A Corrections System Designed To Fail

Currently, this country warehouses more people in prison than any other nation in the world.   That sounds like a failure. The Department of Corrections in the United States of America is a failure. Failing at something doesn’t mean we should pretend the problem doesn’t exist. Failing is an opportunity to acknowledge what is wrong, make it right, and potentially become great.

This country is over incarcerated.   In some cases, as with mandatory minimums and no possibility of parole, there is no mercy. People are simply waiting and sometimes praying to die. We give incentives to businesses and prosecutors to keep people locked up. Parole boards show no compassion, as in Alabama. Our public defenders often present less than half hearted legal arguments. Profits are being made on the lives of prisoners, and it’s only too easy for the public at large to turn a blind eye.

Until the system itself is improved, what is being done with the estimated 2.5 million people being hidden from sight? There is a perverse and demoralizing climate within the walls of our jails and prisons. It seems the outcome of incarceration is often a broken spirit, with no reason left to trust those in authority and often no hope of a bright future. It is a system that is currently designed to fail. It will continue to fail unless training, education and accountability is put into place for those working in corrections, from the top down. Nobody cares about prisoner reviews or complaints, as prisoners themselves are viewed as less than human. Complaints voiced by the incarcerated or their families are often rewarded with treatment meant to stop the complaints.

There isn’t a person or story I have heard that deviates from this reality. The stories range from those too hard for people to share with me to those that may seem trivial to some, but are all a display of the complete disregard for those that are jailed.

I was reading an article from 2013 about sexual misconduct cases in West Virginia jails. There were several quotes from the executive Director of the state’s Regional Jails Authority, Joe Delong. The quotes speak for themselves, displaying the mindset of our current system. While assuring the public that cameras, training and surveillance was being implemented to improve the excessive number of sexual misconduct cases, he also said several things regarding how the situation became this way.

Mr. Delong was quoted as saying, “It certainly is an ongoing challenge. In a lot of cases you have very young, not far out of high school correctional officers who are working late at night in environments with seasoned criminals.” When reading this, I wondered if Mr. Delong ever made any excuses for the ‘seasoned criminals’ or had any sympathy for them and the fact that they were all once very young and not far out of high school. I wondered if he had a daughter. I wondered if he could hear himself speak. So, are we to feel sympathetic for an officer having sex with an inmate, consensual or not, because the officer is young, innocent and a victim of seasoned criminal?

Mr. Delong didn’t stop there. He was also quoted as saying, “Unfortunately, there are times that they are able to get our officers to do things that are inappropriate.” Yes, that is what he said.

The state’s own laws are clear. Inmates can never give consent for sexual activity with corrections officers. The burden of not having sex with the incarcerated does not lie on the shoulders of the jailed. It is beyond ironic that Mr. Delong also said, “There’s the old saying about people in glass houses.”

I am not naïve. There are bad people in this world. There are people who do bad things and will continue to do them.   There are good people who make bad decisions. There are addicts who are often not able to make any good decisions. There are people who are simply wrongly convicted. There are people under the age of twenty five who make ignorant choices that are not a reflection of their character. Treating people, whoever they are, with respect, will not bring about more crime. Crimes that are going to be committed will be committed, but exercising a level of humanity and respect will not create more crime.

I was told a story of a woman in custody in a West Virginia jail. She was one of several women who altered their hair style.   I was told these women shaved a patch of their hair underneath their longer hair.

So, what should the punishment be for altering your hair style? In a system that’s purpose is to reform, correct, and improve behavior before releasing people back into society, what should the punishment be? My child once cut his own hair. He was in first grade. It never occurred to me to shave his head bald. I would never have injured his self confidence like that. It never entered my mind to do something that degrading to him.

The women who altered their hair styles were given a choice.   Go into isolation or shave their heads. Whatever their crimes, where is the wisdom in that?  What does that accomplish? The climate in corrections is one of demoralizing people. Yes – these women may never alter their hairstyle again. Maybe that was accomplished.   Will it make them more confident? Will it give them a reason to respect authority?

These are the actions of the Corrections Officers at the bottom of the chain of command. At the top, we have a man quoted implying that the victims of sexual misconduct in the care of his jails are in some way responsible for that sexual misconduct. Officers are rarely held accountable. They are held accountable when they are caught, when somebody notices. That is why the system tries its best to keep eyes from reaching the inside.

As it turned out, the women who refused to shave their heads did not go into isolation. In the end, that was simply an empty threat in a game that had the losers ending up with no hair.

 

REFERENCES

Harold, Zach. “Claims of Sexual Misconduct at Prisons, Jails Costing W. Va. Millions.” N.p., n.d. Web.              

“Who, What, Where and Why.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 14 Mar. 2014. Web. 06 Nov. 2016.           

                       

‘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!

Nonviolent Addict Sentenced To Life Without Parole

Drug addiction isn’t pretty. It’s easier for people to deny its existence than to try and wrap their heads around it. I’ve given it a little thought today.   I tried to imagine the struggle. I think it may feel something like being in dark hole with no walls in sight to climb your way out. What makes seemingly young, healthy people keep falling deeper into the hole? Is it a cycle of self-loathing? Unhappiness with one’s own life has someone looking to something for happiness, but once the chemicals take hold, do they hate themselves a little more each time they succumb, because they are faced with their own weakness? Over and over, digging deeper and deeper, and the deeper they go, the further they find themselves from their ability to find happiness within themselves?

I don’t think I’ll figure it out. I’m grateful I’ve never fought the battle. I’ve seen loved ones go through it though. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone fully conquer it. My father was an alcoholic, and he never conquered his addiction. I’ve loved and known others, with their various poisons. I’ve seen what they do in their darkness.   They’ve stolen from loved ones in moments of weakness, only to realize it when clarity returns. The result only makes them feel further isolated and alone, having betrayed the ones they love.

Addiction is pain, plain and simple. In its simplest explanation, that’s what it is. I read about Rayvell Finch today. He was an addict, the same as those I have known and loved. He hadn’t been in trouble for a while. Just a victim of his own disease. Hurting himself, but not violent with anybody else. He was with a friend one day in Louisiana, while visiting his aunt and grandmother. The two were sitting on the steps of an abandoned house right next door.

There was a police officer and DEA agent patrolling the area to target violent crime that day. They saw Rayvell and his friend, and arrested him for trespassing. Rayvell was a heroin addict. The officers found eight aluminum foil packets in his sock. They tested positive for the drug.

At the age of 23, Rayvell Finch had no record of any violence. A few years earlier he had been convicted of possession of stolen property worth over $500, followed a year later by being charged with possession with intent to distribute 24 rocks of crack cocaine. This was Rayvell’s third strike.

That was in 1997, nearly twenty years ago. Rayvell was sentenced to spend the rest of his natural life behind bars. In other words, the door was shut, the key thrown away, and no one ever has to see him again. No possibility of parole. That’s one way to deal with addiction.

Are we so shallow that we have become a society that locks away the weak and damaged till they die, so we don’t have to see them? Rayvell paid for his previous crimes. Because he was an addict, and had his drugs in his sock that day, Rayvell was sentenced to spend the rest of his days on earth in prison, without love or family around him, until he dies alone. I don’t know the law, and I don’t know the words they used to justify it, but that is the reality of the outcome.

RESOURCES:

Wishon, Jennifer. “Nation of Criminals: Three Strikes on the Way Out.” N.p., n.d. Web.                          

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.           

Should Not Taking a Plea Cost You Your Life?

Was Travion Blount sentenced to six life sentences plus 118 years because he killed someone? No. In my opinion, he was given six life sentences because he dared to go to trial. Travion did not accept a plea. If our justice system was meant to be ‘just’, Travion would not have received six life sentences, plus over 100 years more than the other two participants in the same crime. The other two each pled guilty and did not go to trial. One received ten years and the other received thirteen years.

Travion was involved in an armed robbery with two of his friends. He was the youngest of the three, at fifteen. The older boys were eighteen years old, and one of them struck a victim in the head. Otherwise, no one was injured in the crime.

All in a day’s work, a judge handed down six life sentences plus 118 years. People are fighting for Travion, but he still sits in prison. The robbery took place nearly ten years ago, in September, 2006. As of today, his release date is listed as November 13, 2043. I suppose that is an improvement from six life sentences plus 118 years, but it isn’t just.

From the first time I contacted Travion, he has never failed to ask me how I am doing. He asks me about my life and family. He tells me about his. He tells me about classes and programs he is trying to take or has taken. He has said more than once, he tries to stay ‘out the way’. He says he’s waiting, but it’ll work out. He doesn’t get to see his family much, not because they don’t want to see him, but because the state placed him in a prison on the other side of the state from them. Travelling that far is not only a challenge, it is also very expensive. In spite of that, Travion stays positive in the face of all that is negative.

Usually, I only read of support for Travion, but every now and then I will read an ugly comment about crime and ‘doing the time’. When I read those, I have to wonder how someone gets to a place in life where they feel there is no place for mercy in this world. Travion was only a kid when he was told there would be no second chance for him. His life was over. Yet, every letter I get from him includes, ‘how’s your family?’ or ‘how are you?’ He tells me things will work out. He doesn’t complain. He doesn’t ask for anything.   He thanks me for caring. If I could talk to the man who sentenced him to six life sentences plus 118 years, I would have to simply ask him, ‘why?’

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.

Mentally Ill Boy Dies While On Suicide Watch

There is a family in Virginia whose last memories of their son and brother are in a jail’s visitation room. Lutalo Octave was feeling more like himself that day. Enough like himself that he was processing the things he had done to land himself in jail. Lutalo Octave was charged with arson for burning his family’s house down. No one was in the home at the time. It was while he was in jail that he was diagnosed with Schizophreniform, a mental disorder. The family’s story was chronicled in the Richmond Times Dispatch.

Lutalo wasn’t violent. The photo of him in the paper is angelic, and from all accounts I have read, he was a sweet, thoughtful kid who liked video games, played a tuba and was a lifeguard. He wasn’t hurtful. He could have been my boy. He could have been the boy next door. He could have had a future. Life had different things in store for him though.

Something went a little wrong in Lutalo’s mind. It wasn’t a choice, no more than someone chooses to get cancer. He went off to college and a wire got crossed somewhere in his brain. I suppose no one will ever know the trigger.   It could have been destined from birth, or maybe there was some sort of environmental factor.   All that is known is that Lutalo changed. I always heard that if you raise your kids right, they will find their way back if they veer off course. Lutalo didn’t have a choice to find his way back. He had an illness. An illness that had him battling within his own head.

It’s not easy to get help if your adult child has a mental illness in this country. Often times there is nothing you can do once they turn eighteen, unless they harm themselves or others. You’re helpless. You watch. You try to make sense of it. You struggle with searching for ways to help. You try to piece together logical solutions to a problem that doesn’t follow a logical pattern. It’s like fighting a fire with a water pistol, but the hardest part is that the fire is trying to engulf your kid.

Lutalo left college. He lost his job. He was not acting himself, not because he wanted to be someone else, rather because his mind wasn’t working properly. His family could only watch in frustration. Forcing someone with a mental illness to seek help, is often a losing battle. They can’t see what you see. They don’t recognize their own illness. You wouldn’t lay a newborn baby in the arms of a mentally ill person, because they aren’t always capable of handling the responsibility. It isn’t that they wish to harm anyone. They are no more capable of making healthy choices for themselves than they would be for a baby.  But our system doesn’t take into account that an eighteenth birthday doesn’t cure mental illness.  You can’t force help on a mentally ill adult, unless they have already harmed someone. So, Lutalo’s family could only watch.

Lutalo’s illness sometimes showed up in the form of fire starting. Again, his family was unable to get anyone to help. Then he burned the house down. Lutalo was charged with arson and taken to jail. The tender hearted, book reading, video playing musician was taken into custody. He wasn’t taken to a hospital or a mental health facility. He was taken to jail. And, although the mom in me knows that Lutalo’s parents knew he didn’t belong in jail, I would imagine that, for a moment, they were able to breath, and think that he was in a safe place until they could get him moved to a treatment facility. That is what I would have been thinking, if I had never been exposed to our criminal justice system.

Lutalo’s illness may not have been curable, but it was treatable. Lutalo was diagnosed with schizophreniform disorder while at the jail. He was also placed on suicide watch after saying he had nothing to live for.

I have learned all my life that if you have something that belongs to someone else, you take better care of it than you would your own. I would like to think that goes for human beings as well. Lutalo was in the care of a jail. They took him into custody for a crime committed because of an illness that he would never have chosen to have. No one would choose schizophrenia.

Lutalo ended up taking his life in a jail cell. He was by himself. There was a metal shelf on the wall in his cell. He was supplied with a sheet. There was a broken camera in the room. There was also a functioning camera that could record only part of the room. I have to wonder if the person who was supposed to be monitoring the cameras had any concerns that one of the devices was not working. I would think that a camera meant to monitor someone on suicide watch should be operating. If it were my child, I would want it working.

Excuses can be made. Arguments can be said that there are staffing issues or funding issues. Excuses and arguments are why our criminal justice system is what it is today. It’s time to say it’s broken. It needs to be fixed. The time for excuses and arguments has passed. The system needs to be fixed, and it needs compassion to be one of its cornerstones. When the sun goes down, Lutalo’s family has to deal with the memories of his sweet face. They have to relive the last day they saw him when he was just their lost son and brother, wanting so desperately to come home with them. They had to watch him walk away from them at that visitation. They have to relive that over and over. That kind of pain leaves no room for excuses and arguments.

REFERENCES

Kleiner, Sarah, and Burnell Evans. “Henrico County Family Watches Helplessly as Ambitious Teenager Spirals into Darkness.” Richmond Times-Dispatch. N.p., 15 July 2016. Web. 31 July 2016.

Kleiner, Sarah, and Burnell Evans. “Part 2: Mentally Ill Man Threatens Suicide, Then given a Cell with a Sheet and a Shelf.” Richmond Times-Dispatch. N.p., 15 July 2016. Web. 31 July 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.