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Bobby and the Supremes

A prison visitation park is not a park at all. Just a cinder block room packed with folding tables and chairs. Maybe a box of dirty and well-used toys in the corner, a couple of 80s-era microwaves. But it’s the place to be on the weekends. Who wouldn’t want to hug their momma or steal kisses from their old lady or play with their kids? These connections are vital. They remind us that we are human in an increasingly savage world. Plus it’s nice to get away from the fights and stabbings and squawking PA system and just be with family, mask off.

Unfortunately, not many people in here get visits. Some are too far from home and the trip is too expensive or they burned too many bridges on the way in. Others had the years whittle away their remaining loved ones until they found themselves alone. There are roughly 900 inmates in the gated community where I reside and maybe ten are in the visitation park with any regularity. Twenty on Christmas. Some of them I know from other prisons. Their mommas and wives have stood in line with my momma and braved the weather, the pat searches, and the ever-changing rules of the Department of Corrections for close to three decades.

This is how I met Bobby.

He used to come and visit his son J, who is serving a natural life sentence for felony murder. J didn’t kill anyone, but he was party to a crime where shit went bad and a codefendant snapped and did the unthinkable. By 2008, Bobby and his wife had sold their home and pretty much everything else they owned to pay attorney fees. J had exhausted all of his post-conviction remedies. Natural life. He accepted his fate but his family would not. They remain vocal opponents of the felony murder law. Both parents have spent a few afternoons rallying for change on the Capitol steps.

Bobby is a good old boy who lived on the Blackwater River and claimed to have done time himself at Raiford back in the day. His narrow views on race and religion and the world are consistent with the views of other rural white Southerners his age. I don’t hold this against him. People are more than their fears and insecurities. Bobby was a product of his times. I still remember his face when I tried to convince him and his wife to vote for Obama. “I ain’t voting for that socialist…” He may have used a couple other descriptive words as well. This led to a vigorous debate on presidential politics and who represented who.

My position, then and now, is that the only power a president wields that directly effects state prisoners is the ability to appoint Justices to the Supreme Court and judges to the lower appellate courts. That’s it. And for prisoners and their loved ones, whose hopes rest on future rulings of this court, it’s all that matters. It transcends race, supersedes party affiliation, and nullifies petty grievances. A couple years ago, my Christian nieces didn’t understand when I spoke out against Trumpโ€™s SCOTUS appointees. For them, abortion is a major issue. For my second amendment buddies, itโ€™s guns. I get it. And I respect their conviction. Climate change, affirmative action, a robust military, national debt, nuclear nonproliferation, transgender bathroom laws… These are all complex issues that voters must grapple with, but they’re not my issue. I’m trying to get my friends home.

I once read a case where conservative Justices Scalia and Thomas said that a prisoner in Louisiana who got his teeth kicked out by guards in a confinement unit at Angola could not seek punitive damages. This is not the exception; this is the tradition. The conservative wing of the court is extremely consistent when it comes to ruling against prisoners, while liberal justices tend to have a more human rights-oriented monocle through which they read and decide cases. If you ever get the chance, read Justice Sotomayor’s masterful dissenting opinion in Jones v. Mississippi, where the conservative majority shot down the possibility of parole for a young man who was 15 when he committed his crime.

I was thinking about Bobby in 2016 when there was an empty seat on the Supreme Court (because the senate majority refused to hold confirmation hearings on Obama’s pick until after the election). During this time there was bipartisan momentum for criminal justice reform. Crime was at a record low and the war on drugs was in a death spiral. For all her warts, if Hillary wins that election she gets to fill not only that opening but also two more during her term. Plus hundreds of open federal seats across the nation. Instead, the biggest upset in the history of American politics occurs and Donald Trump goes on to stock the courts with a record number of young conservative judges who will shape the landscape of the judicial system for years to come. His appointees were former prosecutors by a whopping 10:1 ratio over former defense attorneys. This was obviously horrible for prisoners.

Equally depressing is the fact that violent crime is once again rearing its ugly head. It was a matter of time. Between the opioid epidemic, extreme poverty, and the merging of gang culture with the entertainment industry, no one I know is really surprised. Tough-on-crime politicians are already dusting off their old speeches. Prison profiteers are salivating over the financial possibilities. Here’s what you should know: America is already tough as nails on crime. We are the worldโ€™s leading incarcerator. I’m sure you’ve heard the numbers. We make up 5% of the worldโ€™s population, yet 25% of the worldโ€™s prisoners are caged right here in the land of the free. Getting tougher on crime will only spend more tax dollars to build more prisons that teach people how to be professional criminals. What America needs is a mechanism in the penal system where men and women can earn their way home. Back into the communities that need these reformed mothers and fathers to take up their places in the families they left behind. If their kids are already lost, maybe they can reach their grandkids. The bleeding has to stop somewhere.

Enter Biden. During his first year in the White House, the world watched as desperate Afghans hung from American planes in the botched pullout of our twenty-year war. I think even his most staunch supporters would agree that he gets a triple F minus on his handling of that situation. No other way to spin it. Same goes for the lack of a coherent policy on the southern border. And inflation. And gas prices… Little fires everywhere. He’s had his successes too. Infrastructure, plummeting unemployment, keeping his promise to lower the national temperature. But I’ve got to give it to the old man. He knocked it out the proverbial park with his Supreme Court nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson.

The fact that she’s the first black female appointed to the highest court in the land is obviously monumental. Volumes will be written about this. But the honorable Judge Jackson is also a Miami native with relatives in prison and in law enforcement. She has a firm grasp of the state of Florida and its broken criminal justice system. For prisoners and the families of prisoners, this is astroseismic. More importantly, she’s a former public defender. This means she’s actually been inside jails and prisons to meet with clients who could not afford counsel. A life sentence is not some abstract idea to her. And by the way, she’s not just any public defenderโ€”she’s the first public defender nominated to the Supreme Court. Ever.

The typical path to a judgeship is to be a prosecutor or work for some big law firm. Then with a little luck and the right connections, you might get tapped. Public defenders and civil rights lawyers are generally left out in the cold for these positions. Of the 880 federal appeals court judges in the US, a whopping 318 are former prosecutors. More than a third. As opposed to the 58 former public defenders who make up 7% of all judges. When PDs do get nominated, they are usually grilled about their ability to be impartial. As if their prosecutorial counterparts are beacons of truth and light who put justice ahead of their coveted conviction rates. No need to inquire into their impartiality. Right. For those keeping score at home, three of the nine current Supreme Court justices are former prosecutors: Alito, Gorsuch, and Sotomayor. The Biden administration appears determined to address this disproportion as he continues to nominate more public defenders than prosecutors for all federal judgeships for the first time in history. Time will tell.

I heard Bobby died a few years ago but I haven’t been able to substantiate the rumor. I hope not. I would love to be able to talk smack to him when none other than Ketanji Brown Jackson authors some future majority opinion that renders his boy’s life sentence unconstitutional and sends him home.

It’s not as far-fetched as it was a couple years ago. A glimmer of hope has arrived. Her name is Ketanji Brown Jackson. And it’s officialโ€”she’s Supreme.

Dead end kids, Lifetime bids

Who were you at age 15? Do you remember that kid? Were you a wild child? Did you ever skip school, or sneak out, or play mailbox baseball? Did you experiment with drugs? Who did you love with your teenage heart? Was it that all-consuming apocalyptic brand of high school love? Where is that person now?

I can no more imagine myself into the head of 15-year-old me than I can imagine my 47-year-old body in his parachute pants. We are two different people. One of us has grown, evolved, failed, rebounded, loved, lost, lived. The other is a little hard-headed know-it-all. Loaded with potential but not there yet. He’s just a kid.

Kids are impressionable. They follow crowds. They want to be cool. They want to fit in. And without solid and consistent leadership, they are easily led astray, sometimes never to return.

My world is full of kids serving life sentences. From baby-faced 18-year-olds just starting out, to men in their fifties who have been locked up since the advent of the internet. Barring some miracle, they will all die in prison for something they did when they were childrenโ€ฆ for impulsive choices made when their brains were not yet fully formed. And an 18-year-old brain is by no means fully formed. I doubt there is a neuroscientist alive who would debate this. Many believe that age 25 is a more realistic mile marker between adolescence and adulthood, especially in males.

Unfortunately, the United States Supreme Court cares nothing about neuroscience. In a recent decision that split justices 6-3 along ideological lines, the court ruled that minors don’t need to be found “permanently incorrigible” before being sentenced to life without parole. Ironically, it was Justice Kavanaugh who wrote the majority’s opinion, a guy who knows a thing or two about youthful indiscretions.

But the Supreme Court doesn’t make laws. That responsibility falls on the legislature. You’d think that between reform-oriented liberals who at least strive to create the illusion of compassion, and fiscally responsible conservatives who understand that you can’t have “small government” with a gluttonous criminal justice system bursting at the seams, common sense laws might be passed. Especially when it comes to kids and life sentences.

Nope.

Not down here in the South, at least. Our politicians are either too fearful of appearing soft on crime or too busy lining their pockets with the campaign contributions of prison profiteers to do the right thing. There are exceptions. Republican Jeff Brandes for instance. He seems to understand that prisoners and the families of prisoners are citizens of Florida too. And that if anyone can be rehabilitated, it’s our youth. But every legislative session, his innovative ideas die on the House floor.

America remains the world’s leading incarceratorโ€”25% of planet Earthโ€™s prisoners are caged right here in the U.S. Yet our nation only accounts for 5% of the world’s 8 billion inhabitants. Think about those numbers for a minute. Such a staggering statistic for a country that prides itself on being the land of the free. In order to shake this dubious distinction and relinquish it to China or Russia or some other authoritarian government where it belongs, our lawmakers must take an honest look at our outdated and draconian criminal justice system. What better starting point than the kids we’ve been throwing away.

There is no them, only us.

Fixing a broken prison system

An inside perspective…

Part 11ย – Not long after I began working on this series, I noticed an interoffice memo in the shakedown room at the visitation park at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution, dated July 2015. It stated something to the effect of “The culture of abuse that has plagued and permeated the Florida D.O.C. for decades will no longer be toleratedโ€ฆ” The memo was signed by the newly tapped secretary, Julie Jones, the first female to head the department in its 150-year history.

It was ironic reading a memo like this at Santa Rosa Main Unit. The place where the show Lock Up was filmed, where close management wings are painted with slogans like “No guns. Just guts. Toughest beat in the state.” And the sidewalks are stained with inmates’ blood.

I did what I assume most other convicts did โ€“ as well as tenured employees from sergeants to wardens to regional directors when they saw this memo. I smirked. Did this lady really believe she could eradicate the systemic evil and good ol’ boy modus operandi of the D.O.C. with a mere memo? Unlikely. The culture of abuse she cited was as Floridian as orange groves and the Everglades. The prison system didn’t earn its Department of Corruption nickname for being humane and transparent.

Turns out it was more than just a memo. In her first few years on the job, Ms. Jones has backed up her vision with cameras in every dormitory, plus audio in every confinement unit. The training emphasis seems to have shifted from force to empathy, many of the issues raised in this series โ€“ tablets, technology, mental health, better food โ€“ have been rectified under her stewardship and there are rumors of new rehabilitative programs on the horizon.

Winston Churchill famously once said: “This is not the end. This is not even the beginning of the end, but perhaps this is the end of the beginning.” Fixing a broken state agency is no small task. It all starts with a leader. Just as perennial bottom-feeder NFL teams are transformed by forward-thinking general managers and downtrodden companies are reinvigorated by visionary CEOs, the Florida Department of Corrections needed a trailblazer to lead the way out of the wilderness. I believe they found that person in Julie Jones.

[This post was previously posted on 12/22/17 as Part 11 of Malcolm Ivey’s series “Fixing A Broken Prison System”, which appears under its own tab on this site.]

Fixing a broken prison system

An inside perspective…

Part 10ย – I did my first bid in the Florida Department of Corrections during the 1990s, a grueling 10-year odyssey that began at age 18 and ended at age 28. I didn’t have to serve all those years. With gain time I could have been home after serving less than half of my sentence. But I was young and hard-headed and I liked to smoke pot.

Since the introduction of the random urinalysis program in 1994, the department of corrections has aggressively gone after incarcerated drug users. The penalty for a failed urinalysis carries 60 days in disciplinary confinement and 180 days loss of gain time. I failed a total of seven drug tests over that decade, costing me 1,260 days. In other words, I spent three-and-a-half extra years in prison because I stubbornly insisted on smoking marijuana despite the mounting negative consequences (cue the definition of insanity clichรฉs). Then I got out and graduated to bigger and better drugs.

Today, I am 13 years into my second prison sentence. Substance abuse is no longer an issue. Writerly aspirations have transformed me into a paranoid hoarder of my remaining brain cells. Still, every few months, my name is called for a random urinalysis. My biggest worry is no longer failing one of these things, but rather failing to submit in the rigidly allotted one hour. This is considered refusal and thus carries the same penalty as a sample that comes back dirty.

Here’s the rub: no one ever tests dirty anymore. Not because the entire prison population has experienced a spiritual awakening, not because we’ve been rehabilitated, not because we now refuse to indulge in counter-productive, self-destructive behavior. But because the most popular, most prevalent and most dangerous drug in Florida prisons doesn’t register on the urinalysis. I’m talking about spice (See my post titled The truth about spice).

Once legal and deceptively marketed as “synthetic marijuana” because it mirrored the effects of THC and was sprayed onto a green leafy substance, the drug has morphed into something far more potent and sinister. Think PCP, acid, meth and roach spray. Every day I watch my fellow inmates vomit, seize, flop, howl, and bang their faces against steel and concrete on this scary and highly addictive substance. This is the state of the Florida Department of Corrections, 2017. The new normal. You never see or smell marijuana anymore. Even its nickname is telling. Nobody calls it weed or pot or reefer or bud these days. They call it “180” for the amount of days one loses if he fails a urinalysis. Why even bother when you can smoke spice?

But again, this is not some harmless, synthetic marijuana we’re talking about. People are dying after smoking this stuff. Two in the last month at my prison. It’s gotten so bad that legitimate epileptic seizures are being scoffed at by responding staff who assume that a convulsing inmate is merely high on spice. Gangs are now battling to control the lucrative market, there are more assaults, more thefts, underpaid officers are being persuaded to supplement their income. Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Corrections doggedly continues its random urinalysis program, spending untold amounts of tax dollars on archaic five panel track tests each year while catching no one. The only inmates ensnared in this trap are those who can’t urinate in the designated hour. Mostly awkward, shy bladder types and old men with bad prostates. The spice smokers show up wasted and pass with flying colors.

I bet the department longs for the days when its biggest drug problem was marijuana.

[This post was previously posted on 12/15/17 as Part 10 of Malcolm Ivey’s series “Fixing A Broken Prison System”, which appears under its own tab on this site.]

Fixing a broken prison system

An inside perspective…

Part 9ย – For all the murders, rapes, untreated mental illness, rampant drug abuse and historically inhumane treatment of human beings over its 150 year history, one problem the Florida Department of Corrections hasn’t shared with other bloated prison systems across the U.S. is gang activity. Aside from the obligatory hate groups masquerading as religions, the Sunshine State’s inmate population has always divided itself along county lines as opposed to America’s more color coordinated criminal empires. Dade rolled with Dade, Broward with Broward, Duval with Duval. That’s about as organized as things got. For all their notoriety, the gangs of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles could never seem to gain a toe-hold in Florida. All that has changed over the last ten years.

When I look around my dorm, I count members of six different gangs. I would name them by organization but I prefer not to be jumped, stabbed, or “buck-fiftied” (the facial slash that is growing in popularity in Florida’s correctional facilities). And since I’m a neutron โ€“ meaning neutral, non-affiliated โ€“ this could happen without repercussion. Maybe I should join a gang. I’m being sarcastic, of course, but for the hundreds of young men being bussed from county jails into Florida’s four reception centers every day, this is a very real dilemma.

Prisons make for fertile recruiting grounds. Every yard is full of inexperienced twenty-somethings with time to do. Many are hundreds of miles from home, broke, scared, surrounded by strangers in a hostile environment. This year, at the facility where I’m housed there have been more than 20 stabbings. Gangs offer safety in numbers, provide brotherhood, demand respect, and give an identity to those struggling to find themselves. Many have prominent rap stars as the faces of their respective franchises. Plus, gangs control the flow of dope into most institutions. For the average street kid coming into the system, the decision to bang can be a lucrative one.

This is a dangerous situation. Dangerous to the non-affiliated inmate population who want to better themselves or just serve their time โ€“ even their life sentences โ€“ in relative peace, dangerous to the already outnumbered guards who work in Florida prisons, and dangerous to the society that is sending away these uneducated young dope dealers, drug addicts and small-time criminals, only to have them return to their neighborhoods a few years later as focused and fully indoctrinated organized crime members.

This recent rise of gang activity is a complex problem with no easy fix. One solution may be segregation, designate a few prisons for known gang members and give the most gung-ho guards in the state hazard pay to work there. This would at least slow down recruitment. Maybe have mandatory classes that show the catastrophic consequences of gang violence, i.e. children caught in drive-bys at school bus stops, illiterate teens in bandanas with AR-15s, reformed OGs with redemptive messages. Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries has done groundbreaking work in this field, the department could seek his wise counsel. Maybe men could earn their way out of a “gang camp” through good behavior, renunciation, and a commitment to speak out against gang violence.

As with any bold move, I’m sure there would be logistics to explore and legal ramifications to consider. But if the Florida Department of Corrections does not address this dire situation now, by the year 2025, Florida won’t have a gang problem, it will have a gang crisis.

[This post was previously posted on 12/8/17 as Part 9 of Malcolm Ivey’s series “Fixing A Broken Prison System”, which appears under its own tab on this site.]

A fresh take on prison reform

Another day, another article involving prison reform. The same politicians who were once shaking their trembling fists and promising to get tough on crime are now calling for an end to the war on drugs. The crocodilian Beltway suits are coming out of the woodwork to be at the forefront of this hot-button issue, even (gasp!) reaching across the aisle, which has been a rarity since our 44th president coached Chief Justice Roberts through his inaugural swear-in.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the numbers. They’re almost a catch phrase by now. The U.S. makes up only 5% of the world’s population, yet a whopping 25% of the world’s prisoners are confined right here in the U.S. of A. The world’s freest country owns the dubious distinction of being the world’s leading incarcerator, and it ain’t even close.

Prisoners and prisoners’ rights groups know these numbers and facts by heart but lately they’ve been surfacing in the unlikeliest of places — conservative op-ed pieces. Tea Party congressmen sound bites, even the old guard of “lock ’em up and throw away the key” talk-radio blowhards are suddenly Gandhi-like in their benevolence.

The winds of change are picking up momentum and the prison industrial complex, with its multibillion-dollar, tax-guzzling budget and draconian policies, is slowly drifting into the national crosshairs. But each time the numbers are trotted out and prison reform is mentioned, there’s the accompanying political escape hatch of an asterisk. *Any relief would be strictly for non-violent drug offenders.

Here’s the thing: An overwhelming majority of these “non-violent drug offenders” are the same traffickers and dealers pumping dope into communities. Selling drugs is purported to be a victimless crime, yet anyone who lives in a neighborhood where drugs are sold can plainly see the victims in the form of crackheads and junkies shuffling up and down the block like zombies. Most violent offenders were not out robbing gas stations to build their stock portfolios. They were just sick and desperate for money or anything else of value to exchange with their local non-violent, victimless dope dealer for their coveted medication.

The recently deceased truth seeker and international friend of prisoners, Bo Lozoff, once said, “Every joint smoked, every drink drunk, every pill popped, every crime committed, is just to get some relief. Just to feel good, to feel safe or powerful. It’s like going crazy from a toothache without knowing what to do about it; we blindly grope around in pain, and some people do it more violently than others.”

Prison reform will be a major milestone in the evolution of this country and it’s refreshing to see President Obama, the Department of Justice, and members of congress working tirelessly to eradicate minimum mandatory sentences and the heavy-handed policies of the war on drugs. But rather than blanket relief for non-violent drug offenders, why not a renewed focus on rehabilitation, a revamping of the parole system, and the powerful incentive of hope for all?