kottke.org posts about prison

Portraits of Rikers Island inmatesJan 14 2014

Pencil portraits of young men and women incarcerated on Rikers Island by Ricardo Cortés.

Ricardo Cortes

Cortés wrote an essay about the portraits and his experience at Rikers.

The grossest irony is that increasing levels of imprisonment may exacerbate the very problems it is intended to solve. Imagine a drug-dealer, a check forger, a prostitute or a burglar who comes to Rikers. They're often leaving family behind, possibly as the primary breadwinner, breaking up a critical support network and causing measurable damage to spouses, siblings, parents and especially children. They're losing a job during their incarceration, thus falling further behind in bills, rent, and ultimately housing. They're being released after their stay with little treatment or prospects for a new job; their completed sentence may stain their record such that it's even harder to find employment. And they're back on the street with the same personal struggles of addiction, domestic abuse, health issues and difficulty in finding sustainable housing and legal employment. It's not hard to guess what happens next.

(via @jessicalustig)

The internet described by prisoners who have never seen itSep 05 2013

Justine Sharrock asked prisoners incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison to describe the internet. The men had just taken part in a program to help them reintegrate into society, and though they hadn't used the internet themselves, they had more of a theoretical understanding of it. Chrisfino Kenyatta Leal entered prison in 1994:

I envisioned the web to be like this infinite space filled with information about everything under the sun.

I was confused about how you got from one piece of info to the next and I was clueless in terms of the lingo used to describe it all...

The technical aspects of it make me go, Hmmmm? I realize everything is getting faster and moving toward mobile, so I often wonder about who's doing all this stuff and where is it all taking place?

How a convicted murderer prepares for a job interviewAug 01 2013

Sabine Heinlein follows several people through a post-prison jobs program to see how ex-convicts prepare for re-entry into the workforce.

In prison Angel thought that it wouldn't be too hard to find a job once he got out. He believed he had come a long way. At eighteen he hadn't been able to read or write. He wet his bed and suffered from uncontrollable outbursts of anger. At forty-seven he had studied at the college level. He told me he had read several thousand books. He earned numerous certificates while incarcerated -- a Vocational Appliance Repair Certificate, a Certificate of Proficiency of Computer Operator, a Certificate in Library Training, an IPA (Inmate Program Assistant) II Training Certificate, and several welding certifications -- but in the outside world these credentials counted for little.

"Irrelevant," Angel said. "They might as well be toilet paper."

This piece is the seventh chapter from Heinlein's book, Among Murderers: Life After Prison.

The Jewish prisonerMay 02 2013

In a piece published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, David Arenberg describes his experience as one of the very few Jews in the state prison in which he's currently incarcerated.

I am always the last person to eat. It's part of a compromise I worked out with the skinheads who run the western state prison complex where I am incarcerated. Under this compromise, I'm allowed to sit at the whites' tables, but only after the "heads," and then the "woods," and then the "lames" have eaten. I am lower on the totem pole than all of them, the untouchable. I should feel lucky I'm allowed to eat at the whites' tables at all.

Not that there's anywhere else I could eat. The prison yard is broken down into five distinct racial categories and segregation is strictly enforced. There are the "woods" (short for peckerwoods) that encompass the whites, the "kinfolk" (blacks), the "Raza" (American-born people of Mexican descent), the "paisas" (Mexico-born Mexicans), and the "chiefs" (American Indians). Under the strict rules that govern interracial relations, different races are allowed to play on the same sports teams but not play individual games (e.g., chess) together; they may be in each others' cubicles together if the situation warrants but not sit on each others' beds or watch each others' televisions. They may go to the same church services but not pray together. But if you accidentally break one of these rules, the consequences are usually pretty mild: you might get a talking to by one of the heads (who, of course, claims exemption from this rule himself), or at worst, a "chin check."

Eating with another race, however, is a different story. It is an inviolate rule that different races may not break bread together under any circumstances. Violating this rule leads to harsh consequences. If you eat at the same table as another race, you'll get beaten down. If you eat from the same tray as another race, you'll be put in the hospital. And if you eat from the same food item as another race, that is, after another race has already taken a bite of it, you can get killed. This is one area where even the heads don't have any play.

US prison population on the declineJan 04 2013

A wee bit of good news about American prisons for a change: after rising each year since the mid-1970s, the US incarceration rate has declined each of the past three years.

Prison Stats 2012

I hereby submit my nomination for the most underreported public policy story of the past year: The continuing decline in the number of Americans who are behind bars or on probation/parole. Both the change itself and low level of attention it has garnered are worthy of reflection.

At the time of President Obama's inauguration, the incarceration rate in the United States had been rising every single year since the mid 1970s. The relentless growth in the proportion of Americans behind bars had persisted through good economic times and bad, Republican and Democratic Presidents, and countless changes in state and local politics around the country.

If a public policy trend with that much momentum had even slowed significantly, it would have been merited attention, but something far more remarkable occurred: The incarceration rate and the number of people under correctional supervision (i.e., including people on probation/parole) declined for three years in a row. At the end of 2011, the proportion of people under correctional supervision returned to a level not seen since the end of the Clinton Administration.

Commenters over at Marginal Revolution dug into the report a bit more and the decline may have a lot to do with things like state budget cuts and less to do with things like fewer/shorter prison sentences.

Guantanamo Bay a black stain on AmericaJan 09 2012

Lakhdar Boumediene was imprisoned in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp for seven years on no charge and with no trial.

On Wednesday, America's detention camp at Guantanamo Bay will have been open for 10 years. For seven of them, I was held there without explanation or charge. During that time my daughters grew up without me. They were toddlers when I was imprisoned, and were never allowed to visit or speak to me by phone. Most of their letters were returned as "undeliverable," and the few that I received were so thoroughly and thoughtlessly censored that their messages of love and support were lost.

This is deeply deeply shameful.

The Stanford prison experiment, 40 years laterJul 11 2011

For the Stanford alumni magazine, Romesh Ratnesar interviewed some of the participants of the Stanford prison experiment for the 40th anniversary of the event. Here's Philip Zimbardo, the leader of the study:

After the end of the first day, I said, "There's nothing here. Nothing's happening." The guards had this antiauthority mentality. They felt awkward in their uniforms. They didn't get into the guard mentality until the prisoners started to revolt. Throughout the experiment, there was this conspiracy of denial-everyone involved was in effect denying that this was an experiment and agreeing that this is a prison run by psychologists.

There was zero time for reflection. We had to feed the prisoners three meals a day, deal with the prisoner breakdowns, deal with their parents, run a parole board. By the third day I was sleeping in my office. I had become the superintendent of the Stanford county jail. That was who I was: I'm not the researcher at all. Even my posture changes-when I walk through the prison yard, I'm walking with my hands behind my back, which I never in my life do, the way generals walk when they're inspecting troops.

(via @tylercowen)

What's prison like?Oct 15 2010

This is a fascinating post made by a man who has just gotten out of prison after serving two years for armed robbery. This is a bit rough in spots, so reader beware.

I joked to my cell mate on the first day that at least the GFC [global financial crisis] couldn't fuck us inside. He'd been done for assaulting a cop when his house got taken by the bank. But within months 'GFC Nigger' became the standard reply to any query as to how black market prices were suddenly going through the roof. The price of a deck of smokes tripled. There was an actual economic reason about this. I went away in Michigan, where a lot of people lost their houses, mostly poor people already. When they had to move away from the prison, it meant they couldn't bring their loved ones as much contraband group, which meant the price of what there was sky rocketed. And the worse things got, the more the people who worked in the store would wonk and take home with them, which meant stocks ran low which fucked us even further.

Bet you didn't read about that one in the Wall Street Journal.

Some over at MetaFilter think this is fake, so grain of salt and all that. (via waxy)

Twenty-nine years aloneSep 27 2010

Robert King spent 29 years in prison in solitary confinement for a crime for which he was later cleared.

It was a dimly lit box, 9ft by 6ft, with bars at the front facing on to the bare cement walls of a long corridor. Inside was a narrow bed, a toilet, a fixed table and chair, and an air vent set into the back wall.

Some days I would pace up and down and from left to right for hours, counting to myself. I learned to know every inch of the cell. Maybe I looked crazy walking back and forth like some trapped animal, but I had no choice -- I needed to feel in control of my space.

See also Atul Gawande's piece about solitary from the New Yorker last year.

Did Texas execute an innocent man?Sep 03 2009

Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted of intentionally starting a fire that killed his three children, sentenced to death, and after many failed appeals, executed by lethal injection. Now it appears that the investigators who made determination of arson were acting more like forensic mystics than forensic scientists in making their decision. The state of Texas may have executed an innocent man.

In recent years, though, questions have mounted over whether the system is fail-safe. Since 1976, more than a hundred and thirty people on death row have been exonerated. DNA testing, which was developed in the eighties, saved seventeen of them, but the technique can be used only in rare instances. Barry Scheck, a co-founder of the Innocence Project, which has used DNA testing to exonerate prisoners, estimates that about eighty per cent of felonies do not involve biological evidence.

In 2000, after thirteen people on death row in Illinois were exonerated, George Ryan, who was then governor of the state, suspended the death penalty. Though he had been a longtime advocate of capital punishment, he declared that he could no longer support a system that has "come so close to the ultimate nightmare-the state's taking of innocent life." Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has said that the "execution of a legally and factually innocent person would be a constitutionally intolerable event."

Update: John Jackson, the prosecutor in the Willingham case, has written an op-ed piece for the Cosicana Daily Sun in which he defends the court's guilty verdict, despite what he calls an "undeniably flawed forensic report".

The Willingham case was charged as a multiple child murder, and not an arson-murder to achieve capital status. I am convinced that in the absence of any arson testimony, the outcome of the trial would have been unchanged, a fact that did not escape the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

David Grann, the author of the New Yorker article referenced above, responds briefly to Jackson's assertions.

But even if he refused to take a polygraph after he was arrested, polygraphs are notoriously unreliable, and are not admissible in a court of law. [...] As a result, defense attorneys routinely do not let their clients take polygraphs. [...] The idea that a lie-detector test (or the refusal to take one) could be considered evidence cuts to the core of the problems in the Willingham case: a reliance on unreliable and unsound scientific techniques.

Jackson's belief that Willingham should have (whether he would have is another story) been convicted even in the absence of evidence of arson borders on parody and would be funny if it weren't so obscene coming, as it does, from a sitting judge. If it's not arson, how do you have a murder? If the fire killed the kids and he didn't set the fire, how is he responsible? It's fucking absurd.

Update: From the Texas Department of Criminal Justice web site, the last statement of Cameron Todd Willingham:

Yeah. The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man - convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do. From God's dust I came and to dust I will return - so the earth shall become my throne. I gotta go, road dog. I love you Gabby. [Remaining portion of statement omitted due to profanity.]

(thx, rick)

Update: More evidence emerges of Willingham's innocence: a jailhouse informant admits to lying on the stand in exchange for a reduced sentence and money.

Since Willingham was executed in 2004, officials have continued to defend the account of the informer, Johnny E. Webb, even as a series of scientific experts have discredited the forensic evidence that Willingham might have deliberately set the house fire in which his toddlers were killed.

But now new evidence has revived questions about Willingham's guilt: In taped interviews, Webb, who has previously both recanted and affirmed his testimony, gives his first detailed account of how he lied on the witness stand in return for efforts by the former prosecutor, John H. Jackson, to reduce Webb's prison sentence for robbery and to arrange thousands of dollars in support from a wealthy Corsicana rancher. Newly uncovered letters and court files show that Jackson worked diligently to intercede for Webb after his testimony and to coordinate with the rancher, Charles S. Pearce Jr., to keep the mercurial informer in line.

Solitary social animalsMar 24 2009

Atul Gawande branches out from his usual excellent writing on medicine and turns his attention to solitary confinement in America's prison system. Gawande likens extended solitary time to torture.

This is the dark side of American exceptionalism. With little concern or demurral, we have consigned tens of thousands of our own citizens to conditions that horrified our highest court a century ago. Our willingness to discard these standards for American prisoners made it easy to discard the Geneva Conventions prohibiting similar treatment of foreign prisoners of war, to the detriment of America's moral stature in the world. In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary confinement-on our own people, in our own communities, in a supermax prison, for example, that is a thirty-minute drive from my door.

This likely will not change until Americans start to believe that rehabilitation and not punishment is the primary goal of prisons. So, probably never.

Air Giulianis, NYC prison sneakersDec 02 2008

From an article about a collection of businesses located near Riker's Island, this tidbit: the inmates refer to the prison-issued orange sneakers as Air Giulianis. Also:

The food truck man, Mr. Samolis, said he often gives free food to inmates who are released from Rikers with no money.

"They get released at 6 in the morning with nothing but a $2 MetroCard the jail gives them," he said. "So I'll give them a coffee and an egg sandwich, on credit. I know they're never going to pay it back, but I feel bad for them."

(thx, jake)

Cans of mackerel are prison currencyOct 07 2008

In the US federal prison system, cans of mackerel have replaced outlawed cigarettes as the de facto form of currency.

"It's the coin of the realm," says Mark Bailey, who paid Mr. Levine in fish. Mr. Bailey was serving a two-year tax-fraud sentence in connection with a chain of strip clubs he owned. Mr. Levine was serving a nine-year term for drug dealing. Mr. Levine says he used his macks to get his beard trimmed, his clothes pressed and his shoes shined by other prisoners. "A haircut is two macks," he says, as an expected tip for inmates who work in the prison barber shop.

See also the economics of POW camps.

How To Survive in Prison as anFeb 04 2008

How To Survive in Prison as an Innocent Man Convicted of a Sex Crime, written by an innocent man convicted of a sex crime. This is an odd article, at once full of good advice, hints of mental instability, and defensiveness. In a section outlining the importance of regular exercise, he suddenly switches gears to:

Not only do we prisoners have to stick together, but we men must also join forces in our fight against feminism.

Exercise regularly, keep healthy, stay away from drugs, and keep your mind sharp. And ps, down with the feminists!! (via cyn-c)

Design Observer has a slideshow of various (Jul 31 2006

Design Observer has a slideshow of various (and ingenious) prison shivs collected by Chris Kasabach and Vanessa Sica.

Steve makes prison wine out of moldyJul 08 2005

Steve makes prison wine out of moldy bread, ketchup, grape juice, raisins, garbage bags, and tube socks. "It's hard to believe this started out as a bag of fruit snacks and grape juice. Yet somehow these ingredients went from sweet and child-like to harsh and alcoholic quicker than Lindsay Lohan."

Tags related to prison:
crime Atul Gawande

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