Category Archives: Prison Conditions

Young Man Hangs Himself In Jail Cell

On October 4, 2014, DeJuan Brison, age 26, hung himself with a sheet in a jail cell.  He didn’t die that day, but was taken to a hospital, where he passed away on October 21, 2014.  He had a mother, Christine Brooks, and a father, Robert Brison.  Christine said her son was ‘sweet and humble’ and a ‘mama’s boy’.  Brison grew up in St. Louis and was the father of four children, ages 4, 5, 6 and 7.

DeJuan Brison was originally being held at the St. Louis Justice Center.  Three days earlier, on October 1, 2014, he was arrested on a domestic violence case, but he was never charged.  Jails are required to release inmates if no charges are filed within 24 hours, but they can be held if they are wanted by another municipality.

Two years earlier, on August 28, 2012, Brison had been accused of stealing five sticks of deodorant, valued at $17.50, at a Family Dollar.  In that case, he posted a $300 bond, but he did not attend a ‘financial responsibility’ class that was ordered by the court.  Because he missed the class, a warrant was issued, and a $500 bail was set.  It was for this reason that the St. Louis Justice Center did not release Brison.  He did not have any new charges, but had missed his class.

It was while Brison was being held by St. Louis that he was placed on ‘full suicide watch’.  That happened on October 2, 2014, one day after he was arrested. On October 3, the following day, another ‘full suicide’ form was filled out.  Later that day he was removed from full suicide watch and placed under ‘close observation’.  After that, he was listed at one point on ‘modified suicide watch’ and ‘close observation’.

He was transported to Jennings jail on the morning of October 4, where he was wanted in relation to the deodorant theft charge from 2012.  He communicated with the jailers that he had already paid his bail for the shoplifting case, but was informed he would have to tell it to the judge.

That morning he requested a call to have someone bring him his inhaler for asthma.  He was physically unable to complete his call, held his hands in the air, and laid on the floor.  Another inmate attempted to place the call for him, but there was no answer.

Right before noon that day, an ambulance was called to attend to Brison, and the emergency worker reported that he was making himself hyperventilate.   At 12:40 a guard walked by his cell.  At 1:21 a guard who was taking out the trash saw Brison hanging.

The Jennings jail was not informed about Brison’s suicide watch when he was transferred.

Brison was somebody’s young son and the father of four children of his own.  There were never any new charges against him, but it appears he was troubled, or he wouldn’t have been placed on suicide watch during his brief stay in St. Louis in the fall of 2014.

Life is valuable.  Jails and prisons often lose sight of that.  People aren’t people anymore there.  That reality is apparent to most people who have been in the system or known someone in it.  The climate in corrections is one of disregard for the humanity that it is their job to house and care for – like it or not.  That is their job.  That has gotten lost somewhere, behind walls that no one can see through.

As I type this, I just found out that a sweet woman I consider a friend was in a motorcycle accident this weekend.  The driver of the motorcycle was killed and my friend, the passenger, is in critical condition.  LIFE IS VALUABLE.  People aren’t just numbers and cases.  This man was loved by people too.

DeJuan Brison was charged with nothing in 2014, but he was held in jail for several days, displayed suicidal tendencies, and was having breathing problems.  Before the week was out, a man who was a friend and loved one to some, a father to four and two people’s son hung himself from a sheet in an empty cell.   He had breathing issues the same day, but rather than have him housed with other inmates who could monitor him, he was placed in a cell by himself.  He had been on suicide watch, but was in a cell by himself, unmonitored and with the material to allow him to hang himself.

REFERENCES

Kohler, Jeremy. “Man Who Hanged Himself in Jennings Had Been On Suicide Watch.” Stltoday.com. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 17 Aug. 2015.

Benchaabane, Nassiom. “Corrections Officers Ignored and Neglected Inmate Who Hanged Himself In Jennings Jail, Suit Says.” Stltoday.com. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 17 Feb. 2017.

Jail Denies Woman Access to Hospital During Labor

Sheriff Anthony Wickersham stated he is 100 percent satisfied with how his officers handled a recent situation in his jail.  Although he concedes during an interview that a hospital is located about three minutes away, he is also of the opinion that the baby born on a jail cell floor came too fast.  He goes on to talk about how nice it would be to have a medical team on hand, but adds that the taxpayers would have to pay for that.  He also says he is not going to second guess the decisions of his staff.

I am.

Jessica Preston was pulled over for driving on a suspended license.  She was given a court date five days later and ordered to pay a $10,000 cash bond, but she couldn’t afford it, so she was to stay in jail until she could see the judge.   If she had been wealthy, she would not have been in the jail.  But, she wasn’t wealthy, so in the jail she stayed.

Ms. Preston was eight months pregnant at the time she was jailed.  She had delivered her first baby via an emergency C-section and was scheduled to deliver Elijha the same way for health reasons.

It was while she was at the jail that Jessica’s contractions began.   Her baby was coming a month early, she was behind bars, and she was experiencing the pain of labor.

At 7 in the morning, she sought medical attention and made the staff aware she was having her baby.  They didn’t allow her to go to a hospital, but instead sent her back to her cell.

Four and half hours later, at 11:30, she again sought medical assistance, letting staff know she was having a baby.  Again, Jessica was sent back to a jail cell.

At 1:00 in the afternoon she tried again, this time with blood running down her leg.  Rather than call an ambulance, the staff sent her back to her cell.

Elijha was born at 2:45 that day.   Almost two hours after the last attempt Jessica made to get help.

The Sherriff may want to cloud the issues with talk about taxpayers needing to pay for medical staff, budgets, etc, but by doing so, he is just making it all the more apparent how far many of those employed in corrections will go to cover for each other’s poor treatment of inmates.

When a pregnant woman starts to have a baby, you help her.  It’s that simple.  Wickersham said they didn’t have time – they had time.  They had well over seven hours to get that woman to a hospital.  Seven hours.  It takes less than a minute to call an ambulance.

In the spectrum of morally right and wrong – which is worse?  Driving on a suspended license, or not offering assistance to a young woman who is in labor for over seven hours and endangering the life of a premature baby?  Which leads to one more question.  Which is worse – not allowing a woman access to a doctor when she goes into labor a month early, or trying to defend the inexcusable lack of compassion and professionalism that led to a child being born on a jail cell floor?

REFERENCES

Hutchinson, Kevin Dietz Derick. “Macomb County Sheriff Stands by Staff after Woman Forced to Give Birth in Jail Cell.” WDIV. N.p., 10 Feb. 2017. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

Kevin Dietz, Frank McGeorge, Derick Hutchinson. “Major Health Risks for Woman Who Delivered Baby on Cell Floor at Macomb County Jail.” WDIV. N.p., 07 Feb. 2017. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

Schladebeck, Jessica. “Pregnant Woman Forced to Deliver Baby on Jail Cell Floor.”NY Daily News. N.p., 07 Feb. 2017. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

Opening the Blinds on Being Female in Prison

Our reality is a product of what we know and are permitted to know.  If all the events that take place behind prison bars were brought to light, there might be a call to action from normal, everyday America.

There is always the need to preface every story with – bad people go to prison and we need those facilities.  What about the girl who was raised differently than others, faced more struggles, maybe didn’t have parents looking out for her and got caught up is something, or the mentally ill girl, or the harshly sentenced or the falsely accused?  Those people are in there too, all mixed in together.  Even the ‘bad’ ones deserve a fair shot at being rehabilitated.  We are all one mistake or false accusation away.  It’s enough to make you think – it made me think.

The reality of life behind bars for women.  Think about it.  There is an inescapable vision of the vulnerability.  Walls that can’t be seen through.   The people behind those walls have no voice, their phone calls and letters, if they can afford them, are monitored. And, their families don’t often have the means to fight any injustice.  You don’t really want to risk ticking off the man who is your jailer.  What are your options?

If you could have seen through the bars of a prison one particular day, you would have seen a scene something like this.  “He asked me to pull my shirt up.”  She did it for him.  She lifted her shirt because she knew if she did, she could, “get stuff.”

At one prison in 2008, while a female inmate was showering, the officer on duty sent the other prisoners on her tier to lunch.  When the inmate returned to an empty cell, the officer entered and forced her to perform oral sex. The consequence for his actions were six months of low-level probation.

In 2009, a corrections officer blackmailed an inmate into having sex with him three times during the same day by saying that he had the power to send her back to prison at her next hearing if she fought him. Repeatedly, she told him she didn’t want to have sex.  The officer was sentenced to six months in prison.

Ten percent of all women in U.S. jails report being sexually abused by corrections officers. In 2012, an officer offered money for sex to an inmate doing late cleaning duty. After humiliating her in a supply closet, the officer instructed the woman to “clean her mess up”.  His punishment was a year of low-level probation.

At one prison in Alabama it has been reported that a third of prison employees have had sex with female inmates.  After a federal investigation at that prison, it was reported that inmates, “live in a sexualized environment with repeated and open sexual behavior including: abusive sexual contact between staff and prisoners, sexualized activity, and a strip show condoned by staff.”

The thing is – we don’t even know the half of it, because anyone who has lived in a prison environment knows it is in an inmate’s best interest not to report any wrongdoing on the part of corrections staff.  This is the reality we don’t hear about every day.

REFERENCES

Barrish, Cris. “Sex behind Bars: Women Violated in Delaware Prison.” Delawareonline. The News Journal, 31 July 2015. Web. 02 Jan. 2017.

Gates, Verna. “Inmates at Alabama Women’s Prison Face Sexual Abuse: U.S. Justice.”Yahoo! News. Yahoo!, 22 Jan. 2014. Web. 10 Jan. 2017.

 

The Echoes of Solitary

When people try to tell me I can find a better ‘cause’ than criminal justice reform, it only punctuates how much need there is for education. This is just one story. This story and the countless like it are why this is my cause.

I have children, and it isn’t a stretch to envision one of them being picked up by the police for something or other. As a matter of fact, I’ve received a phone call or two regarding my children. Their brains aren’t fully developed at the age of sixteen, and it’s fair to say there will be bumps in the road. It’s life. I’m not talking about gang violence or rape or home invasions. I am talking about kid stuff. One of the more concerning calls I ever received was when one of my boys was on top of a Staples office supply store.   Who knows what he was doing up there, because the police who were holding him when I arrived didn’t climb up on the building to find out.

But – what if. What if I didn’t know the officer? I did. What if there had been something on that roof that pointed towards my son. Kalief Browder was sixteen years old when he was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack. The charge was second degree robbery. The boy was walking home, in his own neighborhood when the arrest took place. Nothing was found on Browder at the time.

Kalief was given a choice. He could take a plea bargain. If he did, he would be released. He refused though, trusting in the fairness of the system. He was confident his innocence would speak for itself.

Browder’s family couldn’t come up with the bail money. So, a boy who was not found guilty of any crime, was sent to Rikers Island to await a trial. The trial never took place though. He was held for three years, at which time the charges were dropped.

Rikers Island has long been thought of as a dangerous and isolated place – with good reason. It is just that – dangerous and isolated. Not only are there walls and fences to keep eyes from seeing what takes place inside, but it is also on an island. That, in itself, fosters feelings of hopelessness.

During his stay at Rikers, Kalief was offered several opportunities to take a plea. He never waivered, maintaining his innocence. He also attempted to take his own life on several occasions while there. Kalief Browder’s stay at Rikers changed him. He reported abuse by inmates and officers and spent nearly two years of his stay in solitary. In an article written by Jennifer Gonnerman, she included a clip of footage that was obtained from inside Rikers. It’s haunting when you see this young man being tossed around like a rag doll, knowing that this is just the footage that we have access to. He had several more stories of abuse to tell, of which we don’t have footage.

Kalief wasn’t able to shake his experiences when the charges against him were finally dropped. He was twenty. He couldn’t fill his old shoes anymore. He’d missed his place in life. He didn’t know where he fit in while the rest of the world had kept moving without him. He was quoted in one article as saying, “…in my mind right now, I feel like I’m still in jail, because I’m still feeling the side effects from what happened in there.”

He reportedly couldn’t sleep at night until he checked all the locks throughout the home. At one point, he was fearful his TV was watching him, so he got rid of it. He wasn’t able to escape his experience. He tried to end his life on numerous occasions and finally succeeded at his parents’ home when he was twenty two years old.

This is what’s happening in the United States of America. This is my cause. The expanse of this problem – from the judges, to the corrections officers, to the prosecutors, to the public defenders – is overwhelming. Saying this is not a ‘just’ cause is so far from the truth. People like Kalief Browder deserve advocates. You can see a sick puppy, you can see an orphan – you can’t see what is happening behind the walls of a prison.

It’s difficult to open ourselves up to the possibility that this could happen to our sixteen year old son. It’s much easier to think it can’t. Kalief’s mom found him after he took his life. She heard banging in the house and couldn’t figure out what the noise was, so she went outside. When she looked up from her backyard, she saw her son dangling from a window by a cord. He’d hung himself.

It wasn’t long after that Venida Browder, Kalief’s mother, also passed away. Some say she died of a broken heart. I say the same when I try to feel what she must have felt during those years when she couldn’t free her son. When I look up and try to envision what she saw from where she stood in her yard, I am certain her heart was broken. It’s time we all cared.

REFERENCES

Gonnerman, Jennifer. “Before the Law.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 08 June 2015. Web. 07 Jan. 2017.

Gonnerman, Jennifer. “Kalief Browder, 1993–2015.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 17 Oct. 2016. Web. 07 Jan. 2017.

‘Indifferent’ Is Too Kind To Describe Jail’s Behavior

The word indifferent was used in an article I read to describe the ‘deadliest’ jail in my state. I thought it was an adequate word at first. I have written about the death of Jamycheal Mitchell at that same jail, and the ‘indifference’ in that instance was hard to ignore. It was blatant. In that case, a young man with a mental condition was allowed to die of ‘wasting’. I, as a layman, would call that starving. There was never any acknowledgement by the facility of wrongdoing in that case, nor remorse.

After careful consideration, I have changed my mind. The word ‘indifferent’ is too kind. It would not be a sufficiently strong enough word if it were my 24 year old son who had wasted away. I would probably use words more along the lines of incompetent. Knowing me, if it were my son, I would call his death ‘criminal’. In Mitchell’s case, the jail investigated itself and found its officers and staff guilty of no wrongdoing.

Another man died in that same jail not too long after Jamycheal. Henry Clay Stewart was 60 years old when he passed away. Mr. Stewart was at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail because of an upcoming trial for allegedly violating the terms of his release on a shoplifting conviction.

Mr. Stewart was not sentenced to life or ten years or even one. He was simply awaiting trial. While at the jail, Henry Stewart became ill. He repeatedly requested help. Some might say he begged for help, with words like, “I keep asking to go to the emergency room,” and “I need emergency assistance right away.” He informed employees that he couldn’t hold down his food or water.   More concerning than that, he reported to them that he had blacked out twice in less than 24 hours. Mr. Stewart needed help.

If you were to believe another inmate’s statements, Stewart had also been coughing up blood for weeks, and had lost weight.   Staff determined that Mr. Stewart’s August 4th plea for help, which wasn’t his first, was ‘not an emergency’.

Two days later, Stewart was found dead. The medical examiner’s office listed Stewart’s death as ‘perforated gastric ulcer due to chronic lymphocytic gastritis, H. Pylori positive’.

Following the death of Henry Clay Stewart, Lt. Col. Eugene Taylor III, the jail’s assistant superintendent said, as he did after Jamycheal’s death, the jail did not plan to change any of its policies, because its investigation found that none had been violated.

The jail’s previous superintendent, David L. Simons, was said to have stated that the death ‘was a natural death’ and there was ‘nothing out of the ordinary’.

Indifference is not strong enough a word in my opinion. The federal Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act entitles inmates to medical and mental health care.

‘Indifference’ would be a lack of sympathy or caring. The corrections profession has become one of indifference. This case, and the countless like it, is an indication it has gone beyond indifference. By not acknowledging the problem and striving to correct the indifferent system we have, the trend will continue to surpass indifference. It will continue to grow more incompetent, and eventually criminal. Kindness and compassion are of vital importance to any successful relationship or system, and those are qualities that don’t exist in our current Criminal Justice System.

REFERENCES

Dujardin, Peter. “Regional Jail Inmate Died of Perforated Ulcer, Medical Examiner Says.”  Daily Press. N.p., 04 Oct. 2016. Web. 01 Nov. 2016.       

Kleiner, Sarah, and K. Burnell Evans. “Hampton Roads Regional Jail Is Deadliest in the Virginia for Inmates.” Richmond Times-Dispatch. N.p., 03 Sept. 2016. Web. 01 Nov. 2016.

                   

Is Prison Too Ugly For Some People To Look At?

One of my children has ‘service’ as a requirement in her high school program.  She has to ‘serve’ the world in some way.  Make a contribution.  I can’t think of a better requirement and think it should be a part of every school program.

I understood when the school contacted me, informing me that they didn’t think her submitted idea of becoming a penpal to a prisoner was a safe idea.  I could understand their concern and agreed, we could probably find a better way to fulfill her desire to touch the lives of this huge portion of our population.

My daughter then came up with ‘Plan B’.  She would contribute articles to my blog about individuals that were incarcerated who she felt were being denied basic human rights or in some way suffering.  She would do the research on-line, with no individual communication and simply write four articles, about four different people or situations.  In doing so, she would inform the world, and maybe her class, of some of the injustice that is taking place right here in America.   No different than trying to inform them about animals that might be suffering in dog fighting rings or breeding farms.  No different than trying to shed a light on an older woman’s struggle with Alzheimer’s in a nursing home where she is being abused and neglected but no one knows because she has no family.   My daughter found a desire in herself to speak up for those who have no voice.  And that is a service.

She has not yet convinced the school though.  The last I heard, she was still being persuaded to categorize her project as a ‘creative’ endeavor.  It’s disheartening to me to be faced with this struggle.   My daughter won’t have any difficulty finding stories to put a spotlight on.   It could be the woman taken from her cell by two officers, with her hands and legs restrained, sprayed in the face, and covered with a mask.  She wasn’t fighting.  Just screaming and crying for mercy.  Or it could be the woman who cut herself and got more time added to her sentence because her blood got on a corrections officer.  There is an endless list of true stories.

I doubt there would be any question as to whether this was a ‘service’ if it were a cute little old lady in a nursing home being abused by one of her nurses, or a dog scarred and bloodied after being used for breeding purposes in someone’s backyard.  Nobody is naïve, prison has a place.  A human corrections system has a place.  That is not what we have in this country.  And it isn’t going to change until a good number of people see that.  Change is scary, but this country needs to make some changes, and it is going to take some courageous people to go down new paths.  I am so proud of the child of mine who is fearless enough to want to blaze one of those trails, and it’s people like her who have ‘served’ and made this country what it is now.   Education is a service.

She’s not the only one though.  I read the article below, written by Anthony Williams, and I asked him if I could share it here.  Anthony spent a good portion of his life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.  Anyone can make a difference, and so many are trying.  Please consider becoming a Penpal to a prisoner.  It doesn’t only improve the lives of others, it gives you back so much more than you could imagine when you find the right person to correspond with.   You can contact Missouri PAC through my Friends and Resources page for more information on finding a PenPal through them.

Why Write To A Prisoner? – by Anthony Williams

Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”  – Hebrew 13:3 (New International Version)

This is a very popular Bible verse among prisoners for obvious reasons but I assure those of you who have not had the misfortune of being in jail or prison that you would relate to Hebrew 13:3 if you were incarcerated or simply in an adverse situation.

I understand now that the most important thing God has given us is our Freedom.   Many of you who are now free and living prosperous lives have committed crimes at some point in your lives or another,  just haven’t been caught!  Moreover, in the climate of our criminal justice system, the reality is any citizen could find him or herself ensnared in the system.   I believe we do our society a disservice by jailing people without any consideration of what happens to or with their lives inside of our jails and prisons.

Being locked up away from your family, friends and society can be devastating for anyone.  For the person who doesn’t receive any support and/or love from his love ones the incarceration is worse.  These individuals, the ones who are de-socialized from society and cut-off from family, they often become hardened in our system.

Write a Friend
Write a Friend!

We don’t waterboard prisoners inside our jails and prisons, but we torture them by holding them incommunicado.  Prisoners are often shipped hundreds of miles away from their home towns to be housed hours away from family and friends.  Many prisoners believe this is done to discourage familial and social relationships particularly visitation.  Many inmates simply cannot receive visits from family or friends because their family members cannot afford transportation to the prison.

 

You should consider writing a prisoner not only because the Bible says so.  The Missouri Department of

Letters Anthony wrote to his Pen Pal Tracy Rodriquez while in prison
Letters wrote by Anthony to his Pen Pal Tracy Rodriquez

Corrections (MDOC) highlight in their Friends’ & Family Packet that maintaining familial relationships and friendships is tantamount to the rehabilitative process as well.   I can’t emphasize strongly enough the impact having healthy friendships and familial relationships had on inmates in the system.  Simply put, those prisoners whose family and friends keep in touch and support them, fair better while incarcerated.

For those men and women in prison abandoned by their family and friends, their only hope to surviving incarceration and reentry may be in finding a pen friend.

Men who get support from outside handle incarceration differently.  They feel less vulnerable and needy, which does help prevent problems.  But, more importantly, they are more optimistic and hopeful.  These prisoners often are more susceptible to changing from the familial pressures and encouragement.  They still feel “connected” to something, and in fact, still feel loved.

Lonely prisoner needing a Pen Pal
Make a prisoners day with a letter!

The reality is that rehabilitative programming along is not sufficient to reform an individual.  The reality is that when we abandon people inside of jails and prisons they often develop defeatist and fatalistic attitudes.  Many of these individuals become bitter and mad at the world!  They curse their family’s, and they often act out inside of these prisons like “they have nothing to come home to.”

When a person becomes de-socialized inside of our prison system and isolated from family and society at large, the rehabilitative processes do not stand any chance of working.

 

Click here to view MOPAC Pen Pal Profiles and consider writing a prisoner!

Vulnerable Behind Bars

I was talking to someone today about prison conditions. They said to me, “People have a choice. You aren’t in there. I’m not in there. They have a choice.” Yes. We all have choices to make. I choose to treat all people with decency. I choose to advocate for people that no longer have a voice. That is my choice.  I am a believer in Jesus.  I read something today that spoke so loudly to me.  If Jesus were on the earth today, we would surely see Him visiting prison.  There is no doubt in my mind.

People in prison are extremely vulnerable. They are vulnerable because they have been written off.   Friends of mine advocate for animals and children, and those causes are so easy to get behind and win support for. Prisoners – not so much. It’s easier to forget them all than to think that maybe it was a one time mistake, or a wrongful conviction, or a mental illness, or a case of addiction. The reasons no longer matter when you have the label ‘prisoner’, ‘inmate’, ‘felon’.

Christian Corde’s mother knows how vulnerable someone can be in prison. She says her son broke his foot in the rec yard at Lawton Correctional Facility in Oklahoma.   He was working out at the time of the injury. The incident occurred on August 4th, 2016. Christian’s mom says he now has a displaced 3rd metatarsal fracture. From what she describes, scar tissue has built up around the displaced bone, due to a delay in surgery, and the bone is now trying to make its way outward, causing fracture blisters.  I wrote to the prison to ask why Christian was not receiving medical care, but no one has yet responded to me.

There is a vulnerability behind prison walls that I wouldn’t wish on anybody. Meals are sometimes rejected by the local stray cats. If you are lucky enough to have a stash of food in your cell, you might have to chase away a rat who comes to try and snatch it away. There is crime and violence that isn’t just committed by the people locked behind the bars. Jailers police themselves, and are rarely held accountable for their actions.

There isn’t a differentiation between the person who was wrongly accused, or the woman who killed the man who was raping her. There isn’t a ‘nicer’ set up for those people than the mass murderer. Prison is prison. The people who live there are at the mercy of staff. The people who work in corrections and the people who live in prison both know what that means. I never intended any of my articles to bash a profession, but to deal in reality, we have to acknowledge there is corruption within the corrections profession.

I recently heard a story from a man who was in a prison in Georgia. He’d broken his tooth on a chicken bone.   I can say, without a doubt, I wouldn’t want to break a tooth in a prison. As this man sat in the dental chair, his female dentist angrily banged on his teeth. She wrote in the man’s file, ‘He thinks he’s entitled’. Then she told him he was OK to leave. He then showed her his broken tooth, she gave him a temporary filling, and sent him on his way.

There is a prison in Virginia that has earned the title of having the highest death rate in the state among inmates. It is the Hampton Roads Regional Jail. A man died there last month. His name was Henry. He was sixty years old. He put in a written request for emergency medical attention. His request described blacking out and not being able to hold down food or water. Henry Steward was dead two days later. That just happened a couple weeks ago. I have already written a story on this blog about a young man who died of ‘wasting’ while he was in the same jail last year.

I understand my friend’s opinion that we all have choices and that a person who is in prison got themselves there. I understand that a lot of people feel that way. I expect more from myself. Excusing our own lack of compassion with blanket comments like, ‘they had a choice’, is a cop out. Just build the wall higher, don’t look in, and don’t worry about how people are treated. They had a choice. Yes, I expect more from myself.

One man put it this way about how he was treated in a GA prison. “We were like roaches to them.” He was probably right. People in prison are not bulletproof. They are more vulnerable than most people want to acknowledge.

Prisons Aren’t Created Equal

The first time I saw photos from inside an Alabama prison, I remember thinking, ‘that can’t be here’. I would have thought it was a third world country. If animals were housed in those conditions, rescue organizations would be lining up to get them into better homes.

The visual left me thinking it was like a warehouse for humans. People piled in with very little space, swatting at flies and passing one more hot day in a sad, overcrowded, incredibly lonely place. Just like dirty laundry shoved in a closet and the door pushed shut, human beings are being hidden out of site in deplorable conditions, watched over by skeleton staffs, that often commit crimes of their own.   Unfortunately, a good number of C.O.’s receive tax funded salaries and benefits to spend their days at the same place, while blackmailing, smuggling in contraband, and trading items for sex, just to name a few of the things that go on.

Disregard for common decency behind the fences and cinderblock walls is a way of life.  Staff protect their own. They police themselves. They don’t answer to secret shoppers. There is no accountability system in place that is going to bring about change. There are honest, decent people who work in corrections, but not enough of them to change the system.

People in prison have told me that they don’t play sports because a simple injury can be a death sentence. Treatment, if given at all, is often given late and not up to the standard of care that a person should receive. People that don’t have to, die from easily treatable conditions that are ignored.   People suffer.

It get’s hot in the south. Prison wasn’t meant to be a vacation. It wasn’t meant to be hell either. In Alabama, prisons are operating at nearly 200 percent over what they were intended to. It’s scorching, and there is no air conditioning. People are piled in on top of each other in overheated conditions.

The staff is too shorthanded to maintain adequate security, leaving prisoners in fear. It isn’t safe for anyone. If a prisoner goes in a nonviolent offender, it’s very possible he learns violence while incarcerated. He surely learns about isolation and suffering.

I would call the Alabama prison system a tremendous failure and a disgrace to humanity. The jailers, in too many cases, abuse their power and only exasperate the growing resentment that is building behind the walls. Resentment isn’t the only thing growing in there. If people could see through the walls, they would see loneliness, desperation, fear, discomfort, ailing health, lack of nutrition, and a breeding ground for future crime.

When people think of prison, they don’t always think of the big picture. I was recently talking to a young man who was incarcerated as a teenager for a nonviolent crime. He has been in for nearly ten years and has over thirty to go. I asked him why he was living in a level four security prison. He told me it was because of the length of his sentence. So, essentially, a nonviolent child grew up in a level four security environment, because of the heartless length of his sentence, not because of his behavior. That’s not justice.

All prisons are not created equal. Sentences vary based on economic resources, connections, and even race. The prison system in our country is in crisis, and the system in Alabama is deplorable.

REFERENCES

 Cstephens@al.com, Challen Stephens |. “Averting Its Eyes, Alabama Lets Prisons Sink into Despair.” AL.com. N.p., 22 June 2014. Web. 28 Aug. 2016.                          

Snell, Rashad. “More Prisoners Across Alabama Join Prison Strike – Alabama News.” Alabama News. N.p., 11 May 2016. Web. 28 Aug. 2016.           

Jail Shows No Remorse in Death of Mentally Ill Boy

To say there is little accountability in corrections is probably an understatement. This country locks up a lot of people – more than any other country in the world. With those numbers, a lack of accountability in the corrections profession is ultimately going to be a problem. The smoke and mirrors used to deflect attention are getting a little old. The friends and family of those people behind bars are joining their voices together and, hopefully, where they were once individual whispers, they can all join together and become a roar. That’s my hope.

There is a long road ahead determining how we can better rehabilitate people. Treating them all like garbage is not working though. That is what is happening. The person I am writing about today has a name.   He is a ‘person’. Someone recently corrected me when I used different terminology. They are ‘people’ in prison. She was absolutely correct. They are not a number, or inmate, etc. They are people.

Jamycheal Mitchell is this boy’s name. I have written about him before. He was arrested in April of 2015 for stealing $5 worth of snacks.   He suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.   And – that is the correct word – ‘suffered’. Mental illness is an illness. It is a condition that no one would ‘choose’ for themselves. The boy deserved compassion, understanding and care for that reason alone – the fact that he ‘suffered’ from mental illness.

The boy who suffered from an illness and stole five dollars worth of junk food, was placed in jail. That in itself does not make any sense. But, the mentally ill are often kept in jails and prisons in this country, so, unfortunately, that is not unusual.

That is where all logic seems to end.   I have searched for every article and piece of material I can find about Jamycheal.   I was hoping I could find a public statement by the jail expressing sympathy for his family after he died in their care.  Yes, he died in jail. I have searched and printed and read everything I can find.   I have found absolutely nothing expressing sympathy.   I will tell you what I have found.

The system we have set up to hold people accountable for wrongdoing, isn’t accountable for anything it does. It doesn’t even come close to passing the standards of decency it holds the people that it imprisons to. That is what I have found.

After Jamycheal’s arrest, a judge ordered him to be sent to a hospital. Due to ‘clerical errors’ his name was not on the list of people waiting for beds at Eastern State Hospital. So he sat in jail. Anyone familiar with the environment in jail knows that it is not a place to treat a mentally ill person. It simply is not.   Nothing good can come from putting a person that suffers from mental illness into a jail cell. There are not a lot of requirements needed to get a job in corrections, and the staff is certainly not capable of caring for the mentally ill, although we could hope that some of them may be capable of compassion.

So, ‘clerical errors’ made by an ‘overwhelmed’ employee had him sitting indefinitely. On July 31 a jail employee contacted the Portsmouth Department of Behavioral Healthcare Services, requesting an evaluation of Jamycheal, but the evaluation did not happen. On August 19, 2015, Jamycheal was dead. He had lost over 34 pounds in the care of the jail over those few months and died of ‘wasting’.

One article I read stated that he was ‘overlooked and forgotten’. That is too forgiving and gives the jail undue credit in my opinion.   He wasn’t ‘forgotten’. If you can see him, how can you forget him? He wasn’t misplaced. Employees saw him every day.   Absolutely nothing was done. If they had seen a dog chained to a post out front and walked by it every single day as it withered away, could we say they ‘overlooked’ the dog and ‘forgot’ him? The fact is, they looked at him and they did not ‘forget’ he was there.

The article also indicated that there was an employee hired to monitor people waiting for state hospital beds. The article said that the employee had not met with Mitchell the entire four months that he was in jail.

For the sake of argument, I am going to discount a majority of the things that have been reported about the Hampton Roads Regional Jail’s care of Jamycheal. I am going to make many assumptions to give weight to the Jail’s claim that an internal audit found no responsibility in this death.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there is not one valid statement made by the other people detained in the jail at the time. There have been statements made and letters written by them that I will pretend I haven’t read.

Let’s assume that Mitchell was not kicked in the knees to get him to sit down, when he was standing naked against the wall outside his cell, while it was being cleaned.

Let’s assume he didn’t live naked with no pillow, blanket, cup, or water to flush his toilet.

Let’s assume that all his meals were given to him.

Let’s assume that his cell didn’t smell so bad that it was hard to walk past without gagging.

Let’s assume that all claims by fellow people held in the jail who claim to have witnessed abuse are all lies. I don’t see how it would benefit them to testify against the correctional staff who are housing them, but let’s assume they are all lying. In my experience, the people that I know on both sides of corrections know that you need to be careful when complaining about staff, as you often pay the price. But – for the sake of argument, let’s assume these people are all lying.

With all of those assumptions, here are the highlights of a statement issued by The Hampton Roads Regional Jail on June 24, 2016. That is a couple months shy of a year after Mitchell passed away. In the statement, the Jail says it notified the police immediately of Jamycheal’s death. They claim to have provided the police with all of the files they requested. The police found that there was no evidence of a crime. What strikes me with that is – the party being investigated provided the evidence the police reviewed. We wouldn’t have any crime if we were all permitted to submit the evidence to be reviewed in investigations into wrongdoing. But, again, let’s overlook that.

The statement says that the scene was preserved and photographed. I have to wonder who took the photographs. The statement says that Hampton Roads Regional Jail’s investigation into this case revealed no breach of Hampton Roads Regional Jail’s policies or procedures, and no criminal action or negligence by Hampton Roads Regional Jail staff. Basically, what that says is, the jail’s investigation into itself reveals no wrongdoing. Let’s also overlook just how ridiculous that is.

The statement says that Hampton Roads Regional Jail has done an investigation into the claims by ‘inmates’ that the jail acted improperly towards Jamycheal and the jail has found all of those complaints unsubstantiated. So, what we are hearing here is, jail employees looked into the inmates’ complaints of abuse. Jail employees then determined that the inmates accusing jail employees of misconduct are lying. I can’t decide what part of that is stranger – the fact that the employees claim that no one’s complaints are valid or that the very staff the inmates were accusing of wrongdoing were the very people who questioned them.

In its statement, the Hampton Roads Regional Jail says that it contracts with an outside company to provide medical and mental health care and treatment to ‘inmates’. That means – you guessed it – Hampton Roads Regional Jail has no control over when Mr. Mitchell was to be evaluated by Eastern State Hospital and also implies his medical care was not their responsibility. This, in my opinion, is a pathetic attempt at shoving blame away. If the jail hired the company, they are responsible for ensuring that the people they are housing are being treated properly by that company.   I will, for the sake of argument, say that I agree with this disgraceful shirking of responsibility, even though I don’t.

Hampton Roads Regional Jail also is proud to say that a few weeks before his death, Mr. Mitchell went to the hospital for treatment because his legs were swollen. The jail quotes the hospital as recording that Mr. Mitchell was “well developed and well nourished”. This I find interesting, since an exam of the body revealed he died of ‘wasting’. Not only wasting, but he lost more than 10 percent of his body weight while he was there. Trying to imply that the young man was the picture of health, I would have thought would have been too low, but I guess not in the case of Hampton Roads Regional Jail.

Hampton Roads Regional Jail stated that it offered Mr. Mitchell 297 meals and he refused three of those. They also claim he was seen by medical and mental healthcare providers on 70 different occasions. What I have to say to that is – how can professionals looked at him on seventy occasions and not have raised hell to get him help? But that’s just me.

In closing, the statement issued by Hampton Roads Regional Jail says, “We do not intend to try this case in the press, but we are confident that the care and treatment we provide to all our inmates is appropriate and meets or exceeds both Virginia and National Standards.” I simply must say that I am biting my tongue reading that paragraph. For the love of God, what does that say about Virginia and National Standards?

I have read everything I can find on this. And – as I stated throughout – I am going to assume everything that the jail claims is true. There is still something missing though. I have not been able to find it. There is not one single word of remorse. Not one single acknowledgement that this kid died in their care and maybe they need to look at themselves a little closer.   Not one single word to the family. He died. He wasted away in front of your eyes and on your floor.   Jamycheal Mitchell was a person. Had a person starved to death locked in a room in my home, I would be in jail.  Where is the accountability?

REFERENCES

Earley, Pete. “VA. NAMI, Former IG, Local NAACP Call For Fed Probe Of Mentally Ill Prisoner’s Death From Starvation In Virginia – Pete Earley.” Pete Earley. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Aug. 2016.

Kleiner21, Sarah. “Report: Clerical Errors Preceded Death of Va. Man Jailed for Stealing Junk Food.” Richmond Times-Dispatch. N.p., 21 Mar. 2016. Web. 06 Aug. 2016.

LeBlanc, Deana. “Only On 10: Inmate Who Found Jamycheal Mitchell Dead Speaks out.” WAVYTV. N.p., 13 May 2016. Web. 06 Aug. 2016.

LeBlanc, Deanna. “Sheriff Responds after Inmates in Jamycheal Mitchell Lawsuit Claim Intimidation by Jail Staff.” WAVYTV. N.p., 22 June 2016. Web. 06 Aug. 2016.

Satchell, Emily. “Hampton Roads Regional Jail Releases Details on Jamycheal Mitchell’s Death.” WAVYTV. N.p., 24 June 2016. Web. 06 Aug. 2016.

Satchell, Emily. “State Police Open Criminal Investigation into Jamycheal Mitchell’s Death.” WAVYTV. N.p., 22 June 2016. Web. 06 Aug. 2016.

DOES DOC DISCOURAGE VISITATION?

The number of incarcerated in our country points to a problem on a grand scale. What’s harder to grasp than the numbers, is the reality that every single one of them is a person, a human being with a heart and soul. The tough on crime, tough on drugs policies, have led to nonviolent people living and dying behind bars. They are housed by the Department of Corrections within the states, or on a federal level. The name implies that something is being corrected, or fixed. It would make sense that encouraging inmates to maintain relationships with people who care about them on the outside would go hand in hand with that correction. It would make sense to help offenders remember what they have to look forward to on the outside. It would make sense to try and keep them from tumbling down the well of depression that so many fall into.

Inmates need visits from people who care about them. It’s often not a year behind bars. Or two. Or even five. Think about living five years without looking into the eyes of a loved one. Or simply the eyes of someone you trust. Five years looking over your shoulder. Five years without holding a hand. If it is the intent to ‘correct’ behavior, stable, supportive relationships should be encouraged. Keeping a foot in the world that an inmate is going back to one day, just makes sense. It’s shortsighted and ignorant to think otherwise. There is no argument to be made that someone feeling alone, uncared for, and forgotten will lead to improved behavior. Love heals. Compassion and touch trump disrespect and solitude.

Whether it be a son or sister, father or friend, inmates need the touch of a hand and words of encouragement. This is not about the crime, because often times they aren’t violent. Often times the punishment is overzealous. What I normally write about are the sentences that make no sense. That’s not what this is about. This is about compassion.   Having a heart for the suffering, depression, and loneliness of people that are often forgotten behind walls, hidden from our view, so we don’t have to acknowledge they exist.

I visit prison. I have been doing it for a while. I only recently realized just how I have come to feel about the experience though. I was walking up the steps to the door, when it occurred to me just how tense I was. I felt my defenses going up and mentally preparing myself for whatever employee I might face on the other side.   Would it be one that was going to ‘find’ something to send me away for, because that appeared to be the usual game they played?   Or maybe it would be the pleasant one, who I rarely saw, that followed the rules, but would say, “Have a nice visit.” Or, more likely than not, it would be the one that looked at you with contempt and seemed to thrive on making other people feel small. It also occurred to me that, if this was how these tax paid employees behaved in front of the public, could they possibly be even more disrespectful when there were no eyes watching them? Of course they are. An individual that has no respect for someone who is smiling at them, not a criminal and trying desperately to get their approval for a visit with their loved one, is not going to respect people who are at their mercy behind solid brick walls. Logic tells us that.

I can’t count the number of times I have visited prison.   I have come to expect disrespect. I have come to expect ugly. There isn’t a pretty word for it. The reality is, a smile is rare. I have been smiled at by a couple employees behind the desk. I remember their faces, and I miss them terribly, because I rarely see them. I’m not sure why the people who are responsible for checking us in don’t feel anything for the family members coming to see their loved ones. I have seen people travel to the prison from other countries. I have seen people who have driven for over ten hours, who can’t afford a hotel and have to get in their car and drive home when the visit is over. I have seen elderly parents, mothers with infants, and young children at an age when they find the entire process overwhelming. Nobody is expecting therapy or emotional support, but would it be so hard to dig deep and simply be kind. A little kindness could go so very far. Kindness travels so much further than ugly.

The disrespect and ugly attitudes aren’t all that you might run into when trying to visit a loved one in prison though. There are rules when you visit, and there should be.   The rules are meant to protect the prisoners and the employees. The rules aren’t always used that way though. Often times, heading into a visit, the rules are used to toy with the inmates and their visitor. I won’t even argue some points. I have seen babies – younger than one year old – sent away with the wrong color clothing, or no sleeves.   Maybe there is a logic to that. I suppose that having a set of rules that can’t be adjusted is okay in some situations. I suppose that it is fair to say that if we can’t train and educate employees well enough to know when their judgment can come into play, then it is okay to have rules that can’t be bent. I am not sure how a three month old wearing a solid khaki onesie or a sleeveless tee could threaten anything, but, for the sake of argument, let’s accept that rules can’t be bent.

Bending the rules is one thing, but using the rules to torment people is another.   I was sitting on a visit once, when I noticed ants crawling all over the person I had come to visit. Ants in the visiting room are common, and apparently we had gotten in their path. After knocking off as many as we could, we asked if we could move seats.   The answer was no. In a room with less than half of the seats filled, we could not change seats. That has happened to me on more than one visit. It would be too kind to allow us to move a couple empty seats over.

There are windows in the visiting room where I go. I have seen elderly visitors in seats with the sun blinding them, when they could easily move over a couple chairs and not have that problem, but they are not allowed to.

Where I visit, you are made to wait in a brick building with no air conditioning and call on a telephone to the lobby. You are not allowed to proceed to the lobby until they give you permission over the phone.   That is the system they have set up, and I am happy to follow those rules. More than once though, I have been told over the phone to proceed up to the building, and when I have arrived I have been scolded and treated as if I had broken the rules, and was not sent up.   There is one individual officer that seems very good at treating you as if you don’t deserve to be in the same room as her, and she has scolded me for showing up a few times. It is very odd, because in the year I was visiting prior to her sitting at the desk, I was never told to come up and then scolded when I did. But, apparently, this is the way that this officer likes to do things.

On another visit, I had been called up to the lobby, and on my way there, I passed a woman coming out. I had seen this woman on previous visits, and I knew she was familiar with the rules. She was covered from her ankles to her neck. Not a bit of cleavage and her dress hit her ankles. I would actually say she was dressed very conservatively. As she headed away, she told me they were going to turn me away. She said that they had turned her away. She was told the shape of her neckline was not allowed. It was a scoop neck. I was wearing a dress that also had the same neckline. Both of our necklines fell at least one and a half inches above cleavage, and our shoulders were not exposed in any way. I thought that she was surely wrong. I didn’t bring a change of clothes that day, because I was certain that what I was wearing followed all the rules. I had been visiting for over a year.   I walked into the lobby and saw the officer that liked to scold me.   She looked at me and said, ‘That is see through’. I knew I was dressed just fine, and had left home with my mother and children telling me I looked pretty. This officer wasn’t able to determine there was something wrong with my dress just by looking at me though. She told me to stand up against the glass door, with the sun blazing through the glass behind me, and said, ‘Yep, it’s see through. You can’t come in’. I went to the mall and bought another outfit. Not because I could afford it, because I couldn’t. But I couldn’t let my friend sit in that place, surrounded by people who don’t care about him and treat him like that woman treated me, without telling him hello and sharing a laugh before I made the hour long drive home.

My stories aren’t unusual. I have learned to not react to officers staring at you. I have learned that I need to always bring back up clothing in my car. I have learned that you don’t complain, because it will come back to haunt you on the next visit, or the person you came to visit. I have learned to expect disrespect and appreciate the rare glimpses of humanity. I have learned to bite my tongue. I have learned that right or wrong, what happens behind those walls is completely out of our hands. I have learned that wearing a badge in that environment gives you the right to treat people any way you want, because there isn’t anything anybody is going to do about it.

I reached out to hear other peoples’ stories. I hear them every time I am in the visiting room where I visit, but I wanted to hear from people further away. I heard of an eighty year old man that was turned away after driving six hours because he forgot to leave his wallet in the car. I heard of a woman who was singled out and made to rewrite her paperwork, because they didn’t like the way she checked the boxes. It reminded me of the time that I saw the woman in front of me make lines on her form, instead of checks. I decided to do it that way, and I was singled out, called up, scolded and told to fill out the paper again with checks. I heard over and over again not to complain, because it will only hurt your loved one.   I had already been told that on my very first visit when I had other visitors coaching me in the waiting area.   I heard of parents unable to get their inmate’s children in to see them. I heard one person sum up visiting in a way that struck me as right on target. He said, “the norm is to make the experience so bad that the visitor won’t come back.” The worst I heard was a woman’s experience when she had to ‘prove’ that she was menstruating by showing an officer her genitals, so she could be issued an approved sanitary napkin.   Sadder than that, was hearing that it wasn’t an isolated incident.

I have also heard from some people about the stress of the job on officers and how it affects them. What I have to say to that is, I am stressed also.   I am stressed for my nonviolent friends serving fifteen, and thirty and forty year sentences behind bars. I am stressed trying to make ends meet for my family. I am stressed at the overwhelming amount of dishonesty and lack of compassion in the world. But, I wake up every day, and I easily treat people with respect. I have never disrespected an officer, and I have been disrespected more times than I can count. I think it’s time to get a new job if you can’t handle the stress, or it’s time for the Department of Corrections to start enforcing standards of behavior in their employees.  But, don’t tell me that stress is an excuse to treat people like garbage.