Category Archives: solitary confinement

Updates

Travel, addiction, prison … sometimes I feel I have to justify why I write about these seemingly unrelated topics. How about this: they all fall under the meta theme of “feeling trapped, or just bored, and wanting to escape.” There—does that explain it?

I was at a big work meeting and we were discussing human rights in the countries where we operate in the Middle East and Africa. Someone said, “What about solitary confinement? Shouldn’t we be advocating against it?” Everyone clamored in agreement. As far as I know, I am the only employee with a family member who has actually been in solitary. I was tempted to raise my hand and make a speech about how, if we decided to advocate against solitary confinement, we’d damn well better include the United States. But I didn’t feel like being a spokesperson for prison reform that morning.

Vince is off lockdown, after a month of confinement to the house except for work and AA meetings. It may not sound that bad—after all he had Facebook and phone to communicate with friends. He could binge-watch movies and cook real food and look out windows and take a shower without 50 other guys around. He had a pretty good attitude toward it, but I know he was really chaffing toward the end. He had steadily been earning freedoms after his release, then they were all taken away. The offense was so petty compared to the consequence. Most of all, he just had no power or choice about his comings and goings.

Regardless, it’s over now, and today we are doing a make-up birthday outing for me—going to hear the Minnesota Orchestra play the entire score of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, accompanied by some Finnish choir. I expect it will be either fantastic or dreadful.

Nothing has happened with the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 in the five weeks since I wrote about it and about how Republicans are using its bipartisan popularity to shove in language making it harder to prosecute corporate criminals.

Then there’s the controversy swirling around The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which is being blamed for creating mass incarceration. Bernie Sanders says he only signed it because of the good stuff in it, even though he disagreed with the sentencing parts. Hillary has been confronted by Black Lives Matter activists about ruining millions of Black people’s lives because she voted for it. Bill Clinton has disavowed it—his own law. I give him credit for that, even though it may only be a political tactic. Ugh. I would have to write five more posts to get to the bottom of that one, if I ever could.

Anyway, a poll from Pew Charitable Trusts shows that all Americans—Democrats, Republicans, Independents, men, women, Latinos, African Americans, seniors, young voters, and even law enforcement households agree we need to fix our broken federal prisons system. If you’re an American and you agree, please sign this petition urging Congress to pass the Act now. These are all the celebs who are endorsing the call for reform.

new_Cut50_Celebs-04_REVISED-900px

A lot of what I do in my job involves raising funding from foundations. I was happy to see that 42 foundations have banned the box on their employment applications that asks, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” This is really only symbolic, since foundations have abysmal records of hiring people of color or even just people who aren’t wealthy and well connected. But they are calling on all philanthropic institutions to follow suit, so maybe it’ll catch on.

Anytime anyone speaks out in support of ex offenders I am thrilled. The president of the Rosenberg Foundation, in announcing the foundations’ move, said, “It is time to end the pervasive discrimination against people with past criminal records. The era of mass incarceration and the war on drugs have done severe damage to families and communities, with an enormously disproportionate impact on people of color. Everyone deserves a second chance and the opportunity to compete for a job.”

The Nitty Gritty

I wrote in my last post about how you can find adventure close to home. But you can experience it even closer—inside your own head. The best example I can give, for me, is the rush of adrenaline I get when I am planning a trip. Not on a trip, just anticipating it. Looking at maps, checking airfares, considering the pros and cons of various destinations, imagining all the fun I will have with my friends.

I’ve written about how these kinds of thoughts cause physical reactions in my body, like a racing heart and sweaty palms. But I’ve never known how that works.

Strangely enough it was an article about solitary confinement that explained the phenomenon. Solitary confinement: the opposite of travel, right? The full title of the article is “How would you do in Supermax? The answer may lie with imagination and grit.”

Solitary Illustratoin

First, here’s the negative side of solitary, which will be no surprise to anyone with a shred of empathy:

“Solitary confinement has been linked to a variety of profoundly negative psychological outcomes, including suicidal tendencies and spatial and cognitive distortions. Confinement-induced stress can shrink parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory, spatial orientation, and control of emotions. In addition to these measurable effects, prisoners often report bizarre and disturbing subjective experiences after they leave supermax. Some say the world regularly collapses in on itself. Others report they are unable to lead ordinary conversations, or think clearly for any length of time. The psychiatrist Sandra Schank puts it this way: “It’s a standard psychiatric concept, if you put people in isolation, they will go insane.”

But here’s where the article veers away from the usual, “it’s horrible, we should stop it” article about solitary. This article examines how some prisoners use mental imagery to survive, and even rehabilitate themselves.

Mental imagery is basically imagining something so vividly that it affects you physically or psychologically. Lots of us do this involuntarily—for instance since I am terrified of public speaking, if I have to give some remarks I will probably have involuntary flashes of imagining myself stammering and making a fool of myself, and this will make me even more nervous, and it may actually cause me to do what I feared.

On the other hand, controlled mental imagery is considered so effective that it is used by athletes to improve their performance. Before a competition, for instance, they will close their eyes and imagine every detail of a successful performance, and this contributes to their bodies and minds performing successfully in reality.

With all external stimulation stripped away, some people in solitary use controlled mental imagery to stay sharp, pass the time, and keep their spirits up. No one tells them about it, or how to do it; they somehow figure it out on their own.

Why are some prisoners in solitary able to summon controlled mental imagery to improve their lot, while most are at the mercy of involuntary mental images?

That’s the second point of the article. The thinking is that this small subset of prisoners possesses a quality called grit. I’ve always wondered how it is that I overcame the odds and became as successful as I am, when there are so many other unmarried teen moms out there who are still mired in poverty. Well, I’ve got grit. If you want to find out if you have it, here’s an online test. Apparently I am in the 90th-99th percentile of other users who have taken it.

What is grit? I would call it “stick-to-it-tiveness.” An innate persistence, perseverance, single mindedness, and diligence despite setbacks.

So some prisoners, who happen to have grit, are able to use controlled mental imagery to improve themselves and leave prison better, not broken.

Where does grit come from? Why do some people have it and others don’t? Can it be learned? I don’t know the answers to these questions. I do know that if I could bottle grit and sell it, I would be a wealthy woman.

Gittin’ in Trouble

This is the seventh post in a series about Cuba that starts here.

Before we left Santiago de Cuba, we took an excursion to the nearby Parque Nacional de Gran Peidra—a sort of national park. I love the outdoors and got excited that we might go on a hike, but we only skirted the park on our way to our real destination, Guantanamo Bay.

If you look at Google maps, it’s really confusing. What you would think was the U.S. territory with the detention center is marked as Cuban territory. Google has steered me wrong before, mostly memorably in Nairobi where it sent me to a slum instead of to the Ford Foundation’s offices, so I would never count on it except for a rough approximation.

Guantanamo

There was excitement on the bus as we got closer to Guantanamo. “Get out your OFAC letter!” someone exclaimed. “We’re being tailed by the CIA!”

As I mentioned previously, we were required to carry letters from the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control at all times to show we were there legally. I couldn’t imagine we would get anywhere near Gitmo—you didn’t have to see it to know it would be surrounded by 20-foot razor-wire fences and heavily-armed guards. What were we going to do, ram the gate? That would put a crimp in my plans to apply for jobs with the CIA and the Foreign Service!

But then the bus stopped, and most of us waited while a couple of Interfaith Task Forcers got off and held an animated conversation with the driver and our guide. Then we turned around and went back to Santiago. I will never know how the leaders of the Task Force talked our guide and the Cuban bus driver into driving to Guantanamo Bay, or how close we really got, or exactly where its limits are.

That’s the thing about travel, if you’re doing it right. You’ll come home shaking your head and laughing to yourself because there was some mysterious situation for which you’ll never have an explanation. That’s assuming no one got hurt or arrested, of course.

Now that I am working for the Center for Victims of Torture, it would be hugely prestigious to be able to say casually, “I was arrested at Guantanamo a couple years ago.”

CVT has been active in advocating for the closure of Guantanamo. First—obviously—because we, torture people there (yes, we, if you’re an American). Half the American population (and I think we can guess who their presidential candidates are) believe there’s nothing wrong with torture. “How we gonna catch the bad guys if we don’t torture people, huh?”

I could write 10 posts about why that’s a dumb statement, but for now I’ll just say, if you think torture is okay, go read someone else’s blog. And even if I thought it was okay, it’s still illegal.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which came about in response to the WWII and specifically the Holocaust, outlawed torture. Ronald Reagan signed the international Convention Against Torture in 1984. President Obama issued an executive order on his second day in office banning torture. In November last year, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which “placed all U.S. government interrogations under the United States Army Field Manual on Interrogations, and requires that the International Committee of the Red Cross have prompt access to all prisoners in United States’ custody.” In other words, there are grownups in charge now.

Very few people know everything that’s gone on at Gitmo, but we do know that people have been detained indefinitely, without charge or trial. If you imagine yourself in one of those prisoner’s paper slippers, you will understand why they go on hunger strikes. We then subject them to another form of torture, forced feeding. If you wonder, “how bad could that be?” watch this video of the rapper Mos Def being force fed; he volunteered to show us what it really involves.

Back in Santiago, none of this was on my mind. My biggest concern was finishing my master’s and getting a job. Vince’s time in prison, and researching prison for this blog, changed all that.

Hedgehogs, Mice, and Echidnas, Oh My

I pride myself on writing realistically about life. You can count on me to tell the truth as I know it, to question everything, and to imagine the worst case scenario. I don’t know why the Pentagon hasn’t called me yet to offer me a disaster-planning job.

But that doesn’t mean I’m depressed, or even “unhappy”—the more generic term. Being a highly-analytical thinker has its rewards. I notice and think about things that other people do not. There’s often absurd fodder for laughs. Sometimes I’m the only one laughing, but that’s okay, right?

There was an article in the Sunday paper about a study that debunked the popular myth that “happy” people are healthier and live longer. Yes! My friend who works in an old folks home—or whatever they’ve been rebranded as now—has always said, “There are plenty of miserable, crabby 90 year olds. And they’ve always been that way, because their kids tell me they have.”

About five years ago, I kicked the depression that had dogged me all my life. Since then I have felt mostly contentment, punctuated with the normal situationally-appropriate emotions. I felt angry when my landlord raised my rent $300 a month, which forced me to move. I was stressed when I moved again three months later so Vince could live with me. I was anxious when Vince was in solitary confinement. I cried for everything my sister and her kids went through when she had cancer. I felt awe hiking in Petra, in the Jordanian desert, and nervous about crossing over into the Palestinian territories. I felt powerless rage when I was banned from visiting Vince. I had a blast with my friends in Berlin. I’ve been bored at work. I was proud when Vince led his squad at his graduation from boot camp. I am excited at the prospect of remodeling my kitchen.

Hey, I guess I just wrote my Christmas letter!  What a year it’s been.

None of it lasts. Some people figure this out somehow, much earlier in life than I did. Emotions come and go. The pleasant and the unpleasant, they’re all fleeting. So enjoy the nice ones while they last and know that the bad ones will dissipate. Don’t panic if you feel blue once in a while. Don’t latch on to the negative feelings or thoughts. If the blues don’t go away for weeks, of course, seek professional help.

In the last week I’ve had some really good times with people I love.

Yesterday I took my mother to tour the Purcell Cutts House, a prairie-style home build in 1913 and owned by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. This is the living room:

Purcell Cutts

The guide explained that the simple, serene style was in part a reaction to the chaos of the age. The architect was from Chicago, which was the industrial center of the U.S. Meat packing and other industries attracted droves of immigrants and African Americans from the south. There wasn’t enough housing, and the water and sewer systems weren’t up to par. There were no child labor laws, workers’ compensation, welfare, or social security.

So architects brought nature and art inside. Obviously this was not a house that could be produced on a mass scale. The immigrants and African Americans still lived in poorly-heated hovels. But at least this one architect could escape all that and find sanctuary at home!

Last weekend, I hosted a cookie-baking party for Vince and his cousins.

Hannukah HedgehogsTaisei n me

They’re not pretty, but we had fun. Strangely, Vince and I had prepared enough dough to yield 16 dozen cookies but only nine dozen made it to the final stage. Hmmm…or should I say, Mmmmm….cookie dough?

So enjoy the moments that contain things you love. In my case: design, craftsmanship, nature, history. Kids, creativity, and cookie dough.

Au Mal Pain

As usual, the prison news includes the good, the bad, and the disgusting.

The good: If I didn’t work in fundraising I might not have caught this item.  The California Endowment has announced it will divest its assets from companies that run private prisons, jails, detention centers, and correctional facilities.  This is fantastic!  The California Endowment is a foundation with $3,668,459,217 in assets.  That’s real money, and maybe it will start a trend.  I look at foundation tax returns almost every day, so I see where they invest their money.  It’s disgusting to see a foundation with a portion of its assets invested in a weapons manufacturer, for instance, and making grants for international poverty programs.  In part, it’s all the small arms the U.S. peddles to warlords abroad that destabilize developing countries and keep them impoverished.  That’s an extreme example but I bet it’s not that uncommon.  If you have retirement investments, you too may own part of Alliant Techsystems or Prison Corporation of America, and you are probably earning fantastic rates of return.

The not-so-good news, also in California, is a report that found abuse, racism, and cover ups a physically isolated prison about 90 miles northwest of Reno.  The town in which the prison is located, Susanville, has fewer than 16,000 people, and the two correctional facilities are its largest employers.  “Employees form tight-knit social groups known as “cars” that can foster what the report terms “a code of silence” that makes it difficult to report wrongdoing.”  They are accused of abusing physically-disabled and minority prisoners, inciting attacks against sex offenders, and conspiring to impede the investigation.   The prison’s nearly 3,500 inmates won’t report abuse because they fear the nearly 1,000 employees will find out and retaliate.  If this is true in this case, why wouldn’t it be true in Moose Lake, where Vince was incarcerated?  Moose Lake has a population of only about 2,700 and, as you might guess from its name, it’s in the sticks.

Then there are two items that would be ridiculous if they weren’t true.

First, rapper Nicki Minaj did a December 10 interview with Billboard Magazine in which she spoke out against mass incarceration, lengthy drug sentences, and the racial bias in sentencing: “What it has become is not a war on drugs.  It has become slavery.  When I see how many people are in jail, I feel like, ‘Wait a minute. Our government is aware of these statistics and thinks it’s OK?’ The sentences are inhumane.”

Earlier this year, she had said about Barak Obama’s prison clemency program, “I thought it was so important when he went to prisons and spoke to people who got 20 and 30 and 40 and 50 years for drugs. There are women who are raped, people who are killed and [offenders] don’t even serve 20 years.”

I guess you could call it a case of bad timing, then when Minaj’s brother was arrested December 3 for raping a 12-year-old girl.  She posted his $100,000 bail.  Blood is thicker than principles, I guess, and I’m not being sarcastic.  As his sister, she probably believes there’s a good explanation.

Last, in prison food news, the New York Times reports that the state’s prisons have announced they will stop serving Disciplinary Loaf—also known as NutriLoaf—to prisoners in solitary confinement.  It was served with a side of cabbage.

God, sometimes I wonder if you think I make this stuff up—that’s why I provide links.

This menu change is part of a slew of reforms to solitary confinement practices.  It was brought about as the result of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, whose director said, “Food is very important to prisoners in a deprived and harsh environment; it is one of the very few things they have to look forward to.”

I’ve pasted the recipe below in case you want to serve it to your family over the holidays.

Recipe for Nutraloaf

Makes 50 loaves.

Ingredients

5 pounds whole wheat flour

20 pounds all purpose flour

1.5 gallons milk, 1 percent

8 ounces fast active dry yeast

4 pounds sugar

2 ounces salt

2.5 pounds powdered milk, nonfat

2 pounds margarine

5 pounds shredded potatoes (with skin)

2 pounds shredded carrots

 

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Heat milk to 105 degrees, then add sugar, salt and yeast. Let stand for 5 minutes.
  3. Add both flours and dry milk, then mix.
  4. Add margarine, potatoes and carrots. Mix for 10 minutes.
  5. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let dough rise.
  6. Grease and flour loaf pans and add dough.
  7. Bake loaves for 40 to 45 minutes.

 

Sincerely, Barak Obama

I wrote to the White House about a month ago to thank President Obama for his efforts to lower incarceration rates through sentencing reform, reintegration programs and other “upstream” measures. I thought I would share the response I received.  Too bad the White House seal and other graphics don’t show up:

Dear Anne:

Thank you for writing, and for sharing your son’s story.  Today, our criminal justice system holds approximately 2.2 million Americans behind bars, at a cost to taxpayers of $80 billion per year.  Many of these individuals are violent criminals who are off the streets thanks to hard‑working police officers and prosecutors, but many others who are incarcerated are non‑violent offenders whose punishments do not always fit their crimes.  We have to make sure that our justice system is fair and effective and is doing what it can to make individuals, their families, and their communities stronger.

My Administration has taken concrete steps to enhance public safety while also making our system more just.  By channeling resources into early childhood education and issuing discipline guidance to our schools, we are creating pathways to success instead of pipelines to prison.  Through initiatives like “My Brother’s Keeper,” we are promoting reforms to the juvenile justice system and reaching young people before they’re locked into a cycle from which they cannot recover.  Additionally, the Justice Department’s “Smart on Crime” and “Justice Reinvestment” initiatives aim to address the unnecessary use of mandatory minimums in the Federal system and work with states to lower their incarceration numbers and reinvest in crime prevention services.

For currently incarcerated individuals, my Administration has supported critical improvements to our prison system that target overcrowding, solitary confinement, gang activity, and sexual assault.  We are promoting rehabilitation programs that have been proven to decrease the likelihood of a repeat offense, and we are expanding reintegration programs—such as those supported by the Second Chance Act—that work with government agencies and non‑profit organizations to help provide access to employment, education, housing, and health care for the nearly 600,000 inmates released annually.  In addition, I directed the Office of Personnel Management to “ban the box” on most Federal job applications in order to end the practice of disqualifying people simply because of a mistake they made in their past.

While my Administration remains committed to taking action to improve all phases of the criminal justice system, it is time for Congress to act.  Meaningful sentencing reform and juvenile justice reform legislation would make a crucial contribution to improving public safety, reducing runaway incarceration costs, and making our criminal justice system fairer.  There is strong bipartisan support in Congress to achieve these goals, and I am encouraged that the Senate and House will continue to work cooperatively to get a bill to my desk.

Thank you again for writing.  Throughout my Presidency and beyond it, I will continue working to keep our communities safe and make our justice system fair.  To learn more about these efforts, visit www.WhiteHouse.gov/Issues/Civil‑Rights/Justice.

Sincerely,

Barack Obama

Seeing how Vince struggles with the after effects of being imprisoned, it is comforting to know that lawmakers on both sides agree the system must change—drastically, and now—and that my president cares enough about this to take it on even after he leaves office. I believe this is the only issue Republicans and Democrats agree on and are working on together nowadays, which tells you a lot about how messed up the system is.

A Break from Breaking Free

ANNE

Vince says he’s hit a wall with the blogging, and I need more than 10 minutes notice to come up with new material.  After over a year of blogging and nearly 200 posts, I’d say we’ve earned a break.

We’ll be back.  If you haven’t yet binge read the thing from the beginning, start here and click on the right-pointing arrow at the bottom of each post to proceed.  Feel free to share with others, and thanks for reading.