was causing near hysteria, that I was splicing and dicing numbers, and that the state data was not consistent with my data. And as a scientist, as a researcher, as a professional, you double-check and you triple-check, and the numbers didn’t lie.”

–MintPress News, January 30, 2016

Things are tough in Michigan right now, and the nation grieves with us about the damage done to children. I can get bogged down and cynical if I don’t look for hope. There is hope, however. On February 1, 2016, Dr. Laura Sullivan, a global expert on water issues and a native of Flint, was a guest on NPR’s All Things Considered. She said she feels like she is helping her family and that jobs may open up to fix the broken pipes. She said it was their city. She said, “Light is shining so brightly on Flint right now, and we’re going to help you heal your city.”  People from all over the country are donating bottled water. 300 union plumbers showed up to install donated faucets and other plumbing supplies. The 300 plumbers are from local unions from across the country. 1 They’re going house to house.

more “The Well-Traveled Path”

Sticks and Stones

 

Sticks and stones

can only break

bones, but words

can shatter the

soul.

Adam Savage

Words that label can do awful, long-lasting damage. Many words and terms need updating as we become more aware of their effects. Other words, phrases and concepts need much new thought and introspection as the world changes.

In education, words are like rusty old ships covered in ugly barnacles that need to be retired. Other words need care and attention to be used with sensitivity. Students of all ages pick up labels put upon them—and sometimes live into them. Special ed can be loaded up with negative attachments. Many of my prison students had been labeled special ed and put in separate programs. It took a lot of work for them to realize that it had been an inappropriate placement and that they could be hard-working, competent students. The achievement gap has all sorts of negative attachments, and it is used most often about students of color. The implication is that students aren’t really capable, that they are always far behind, that closing the gap is difficult to impossible. If we change the term to opportunity gap, we not only see it in whole new ways, but it puts the problem on the system, on adults—and not on students who are behind and not achieving.

We use all kinds of words to describe kids who are in trouble with the law: juvenile delinquents, punks, hoodlums, gangbangers, troublemakers, and goons among them. Bryan Stevenson calls them children, not even teenagers. In 2012, he argued passionately before the Supreme Court against putting children in prison for life—and won, using the 8th Amendment about cruel and unusual punishment. Compelling arguments were made about the development of adolescent brains and diminished culpability as they grow and change. Calling young offenders children changes everything.

In the 1990’s the use of super predator, used to describe young people as stopping at nothing to do harm, leaked into the public. Bryan Stevenson says in Just Mercy,

“Influential criminologists predicted a coming wave of “super-predators” with whom the juvenile justice system would be unable to cope. Sometimes expressly focusing on black and brown children, theorists suggested that America would soon be overcome by “elementary school youngsters who pack guns instead of lunches” and who “have absolutely no respect for human life.” Panic over the impending crime wave expected from these “radically impulsive, brutally remoreseless” children lead nearly every state to enact legislation that increased the exposure of children to adult prosecution. Many states lowered or eliminated the minimum age for trying children as adults, leaving children as young as eight vulnerable to adult prosecution and imprisonment.” (1)

The 1990’s became a decade when mass incarceration increased dramatically, as did the life imprisonment of many children. Stevenson goes on,

“The predictions of “super predators” proved wildly inaccurate. The juvenile population in America increased from 1994 to 2000, but the juvenile crime rate declined, leading academics who had originally supported the “super predator” theory to disclaim it.” (2)

Incarcerated adults fare no better with a long list of derogatory labels: criminal, crook, robber, gangster, thug, lowlife, villain, mobster, convict, offender and felon, among them. When President Obama visited a federal prison, he referred to the people inside as incarcerated citizens. That changes  perceptions too. Using the word citizen alters the image of an incarcerated person. It refers to someone who’s been locked up and is serving time for a mistake, but it doesn’t automatically infer that the person is bad. “We are all far more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” says Stevenson. Many people are now referring to people who are released from prison as returning citizens,which sounds far more positive and hopeful than ex-felon, which immediately conjures up the image of a bad person—or at least the suspicion that the person is still interested in bad behavior.

6,000 people are being released from federal prisons in the next months, almost all of them convicted of non-violent offenses. But, our prison practices have changed dramatically in the last forty years, and we are far more reluctant to release anyone who has committed a violent crime. The suspicion is that once a violent person, always a violent person. I’ve known far too many men who’ve committed violent crimes and worked hard to overcome their tendencies for violence and become kind and loving people. Given the 2.2 million people we have in prison in the United States suggests that we aren’t very hopeful that people can change and transform their lives.

We could think of violent behavior as hurting people who don’t deserve it. If we added the practice of inflicting unnecessary harm on people, then all kinds of things are violent: capital punishment, solitary confinement, imprisoning children for life and putting them in solitary confinement. Civil asset forfeiture, the police seizing people’s possessions with a mere suspicion that they might be guilty of a crime, is unnecessary and inflicts all kinds of harm on innocent people. That’s violent too, as is excessive bail and fines for already impoverished people. It seems violent to tear parents away from children for drug offenses and lock them away for decades, when the person, the family and the communitry as a whole would be far better served by mental health services. The draconian sentences that disable people when they are released, denying them the right to food stamps, housing, licenses and assistance when released from prison could be called violent. To create so many barriers for returning citizens to put their lives back to together is to say to them, “We’re going to make things as hard as possible when you get out. You will never pay your debt to society.”

Denying citizens the right to vote is violent and unnecessary. People who’ve served time in prison are denied the right to vote in many states. If someone has never had a birth certificate or cannot drive and manage to get some other kind of identification, a situation many poor people find themselves in, they lose their right to vote in too many states. They may have voted faithfully all their lives. They may have fought hard to win the right to vote. They may have been badly hurt in the struggle for votes. To then deny them the precious right of voting is violent. It says, “You aren’t part of us. You don’t matter.” It damages people’s dignity. That’s violent too.

Calling undocumented immigrants illegals or aliens—or even worse illegal aliens, puts them firmly in a place of other, not like us, not deserving of care and concern. Ethnic slurs deserve a whole other blog. I’m writing a week after the terrorist attacks on Paris, and already people are conflating Syrian refugees with terrorists, and steps are being taken to bar refugees from our shores. That’s answering violence with more violence, inflicting more terror and suffering on people who’ve already lost their country, their home and any security they might have had.

I’ve noticed that the people running for office who criticize polite and careful language are the first to loudly object if they feel disparaged or labeled unfairly. Being careful about our language makes us sensitive, gives our common life together more civility and harmony. One of the first realities of working in a prison was this simple truth: if we treat people with kindness and respect, they respond with kindness and respect. Being careful, polite, kind and respectful makes us more gracious and graceful, qualities we still have but may have forgotten. Language needs to be used carefully, and the words we use often need careful thought.  We should not be in the business of “shattering souls.”


  1. Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel and Grau, New York), 2014, p. 159.
  2. Ibid., p. 160.

Who’s a Flight Risk?

While teaching in prison, I was always aware of just how invisible the people incarcerated were—and how little the general public knew about the reality of life behind bars. The high security shrouding the people inside and what really happens inside the fence makes it difficult to figure out the truth. There is a widespread tendency to not believe the stories that inmates tell; instead they are seen as unworthy of dignity, fair treatment and ordinary human kindness. Two articles from the New York Times: Restraint of Pregnant Inmates Is Said to Persist in New York Despite Bans from April 9, 2015 and Handcuffed While Pregnant from September 23, 2015 expose what happens to women who are pregnant while incarcerated. It is not a pretty picture.

As a former childbirth educator, I know just how vulnerable and afraid women feel when they are pregnant, when they are in labor, when they deliver their babies and as new parents. Women have an innate fear of finding themselves alone, especially as their babies are born. After hearing hundreds of childbirth experiences, I was always struck by how fragile women felt in the face of hospital policies and procedures. It was not a time to assert their wishes or question the people who were in control of how the baby would be born. It is difficult for laboring women to move around, and they do not like to move very far away from the bed. I cannot imagine how being incarcerated exaggerates those fears and vulnerabilities. Pregnant women in jail or prison are not exactly flight risks—apt to run out of a room, down the hall, into a stairwell or out into the street. Labor is hard enough without such medieval torture practices like handcuffs, waist chains and ankle manacles. The editorial board of the September 23rd article calls these indignities “sheer cruelty and pointless degradation,” and says these practices introduce health risks to the mother and her baby.

Another article, U.S. Prisons and Jails Are Threatening the Lives of Pregnant Women and Babies on September 28, 2015 from In These Times, a monthly magazine published by The Institute for Public Affairs in Chicago, Illinios, also points out the fact that in spite of bans on this type of treatment in several states, the practice of shackling women who are pregnant, in labor, delivering their babies and caring for newborns persists. Part of the solution is coming from outside advocacy groups who are investigating and interviewing incarcerated women who have endured these awful practices. There is hope in Delaware’s example of creating a group home program where both mothers and babies are given the education and support that they need, though that facility is locked. Another program in New York operates independently of the prison system, and mothers are allowed to keep their children, avoiding the problems of foster care.

Children suffer greatly when their mothers are incarcerated. In the interest of keeping families as healthy as possible, we could do so much better. We need to be creative in finding alternatives to incarceration, and we need to investigate the forces in our culture that create these levels of punishment, see the pathology of these practices and provide the kind of training that would not only keep both mother and baby from harm, but provide the best care and nurturing possible.  All mothers count. All babies matter.

The Eighth Amendment

“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

–The Bill of Rights’ Eighth Amendment

 

We are not doing at all well on this one. Three recent articles address the issues. The Bail Trap in the magazine section of the New York Times on August 16, 2015 says, “Every year, thousands of innocent people are sent to jail only because they can’t afford to post bail, putting them at risk of losing their jobs, custody of their children–even their lives.”  

NPR posted an article entitled In Ferguson, Court Fines and Fees Fuel Anger; the article explains people’s outrage in response to the city’s use of fines. 

On September 9th the New York Times published an article called Solitary Confinement is Cruel and All Too Common. Its first paragraph says,

“If mass incarceration is one of modern America’s deepest pathologies, solitary confinement is the concentrated version of it: far too many people locked up for too long for no good reason at no clear benefit to anyone.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy says that solitary confinement “drives people mad.”

The problem is far larger than excessive bail, fines and 80,000 people in solitary confinement.  People are sentenced for decades for drug offenses, devastating lives and whole communities; drug use is still a criminal issue and not a public health problem; disproportionate numbers of people of color languish on Death Row; many people on Death Row are innocent; children are incarcerated, treated as adults, put in solitary confinement and given life sentences. All of this horror says as much about our divisive politics of fear and the finger-pointing culture we live in as it does about the millions of people snarled in the system. This situation says that millions of impoverished, often mentally ill people and people of color simply do not count. We talk long about criminals paying the price, but we are failing to look at our thirst for punishment, our long and sordid history of racism or the situations and policies that set people up to fail. We are far too eager to see people behind bars as totally bad and not fully human. Using the right language is useful. The American culture has deep pathologies. I wish we had a national integrity and paid as much attention to the 8th Amendment as we do to the freedoms of speech and religion. I try to maintain hope, and the fact that California is addressing these ugly conditions is encouraging.