Category Archives: prisoner exploitation

Erratic Posts, Jurassic Coast

I used to take pride in writing enough every weekend to load up the blog for an every-other-day, always-the-same-time post.  With traveling, vertigo, moving, and sleepless nights due to restless legs, I’ve become untethered from that discipline.

I don’t know that it’s a bad thing; I stopped reading articles like, “Top 10 Tips to Promote Your Blog,” long ago.  No tip I ever tried made the blog stats Boom.  The stats did boom here and there, but I couldn’t tell why.  I pay $99 a year for the WordPress platform and haven’t been curious enough to pay more to maybe find out why someone in Russia or the UK is reading the entire blog—475 posts as of this one.

I never expected to be able to monetize the blog.  What company wants to advertise on a blog about prison, which is how it all started?  I usually only mention specific hotels or airlines when I’m ripping on them, so I don’t see corporate sponsorships in my future.

I pitched the blog to some publishing agents as a book idea and never even received a form reject email in response.  I pitched some of the story lines to local and national publications—most notably Vince’s observations about My Pillow production inside prison (“Made in the USA!”  Yeah, behind the closed doors of prisons, by people who net about 25 cents an hour.  That’s what Makes America Great, right?  We still have slave labor.)  Anyway, there would be initial excitement, then no follow through.  To be fair, there are lots of stories about corporate and political corruption to choose from.

So I just keep writing because I enjoy it.  If a couple hundred of you follow along, that’s great.  Thanks for reading, even if my posting has been patchy lately.

I came across this flyer in one of the many piles of stuff I am packing.

These stats were on a gigantic sign at the entrance to the Eden Project.  Lynn and I stood there for a long time contemplating it.  I can’t remember if the hand edit was there when I picked it up, or if I did it.  Apparently, the number of rich people who own almost everything in the world has shrunk from 20 to two since 2009.  The Great Recession was great—for those two people.

At work yesterday, a coworker and I were lamenting about our ailments.  She tore her meniscus ligament and had to have a transplant from a cadaver.  Yeesh.  I’m glad my ailments only involve no sleep and feeling like I’m on a rocking boat all the time.

“But at least we’re not in a refugee camp,” I said.

“No. No—we get to have problems.  A torn knee and surgery and a year of PT are not ‘first-world problems,’” she replied.

Our first full day in Lyme Regis.  Lynn and I walked into town and had a beach day.

Now, when I say “beach day,” don’t imagine sun and beach umbrellas and people in bikinis and speedos.  Here is a photo of Lynn attempting to use the combo washer/dryer in the public toilet. Note she is wearing polar fleece.

I was tempted to call the toll free number on the machine and ask for help.

This is the town of Lyme Regis.  The sign on the white building notes that Catherine of Aragon slept here in 1501, followed by King Charles II in 1651.  Just imagine.

Yes, it was grey skies in one direction and white puffy clouds with blue peeking through in another.  And they both changed every 10 minutes.

The area is called the Jurassic Coast because you can find 170-million-year-old fossils there.

There was a small, well-done museum and a café serving fresh crab salad sandwiches and tea.  A woman my age had brought her elderly mother for a day out and was yelling over and over, “Ja wanna saaannie ‘n’ a noice hot cuppa, mum?!”   (Would you like a sandwich and a nice cup of hot tea, mother?)

This plaque described, euphemistically, how the locals were “exceedingly hospitable and generous” to US troops, resulting in many trans-Atlantic marriages.

The scenery was stunning.

 

What We Don’t Know

One more post about prison stuff, then back to the European travelogue.

A couple organizations have been pushing legislation that would improve conditions in solitary confinement in Minnesota prisons.  We Minnesotans think we’re so progressive, and we are in many ways, but we are one of the worst abusers of seg, as testified to by the letter from a prisoner in my last post.  I read the bill and made some suggestions, like that a prisoner’s next of kin be notified when they are put in seg.  I was never notified when Vince was kept there for six days.  I’m sure the prison system would hate that, because they’d have all sorts of mad moms like me calling to demand what happened.  It’s a Republican controlled legislature now, so I’m keeping my expectations low.

If you think US prisons are bad (and they are), Lynn mailed me an article about UK prisons which shocked me—me, and I’ve written a hundred posts about prison.  The link isn’t publicly available, so I’ll recap it for you.

UK prisons are overcrowded and violent.  Assaults against guards and other prisoners are way up, there are riots and strikes, and there were 107 suicides and five homicides in 2016.

I assumed the violence was due to overcrowding, which was due to the same forces as in the US—harsh sentences, corporate interests, institutionalized racism and classism, poverty that causes people to use drugs and alcohol and to deal drugs, and an aging prison infrastructure.

Of course it’s complicated and there are underlying causes.  But the article attributes the violence directly to new “psychoactive substances” which have “dramatic and destabilizing effects.” They’re called names like “Spice” and “Black Mamba” and they can’t be detected in urine tests.

And this is where I laughed out loud: these drugs are being delivered by drones.  Yes, drones!  It’s kind of hilarious, until it’s your son, husband, or brother getting knifed in the kidney by someone who’s high out of his mind.

The US version of The Week ran an excerpt from a Bloomberg Businessweek article which profiled the founder of MyPillow.  Mike Lindell is a recovering addict and I give him lots of credit for that and for building his business.

However, all of his products are stamped with “Made in the USA.”  Lindell is a big Trump supporter and would probably cheer the cutting of government benefits to the poor, which is interesting since MyPillow has contracts for prison labor that must net them millions.

I know this because one of the facilities in which Vince was incarcerated, Moose Lake, had a MyPillow factory line.

And so MyPillow can stamp “Made in the USA” on every box, and it’s true, but that pillow may well have been made by a prisoner who netted $2.00 an hour.

I can’t find anything anywhere to substantiate that MyPillow benefits from prison labor or even that it operates in prisons.  This is the beauty of working inside prisons—it’s a secret!—literally behind locked doors.

I’m not saying MyPillow is doing anything illegal.  However it is hypocritical that Mr. Lindell, a conservative, takes government subsidies.

I wrote to the editor of The Week, Bill Falk, and he wrote right back, which impressed me.   He suggested I write to the author of the original story in Bloomberg Businessweek, Josh Dean.  This should have occurred to me in the first place, but better late than never.  So I wrote to Mr. Dean and he responded right away too.  I didn’t expect BB to amend his article; I just wanted him to have the additional information.  There’s no reason a reporter would ask every businessperson he interviews, “Do you operate inside prisons?”  You might think that a “jobs for inmates” story line might be good PR for MyPillow, but Mr. Lindell didn’t bring it up.

Bill Falk also suggested I contact one of my local newspapers, which might have investigative reporting resources and an interest in pursuing the story, since MyPillow is a Minnesota company.  Mr. Dean also urged me to do this, and I did.  A local editor was interviewing Vince within an hour of me sending the email.  Stay tuned.

Prison Update

If I don’t step up my posts about my recent trip, I’ll still be blogging about it by the time I go on my next one, which I just booked—a week of hiking, snorkeling, and kayaking in Belize and Guatemala in February with Wilderness Inquiry.  It may sound precious, but I need something to look forward to.  We’re in the midst of our second blizzard in a week now, and today’s low will be -11F (-23C).  Need I justify myself further?  I was able to book with a deposit and somehow I’ll come up with the rest.  Somehow it always works out.

But it’s time for a post about prison.  My son’s imprisonment was the reason I started this blog, in case you are new here.  He’s been out for a year and is doing great.  I continue to do what I can toward changing the system.

Last Sunday I went to a summit on criminal justice reform organized by Jewish Community Action.  About 300 people attended.  At my table were two people whose parents or grandparents were holocaust survivors.  As we talked about the election and the prospects for meaningful prison reform (or reforms of any kind), they both said they felt afraid for the first time in their lives to live in America.  They both said something like, “I remember my father talking about how it happened so gradually that people kept thinking it couldn’t get worse.”

There were a number of passionate speakers.  A professor of African American studies at the University of Minnesota talked about how we needed an abolitionist movement to get rid of prisons all together.  Others echoed this language.

Coincidentally, the Minneapolis Star Tribune had run a feature story about the abuse of solitary confinement this very day.  The last speaker at the summit was the commissioner of the Department of Corrections, and one of the questions posed to him was about completely banning solitary confinement and abolishing prisons in the US.  I could sense he was struggling to be diplomatic.  “There are people in prison …” he began, “… who have raped five year olds.  I have had other prisoners tell me that they would murder again if they could get out of seg.”

Yep.  I’m an idealist, but I hope we can focus on issues that stand a chance of delivering meaningful change to prisoners.

I wrote a letter in response to the Strib story:

Dear Editors:

Thank you for the feature, “Extreme Isolation Scars Inmates: Minnesota prisons pile on solitary confinement, often for minor offenses ….”  Last year my son, who was serving a 50-month sentence for a nonviolent drug offense, was transferred from St. Cloud to Moose Lake, which didn’t have a bed ready for him in general population.  So they put him in solitary for no offense.   I was not informed, and became concerned after not hearing from him for days, but fortunately he was released after “only” six days in solitary, with no explanation, apology, or even an acknowledgement that something had gone wrong.

We didn’t bother protesting.  I had turned to the American Civil Liberties Association after being banned from visiting my son for six months (when I protested a visiting policy).  The ACLU told me that corrections officers and facilities have “almost total discretion.”  It would be their word against mine, and I didn’t want to risk being punished again.

The terrible experience of having a family member in prison has led me to become active in the movement to reform the correctional system, specifically through Jewish Community Action (JCA), which has made the issue one of its advocacy priorities.

I happen to work for the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), and I organized an event in September which brought together experts from CVT and JCA—and my now-released son—to explore the physical, psychological, and social effects of solitary confinement.  The effects are heartbreaking.  My son experienced some of them after only a few days.  Imagine spending years in “seg.”

I hope others will be moved to demand prison reforms after reading this series.

My letter was the featured letter; I really do hope it gets more people involved.

Prison as Trauma

Most people never get to go to an event about prison.  I went to two in one week.

The first was a phone-a-thon to ex cons.  It felt like a worthwhile use of my time and I would recommend doing something similar if you are depressed, angry, or frightened about some issue.  Like oh, let’s say … a presidential election.

Two nights later was an event I organized at my workplace, the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), and co-sponsored by Jewish Community Action.  It sounds complicated, I know.  What does torture in foreign countries have to do with prisons in Minnesota?

A lot, it turns out.

It was a small event, just 18 of us, but to us Jews the number 18 is a mystical one symbolizing “chai,” the Hebrew word for life.

I was a little concerned that the topic might be a tough one for Vince, my son, who had actually experienced some of the things we would discuss.  My childhood friend whose son is in prison came, and I was worried it might add to her worries.

Our first speaker was a CVT psychotherapist who described quite viscerally how trauma happens and what its effects are.  She had us close our eyes and imagine a baby.  Assuming he has a loving parent who holds him and meets his needs, he learns to trust people and look to them for help in times of need.

Trauma happens to almost everyone, eventually.  It could include abuse and neglect in childhood, a serious illness, the death of a loved one, or a car accident.  Normally, we turn to other humans for comfort.

Torture is intentionally perpetrated by one human being against another under “color of law.”  In other words, it’s authorized or at least there’s a “wink and a nod” from some type of government official.

Usually, there is no one to turn to for comfort because you are locked in a cell.  Your torturers may have your family locked up too; in fact one of the most common forms of torture is to force someone to watch or listen to a loved one being tortured.

Much of the abuse that takes place in US prisons every day—assaults, rapes, solitary confinement—would likely be legally ruled as torture if we ever investigated it fully, in my opinion.

Torture destroys trust.  Rebuilding trust is at the core of recovery.

The second speaker was a CVT volunteer who is a practitioner of Rolfing Structural Integration.  I don’t know jack about rolfing, but she does it for our clients for free and it helps them.  She talked about the physical fallout of trauma, which starts in the brain.  When someone feels threatened, the first thing they do is look for other humans for help, as the psychotherapist had said.  If they are being threatened by those other humans, the right side of their brains “light up” and they go into flight or fight mode like an animal.  I think we’ve all heard about that, right?  What I didn’t know is that the left side of the brain shuts down.  That’s the organizing, verbal, and thinking side of the brain.

And so people who have been tortured, for example, cannot put into words what happened.  On the witness stand they come off as not very believable.

One thing I also didn’t know which I found fascinating was that people kept in small spaces actually stop being able to see beyond the parameters of that space.  Someone kept in solitary for a certain length of time, when they get out, cannot see farther than six feet in front of their face.  They regain their vision eventually, but!

Vince was the third speaker.  He and I read excerpts from blog posts he wrote in solitary, where he was kept after being transferred to Moose Lake—because they didn’t have a regular cell ready.  They told him it would be temporary.  How long would you assume “temporary” meant? Six days, as it turned out. He described the cell and his experience in great detail. I felt myself getting outraged again.  We haven’t talked about it, but I wonder if it raised feelings for him too.

Calling All Cons

Before I return to writing about my upcoming travel in Italy, Malta, and Spain, I’ll write a couple more posts about my other favorite topic: prison.

I was involved in two criminal justice reform evening events this week.  Normally I hate having commitments like these at night but these were commitments I chose to make.

The first was a phone bank event organized by the Restore the Vote Coalition.  It’s run by Take Action Minnesota and includes Jewish Community Action, a group I’ve written about being involved with.

Here’s why we were there: 47,000 ex prisoners in Minnesota cannot vote.  They’ve done their time but they’re still “on paper”—slang for probation or parole—and they can’t vote until they’re off paper.  Even though Vince has served his time, has been out for a year, has been sober for over two years, is working and paying taxes and rent, and taking his grandma to the grocery and doing all manner of other positive things, he’s not allowed to vote until 2018.

Our job was to call around 7,000 ex offenders who were probably off paper.  Since no sane person enjoys calling strangers—much less ex cons—the coalition tried to make it a fun by calling it a Restore the Vote Block Party.  They had blocked off their parking lot and had booths with a DJ and food, but it rained so we all huddled inside in their basement offices.

There were five or six speakers, including a rabbi and a young woman from Chicago whose father and uncles had been in prison as long as she’s been alive.  It was a very racially diverse group.  A couple guys lead a call and response to get us fired up, then we all dispersed to make calls or knock on doors.

All three of the African-American speakers said something along the lines of, “This is a problem that mostly affects black people.”  While it’s true that African Americans are disproportionately represented in prison compared to their percentage of the overall population, 56% of adult prisoners in Minnesota are white.  As of September 30, that’s 5,228 men and women, not counting juveniles or people in county jails.  I don’t think we do the cause any favors by making it all about race.  Race is a factor for sure, but so are class, poverty, abuse, education level, disabilities, chemical dependency, and many other issues.

There was an elaborate script probably written by a graduate student who’d never been near a prison, which went out the window the moment we started dialing.  We used a really cool online system.  I logged in and immediately a guy’s name came up with his age and phone number and the names of other people in his household.  I said to the leader, “I’d be really creeped out if stranger called me who knew I’d been in prison.”  I was assured that this was public information and that ex cons knew it.

I dialed 72 numbers in an hour and a half and spoke to exactly two ex cons.  About 80% of the numbers were disconnected, busy, wrong numbers, or no one answered.  The two guys I spoke with were opposites.  The first one, who was 28, had researched whether he was eligible to vote, was registered, and was committed to showing up at the polls.  The other guy, who was 56, said, “I ain’t never voted in my life and I ain’t gonna start now.”

I noted their names as I scrolled through the data base—Frank, Damarius, Jason, Katherine, Moua, John, Orville, Krystal, Matt, Jose, Abdi—all typical Minnesota names, all over the state, all ages, all races.  I reached quite a few mothers, which tugged at my heart strings.  They sounded care worn.  A couple said, “I don’t know where he is.”  Ugh.  I’ve been there.  One father told me, “He’s not here,” then, sadly, “He’s in the ground.”  What do you say to that?

“I’m so sorry,” I muttered.  “I’m sorry to have bothered you.  Have a nice night.”

I only reached two guys, but as our group of 80 volunteer callers got pledges to vote from 122 ex offenders.

It may not sound like much, but we did something.

Telling It

It’s always difficult to transition back to current life after writing a series like the last one about camping in Wales and Mini extravaganza.

I love traveling, and then I love coming home—so I can start planning the next trip. When you read this, I will be in Chicago on my way to New Orleans from Minneapolis/St. Paul.  Live blogging a road trip sounds good, but I really just want to be there, in the moment.  My friends are coming all the way from Scotland, Oxford, and Wisconsin—I think it would be rude and weird to say, “Sorry guys, I’ve got to rush back to the hotel to write a blog post.”

But it’ll be fun to write about afterwards; travel writing is a way to enjoy the trip again.

A few updates, and back to the other theme of Breaking Free, my road trip with my son through the worlds of mass incarceration, addiction, and redemption.

I saw a notice for a lecture at the U of MN by Dr. Christopher Uggen, Martindale Chair and Distinguished McKnight Professor of Sociology and Law.  It quoted him, “We think of probation as a humane alternative to incarceration. It’s not.”  This is a concept I can’t emphasize often enough—just because you’re out of prison now, doesn’t mean you’re “over it.”

So I was a little concerned about Vince talking with Jewish Community Action, a local group advocating for prison reforms.  I had shared the blog with them, and they invited Vince and me to meet with them, which we did a few days ago.  It happened to be in the same building as Vince’s probation agents.  Would he be “triggered” by rehashing his story?  He still seemed uncomfortable in social situations sometimes.

We met with a young woman named Angela, who listened intently, asked questions, and filled us in on their plans. She talked about the changes they want made to sentencing, and Vince had some insights she hadn’t been aware of.  I can’t explain what he said, but the depth of knowledge you gain about these things by actually being inside is like a mini master’s degree program.

She talked about how they are trying to block the privatization of the prison in Appleton, Minnesota, which has been closed for years.  It wasn’t true, she said, that it would create a lot of jobs, or that conditions are better in private prisons.

“Word is,” Vince said, “among the prison population, that conditions are much better in the private prisons.  Better food, better paying work, more activities.”

This took her, and me, by surprise.  “I wonder if there’s a marketing campaign to spread that idea,” I suggested.  “After my experience with paying for phone time and email, I know those companies are good at promoting themselves.”  But how could anyone get access to the population inside?  I was Vince’s mom, and it had been maddeningly hard for me to communicate with him.

Vince talked about prison drugs (common) and rape (uncommon), MyPillow and Bob Barker products, not being able to vote, and his terms of probation.  It was very relaxed, and I give a lot of credit to Angela—turns out she was a former social worker.

Vince had told us he had to be home at 6:30.  Suddenly Angela said, “I just remembered that clock is slow …”  It was 6:21.  Vince jumped up, ran down the hall and waved at his agent, then bolted out the door.

Later, at home, he said, “I could have talked for hours.” I was so proud of him.  He’s doing so well.

He’s doing so well, in fact, that he announced he may move out soon.  Another ex offender lives in a three-bedroom house that has an opening.  The landlord is accepting of ex offenders.

I felt sad.  I know it’s normal for a 37-year-old man to want to live on his own, and I fully support that.  It was really rocky in the beginning when he came to live here.  We had been separated by miles and drugs and prison for so many years.  Now we get along fine.  I enjoy having him around.  He could do more cleaning, but no one’s perfect.

Updates Part II

In the prison good news / bad news” category, I’ve got some doozies.

First, I was highly amused to read about a brilliant project in which prisoners create portraits of people they think should be in prison. This was in The Guardian—a liberal British newspaper that reliably reports on the most embarrassing elements of American life:

“To find the artists, the activists approached art rehabilitation programs in prisons, but those groups were not interested in being involved with something political. So the pair turned to eBay, where there is a section devoted to art made by prisoners and sold by family members. They found similar prison art networks on Facebook and began conversations with the families of people whose worked they liked. From there, word spread around prisoners and other artists began sending them work.”

No surprise, they’ve captured (ha ha) the usual suspects (ha ha ha) in art: the Koch brothers, Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein, BP’s former boss Tony Hayward. But then there was the CEO of one of my favorite companies, along with My Pillow and Bob Barker Inc. (that’s sarcastic, in case you can’t tell): JPay.

I was disappointed to see that the guy’s name is Ryan Shapiro. He must have a Catholic mom and a Jewish dad. I hate to see stories that reinforce the stereotype that Jews are better at making money than most people. Exploiting—oops, I mean “providing services” to prisoners and their families is very, very lucrative.

JPay Prez

Speaking of Jews and prison, a local organization called Jewish Community Action (JCA) has taken up two prison-related issues:

“Jewish Community Action is currently working on two campaigns related to criminal justice reform and the impact of mass incarceration: One addressing the for-profit private prison system and seeking to push back on the building and opening of private prisons in Minnesota, and one demanding the restoration of voting rights to felons who have completed incarceration and are living and working in their communities.”

I wrote to the executive director and shared the link to this blog. I can’t remember exactly what I wrote; I share the blog with a lot of similar organizations and usually hear nothing back. I mentioned that we’re Jewish and that we’d be happy to support their efforts if we were able. The executive director and two staff members replied—first, to assure me that ours is not the only Jewish family that’s had a run-in with the law or the prison system and second, to ask if Vince and I would come in and meet with them. That will be in a couple weeks and I’ll write more after we meet.

I am not a big fan of Oprah; I have nothing against her but she tends to promote books like The Book Thief, which I regard as one of the most poorly-written books I’ve ever read. But she is currently promoting a book written by an ex offender, Shaka Senghor, called Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison. Next week, Oprah will air an interview with Senghor on her network, OWN TV. I haven’t read the book; I’m only mentioning it because it’s written by an ex offender.

I’ve only ever read one prison memoir, and I can highly recommend it: Willow in a Storm, by James Peter Taylor. The writing is just okay, but the story is harrowing and heart breaking and he tells it real.

Finally, there is this (in the end) uplifting story about Albert Woodfox, who spent FORTY YEARS in solitary for the murder of a prison guard at Angola prison in Louisiana.  He maintained his innocence all these years.  He was released on his 69th birthday.