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Groundhog Day

One desperate afternoon in 2005, a skinny and addicted version of myself was scanning the lawn care equipment and power tools in mom’s garage for something I could pawn for dope money when suddenly I was struck by a bolt of inspiration: Why deprive mom of her weed whacker when I can easily rob a neighbor? There was far more honor in that, right? I went in through the bathroom window.

First thing I found was a loaded 9mm. Fate crackled in the barrel. I tucked it into the waist of my jeans then made a quick check for jewelry and money before slinking off into the March afternoon to do what the broken people do. (Legal noteโ€”Since I armed myself in the commission of a crime, this simple burglary became an armed burglary. A first-degree felony punishable by life in prison.)

Over the next 36 hours in a dope-fueled tailspin, I used this weapon to jack various area drug dealers as well as two convenience stores. In the parlance of Narcotics Anonymous, this phenomenon is referred to as “a case of the fuck its.” Luckily no one was harmed in my unraveling. I never even fired the gun. And because I spared the State the expense of a jury trial, the State spared me the misery of a life sentence. (Legal noteโ€”According to Florida’s 10-20-Life law, brandishing a firearm in the commission of a felony carries a mandatory ten years, firing the weapon carries twenty, shooting someone triggers a life sentence. There is no parole.)

I ended up with twenty years in the department of corrections along with more than a quarter century in the federal system. For a more detailed account of the night of my arrest, check out the Divine Intervention essay at malcolmivey.com. But please do not mistake my tone as flippant or unremorseful. This could not be further from the truth. I am deeply humiliated by the weak and pathetic actions of that miserable little crackhead. It’s just that all this occurred almost two decades ago and when you spend so many years pacing cells, alone in your head, relentlessly scrutinizing your life and the moment things went south, over and over and over again, it all becomes a little mechanical. Like a movie you’ve seen a million times. Groundhog Day.

I am a gun criminal. Embarrassing to admit this with all the recent ugliness on the evening news, but my record speaks for itself. No getting around it. I was actually classified as an Armed Career Criminal by the United States government until a 2016 Supreme Court ruling resulted in my federal sentence being overturned.

Although the above debacle was my first taste of armed robbery, it was not my first rodeo. I’ve been sleeping on hard institutional bunks and eating cold food on dirty trays since I was a pre-teen in juvenile detention. I don’t pretend to know a lot about the outside world because I’ve been removed from it for so many years, but if there’s one subject I’m fluent in, it’s the criminal justice system. I’ve written six books and over 100 essays on life behind the razor wire.

With this recent spike of violent crimeโ€”not just the tragic and headline-dominating mass shootings but also gangland drive-bys, ambushed police, and robbery homicidesโ€”many old guard politicians are already dusting off their tough-on-crime speeches from the โ€˜90s. And the public will predictably respond at the polls. For good reason: something has to be done. But I would argue that the solution will not be found in tougher laws. How much tougher can you get than consecutive life-without-parole sentences? The death penalty? We’ve got that too. And the robberies and car-jackings and murders continue to surge. Einstein famously said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Another approach might save us from where we are headed.

All across this great nation, impoverished young people with mothers and fathers either in early graves or serving lengthy prison sentences are walking the same lonely roads as their parents. Why would anyone choose such a miserable existence? Maybe it’s not a choice. I know they’re not getting much help from their countrymen. Especially not our nation’s two political parties. The liberal message which blames systemic racism for every bad break and poor decision provides zero viable solutions and runs counter to American ideals of self-sufficiency and accountability. The conservative pull yourself up by the bootstraps narrative is unrealistic as well. When you’ve never met your incarcerated father and your mother alternates between violent dopesickness and being slumped on the couch, when your world is confined to the project buildings and trailer parks where you were born, when most of your neighbors supplement their government assistance income with some form of hustling, when your normal consists of scrapping and stealing just to survive, when this is all you’ve ever known, you don’t just wake up one day, crack your knuckles, and decide to go to vocational school. It may happen occasionally. But as the exception, never the rule. So what? you’re probably thinking. Why should the average American care? Why should you care? I mean, we’re talking about a bunch of criminals and slum dwellers, right?

Well…

If Covid has taught us anything, it’s how interconnected we all are. Conspiracy theories aside, a virus from Wuhan China has circled the globe and killed millions of people. An incident in a laboratory on the other side of the world has wreaked that much havoc. And we’re still dealing with the aftermathโ€”supply chain issues, factory shutdowns, inflation, mutations, political unrest. The shockwaves are inescapable. Even the remote Panhandle prison where I sit and type this essay is not immune. Outside my cell door is a beleaguered workforce, rising canteen prices, diminishing food portions, rampant drug abuse… But our interconnectedness is not limited to global pandemics. Look how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has affected the price of fuel, and how the price of fuel has affected world markets, and how plummeting markets have affected people’s 401(k)s. Like it or not, we are all in this together.

So it follows that if events in Asia and eastern Europe can have an impact of this magnitude on Bible Belt America, then what about that other section of your very own hometown? What about fentanyl, what about meth, what about gangs, what about an ideology and culture that places no value on human life? It doesn’t take an epidemiologist to recognize that violent crime is spreading exponentially. And it is no longer confined to those neighborhoods across the tracks. A generation of unraised and unloved children are coming of age. You see their faces every night on the local news. And on their way to life sentences in prison and fatal gunshot wounds, they’re making babies who will also grow up fatherless, motherless, hopeless… America has extremely broad shoulders. But at some point she will collapse beneath the staggering weight of her broken citizens. And the world’s longest running democracy will finally come to an end. That is, unless we do something. But what can we do?

I have two suggestions.

The first is so simple that it seems inarguable. We need to love our kids. And by “our kids” I mean America’s kids. We need to teach them the value of honest work, discipline, and respect. All of them. No child among the 330,000,000 of us should grow up without a rock-solid support system, without consistent direction, without love… Imagine a coalition of teachers, athletes, business professionals, community leaders, neighbors, moms, dads, police officers, even reformed ex-prisoners committed to stepping up and assuring the abandoned and forgotten that there is love in the world. Not by throwing money at the problem or writing preachy and long-winded disquisitions like this one ๐Ÿ™‚ but by rolling up our sleeves and investing our time and our hearts and our energy in the coming generationโ€”and doing this with the same sense of urgency and conviction that Christian missionaries carry on their voyages to foreign continents every day. If we don’t, then the only ones who will suffer the consequences is us.

You will disagree with this second suggestion. And I totally understand. But I can only tell you the truth as I see it. And what I’ve seen every day for decades in prison is young unaffiliated men stepping off county vans, wide-eyed and green to prison life, ready to do their time and get home. Only to exit the system years later as full-fledged gang members with the requisite crowns, stars, and swastikas tattooed on their heads and necks. Why? First of all, prison is a dangerous place and there is always safety in numbers, but there is also the allure of dope, money, cell phones, respect, and brotherhood. Five years ago I wrote about this emerging crisis in a series of essays called Fixing a Broken Prison System. At the time, gang members made up about 10% of my dorm. Today it’s closer to 25%. Again, who cares about a bunch of prisoners and low-income trash, right? But these same hardened young men are returning to their neighborhoods as heroes home from war, and many are indoctrinating the young people in their communities. That’s not just a problem. That’s systemic failure.

The Florida Department of Corrections cites public safety as a top priority. This is emphasized in their mission statement, core principles, and pretty much every press release regarding prisons and prisoners. Yet on this, they are failing the public on a scale so spectacular that it boggles the mind. There’s a relatively easy fix for it, but it flies in the face of every stump speech being made by every tough-on-crime politician on the Florida Panhandle right now. Be tough on crime. Hell yeah. Be merciless on crime. But bring back parole.

Aww Malcolm… you’re just trying to get your buddies home.

This is true. And if you knew some of my friends (and their mommas) you would see why. Good people. Men who changed their lives decades ago and are now just hanging around, waiting to die. Many of the guards who work here would attest to this. But allowing men and women to earn their way home would have ripple effects far beyond my circle of friends.

Imagine a prison system where every person arriving at the reception centersโ€”barring pedophiles and clinically diagnosed sociopathsโ€”would be given a series of diagnostic tests to gauge IQ, reading and math levels, vocational skills, emotional intelligence, etc… Once their history and aptitude are established, a team of psychologists, educators, and trained classification officers would set a number of almost impossibly high benchmarks to be reached over time. A final meeting with the incoming offender would sound something like this: “Okay, young man, you’ve been sentenced to life in prison. Life means life in the state of Florida. This means you will die behind these fences. But that will probably be 70 or 80 years from now since you’re only 18 years old. During that time everything you love will be taken away. However… there is a faint possibility that you might be able to one day earn your way home. But only if you accomplish the following. Get your GED, get your bachelorโ€™s degree, complete these 50 courses, log in 10,000 hours of anger management, keep a clean disciplinary record… And, by the way, if you join a gang you are automatically eliminated from the program.”

Something like that. If this idea were implemented, prisons would be safer, guards would have a legitimate management tool, and gang affiliation numbers in Florida would plummet within a decade. Amazing what a little hope can do. Of course, there will be some who try to game the system, but over time I think even those men and women would be converted. I know from my own experience that a strange thing happens on the road to education: the more learned you become, the less likely you are to do harm to your fellow man.

I mentioned all this to a teacher at the prison where I’m doing my time. Really cool guyโ€”an Army Ranger with a bachelor’s in political science. He identifies as a fiscal conservative but leans slightly left on matters of social justice. His response: These are not kitchen table issues for the average American. People are worried about inflation, the price of gas, illegal immigration. Not the plight of inner-city kids or criminal justice reform.

He’s probably right. The human brain is not wired for distant threats. This is why things like rising sea levels, ballooning national debt, and evaporating social security are such a hard sell to so many. In his spectacular book, Focus, Daniel Goleman illustrates this phenomenon perfectly. “We are finely tuned to a rustling in the leaves that may signal a stalking tiger. But we have no perceptual apparatus that can sense the thinning of the ozone layer, nor the carcinogens in the particulates we breathe on a smoggy day…”

Ditto the long-term effects of the school-to-prison pipeline and the broken criminal justice system it feeds.

I’m guessing many of you disagree with all this. I probably would too if I hadn’t lived in here for so many years. But I can’t unsee these problems and potential solutions. Aside from writing books and enjoying the people I love, the rest of my life will be dedicated to improving this social condition. Maybe I can pay my proverbial debt to society in this way. A few years ago these concepts might have found more traction. There was an empty Supreme Court seat, bipartisan momentum for criminal justice reform, and conservative politicians like Jeff Brandes roaming the Capitol halls. That time has passed. Violent crime is soaring and hardliner rhetoric is the message of the day. The pendulum has officially swung. But popular or not, I will continue to bang this drum until someone hears me. Groundhog Day.

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.

Thank you again

I sent a bunch of property home over the weekend. Ancient letters and cards and photos dating back to when I first began this odyssey in March 2005. Iโ€™ve still got a few more miles to go but Iโ€™m getting closer. What a long, strange trip itโ€™s been.

One of the more beautiful artifacts I found in my locker wasnโ€™t all that old… 2016. It was a motion to correct an illegal sentence. In a landmark decision, the United States Supreme Court had struck down something called the โ€œresidual clauseโ€ of the Armed Career Criminal Act. When the ruling was made retroactive, it opened a small window for me.

The prosecution argued that my sentence should remain at 379 months, that I was the exact type of criminal that Congress had in mind when they enacted the law. In response, my public defender authored this masterful brief that took excerpts of the essays Iโ€™d been writing for years and wove them into her argument. She also attached copies of my book covers.

When I say writing saved me, this is part of what I mean. I began Consider the Dragonfly because I was sick of the hamster wheel of prison life and wanted to do something different. I was just trying to live right, trying to be a better man, trying to salvage what was left of my dumpster fire of a life. I had no idea that years later, some Supreme Court decision would get me back into court and those same words might help get me home. Yet thatโ€™s exactly what happened.

But it wasnโ€™t just my words. It was yours. It was all those letters of support that were attached to the back of the motion.

Reading them on my cell floor the other night for the first time in years had me a little emotional. My mind was flooded with images… Of my brother Keith at his computer, of Kelly and Marcus in their living room working on drafts, of Hailey with a notebook at the kitchen table, of Lindsey in his office between patients, of Mimi after church, of Ashton… Of all of you guys. You know who you are. For a brief moment, I could see you in 2016. Putting your busy lives on pause to write a federal magistrate because you believe in me, because you care, because you want me home. Iโ€™m lucky to have such incredible people in my life. Lucky to have family and friends. Iโ€™m surrounded by men who have no one. Many donโ€™t even have release dates. โ€œThere, but for the grace of God…โ€

In the end, the judge rejected the governmentโ€™s argument and resentenced me to 288 months. It still sounds like a lot, right? But those seven years and seven months of freedom I got back represent seven more Christmases, seven more years to play with a generation of nieces and nephews who were born since Iโ€™ve been away, seven more years with Mom…

Thank you again.

Balls and strikes

Most of my family and friends are into Making America Great Again… again. They are not racists. They are good people, religious people, Catholics and Evangelicals who believe that abortion is the most important item on the docket when electing a president. So four years ago, many of them held their noses and voted for a philanderer and a bully and a race baiter because there was a Supreme Court seat open and the big prize of Roe v. Wade was dangling over the plate like a 35 mph fastball.

By the looks of it, they hit a towering home run. In fact the ball is still blasting through the stratosphere.

When Justice Scalia died in early 2016 and the Senate refused to even have a hearing on Obamaโ€™s nominee to replace him until after the election, they effectively put a Supreme Court seat on the ballot. A stroke of brilliance, really. But never in conservativesโ€™ wettest dreams did they imagine that two more seats would come open in the ensuing 48 months. A 6-3 conservative majority on the highest court in the land would almost certainly be enough to overturn the landmark abortion case. At least thatโ€™s the hope. Or the fear, depending which side youโ€™re on.

Iโ€™m not sure where I stand on abortion. Is that all right? To be undecided? To be conflicted about such a polarizing issue? If weโ€™re committed to putting science first on the crucial issues of Covid and the environment, why not listen to what scientists have to say about abortion? Especially late-term abortions. Iโ€™m guessing we know a lot more about the human embryo in 2020 than we did 50 years ago, just as we know a lot more about melting ice caps, carbon emissions, and the ozone layer. But I have the luxury of being an armchair quarterback on this issue since I am a man and will never have to make that difficult choice.

Abortion is not my main focus during election season anyway. Neither is the environment nor the Second Amendment nor the economy nor health care. When Iโ€™m gauging a candidate, itโ€™s all about prisoners and the families of prisoners. And since presidents appoint not only Supreme Court Justices but lower appeals court judges, these elections have a direct impact and far reaching consequences for my little demographic. (And by little I mean the 25% of the worldโ€™s incarcerated who reside right here in the U.S.)

Contrary to popular belief, and despite what they may say in confirmation hearings, these judges are not fair and impartial callers of balls and strikes. That era is long gone. In the 70s, under liberal justices Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan, the Court declared capital punishment unconstitutional, supported Roe v. Wade, and upheld affirmative action. But under Nixon appointee William Rehnquist, whom Reagan made Chief Justice in the 80s, the death penalty was brought back, prisonersโ€™ rights were reduced, and the court ruled that education was not a fundamental right in America. Occasionally some Justice will drift to the center in his or her old age but thatโ€™s happening less and less these days. Most judges are now groomed from high school for these lifetime positions and thoroughly vetted before they make the short list. Too much is at stake.

Thatโ€™s why the idea of a devout conservative like Amy Coney Barrett supplanting a liberal paragon like Justice Ginsburg is so painful. She will be on the court for possibly the next 40 years. This feels like Clarence Thomas being tapped to replace Thurgood Marshall all over again. That was 30 years ago and heโ€™s still the most conservative Justice on the bench.

But the irony in all of this isnโ€™t that Republicans are rushing to ram through Justice Ginsburgโ€™s replacement 30 days before the election, even though they refused to hold a hearing on Obamaโ€™s appointee with eight months left. Or that all this is going on despite RBGโ€™s dying wish that they wait until America goes to the polls. Or that the court is moving back into the 1950s while the rest of the nation is moving in an entirely different direction… The irony is that the least intelligent and most polarizing president in the history of the Oval Office, number 45 out of 45, will have replaced a third of the Supreme Court during his rocky four-year tenure. And if he declares this election rigged, refuses to accept the results, and there turns out to be a court battle, guess who will be casting the deciding vote.

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?