Green Dot

green-dot
Reloadable Green Dot VISA online shopping cards and Money Pak cards are for sale at many convenience stores.  (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

It sucks to be poor.  Some who are in prison were accustomed to having the finer things of life when they were out in the world.  Some had enough to get by and get a few luxury items too.  Some lived hand to mouth, scrambling to keep cash flowing in the absence of a steady paycheck.  And some had nothing living on the streets, sleeping in homeless shelters, and eating at soup kitchens.  This is also a good description of what life in prison is like.  In prison there are the “haves” and “have nots.”  Everyone comes to prison with nothing but the clothes on their back and then those are taken away, but after that…

Prison starts with quarantine at the Charles Egeler Reception & Guidance Center (RGC) which according to the MDOC website, “serves as the facility responsible for intake processing of all male offenders who are adjudicated adults sentenced to a term of incarceration with the Michigan Department of Corrections.  Prisoners with new commitments, parole violators, and youthful offenders are received at RGC for assessments, screening, and classification prior to their placement in general population prisons throughout the agency.”

“Prisoners receive a variety of psychological, medical, educational and security classification evaluations upon arrival at RGC.  Prisoners are all medically screened by professionally trained correctional health care staff during the intake process.  Prisoners are subjected to twelve days of intake processing prior to being classified for transfer to a general population facility capable of meeting their medical, program and security needs.  The average length of stay at RGC is 30 to 45 days.  Prisoners with significant medical needs or prisoners involved in parole revocation hearings are held at the facility until their medical or due process concerns are resolved.”

While at RGC there is a limited commissary available for those who have money in their trust account.  I was fortunate enough to bring a check with funds left over from my county jail stay, so I had funds available to order basic hygiene items, shower shoes and postage stamps.  For those that don’t come to prison with financial resources they must reach out to family and friends via collect phone calls to try to secure funds.  For first time offenders or those who are PV-new bit there are no job opportunities available in quarantine, so no source of earned income.  Most will have to wait until they are transferred to another facility to get funds to acquire the basics, let alone creature comforts.

Money cannot be sent directly to prisoners since they are not allowed to have access to currency while in prison.  While I was incarcerated the MDOC changed the procedure by which those in the public could put funds into a prisoner’s trust account.  Instead of sending the money to an MDOC address, the funds must be sent to a third-party company called JPay which managed the process by accepting credit cards through their website or by money orders to their PO Box.  JPay works with most state corrections departments and the Federal Bureau of Prisons to offer a variety of services some of which have been adopted by the MDOC.

Not everyone who wants to send money has a credit card.  For those who need a credit card because a traditional debit card won’t work there are companies like Green Dot.  Green Dot offers a prepaid pinless debt card that functions like a credit card that is widely used especially in urban communities.  The practice is so common among prisoner’s family and friends that Green Dot is not just a noun, but it is also used as a verb referring to the process of transferring money.

Green Dot is used to go beyond transferring money into an inmate’s trust account but is also used as a way of transferring money on behalf of one inmate to a party designated by another inmate.  Usually this is done to get around having funds garnished to pay restitution, fines, and outstanding court costs when sent to an inmate with outstanding court debts.  An inmate will find someone who doesn’t have their funds garnished and have money placed in their account to so that they can use that inmate as a straw purchaser for their commissary.  Green Dot is also commonly used to pay off gambling debts, drug & alcohol purchases, and store-man tabs.  Additionally, it might be used to pay for jailhouse law services, tattoos, and protection/extortion.

This obviously only works for those who have connections to financial resources on the outside.  Many in prison simply don’t have connections to family or friends that can or are willing to send money.  For instance, drug users may have already burned their bridges to family and friends by previously stealing from them to support their habit.  Something I heard of happening was that some guys, even some who were married would develop relationships with several women who they would get to send money to support them in prison.  They would call and send JPay emails regularly to all of their women requesting money and then dump them when they didn’t get it.  They would even schedule visits so they could get that fine vending machine cuisine.  One time a guy was having a visit with his girlfriend when his wife showed up unannounced.  From what I heard it was quite the scene in the visiting room.  The COs had to separate the women when blows were exchanged.  A risky business, but one that continues to be played out in prisons all over.

I read recently that a graduate student published his finding that Raman Noodles are now the primary currency in prison.  I got a good laugh about that.  It wasn’t a state secret and anyone who has been in prison in the last decade could have told him that.  But that covers the small stuff, and there are only so many bags of coffee that you can stick in your locker for the bigger stuff.  The more items like that you have the greater a theft target you become.  Stacking up cash either in your trust account or somewhere else out in the world is far safer.

Green Dot or its financial equivalent is what many of the “haves” use to maintain their lifestyle while in prison.  By purchasing these cards with cash at grocery stores they can be difficult to trace but as good as cash to settle debts.  Easy to acquire and use, it serves a purpose that its creator never envisioned.  It is true that “money makes the world go ‘round,” and since the world doesn’t stop even though it feels like it for those in prisons, access to money is crucial.  Like the old VISA commercial said, “It’s everywhere you want to be.”  In this case however it might be more accurate to say, “It’s useful even in places you don’t want to be.”

Nothing New Under the Sun

(cartoon by J.D. Crowe/Press Register) SC 1 ST Berkeley News – UC Berkeley

King Solomon famously stated in Ecclesiastes 1:9 that “there was nothing new under the sun.”  Three thousand years ago man’s folly was already tending to repeat itself.  Patterns of behavior and the propensity to do evil were well documented back then.  Man’s inhumanity to man is the same old sad tale repeated over and over, unfortunately it is not limited to those who choose to do evil.  While researching for the writing of this blog I have read a number of prison memoirs and research papers and it is apparent that the observations that I make about prison and prison life cross both space and time.  From a World War II German Military prison to 1970s Great Britain; from California to Texas to Michigan and prisons in between; from the 1930s until today, written by theologians and PhDs to the uneducated, unifying themes regarding prison life and treatment of prisoners demonstrate that my observations of life inside the MDOC in many ways are both honest and disturbing.

Ones does not expect in the twenty-first century to encounter ideas and practices discredited long ago to be the standard operating conditions.  That America and all it claims to stand for has been set aside in one area of governing a civil society is both disturbing and alarming.  As I was writing this essay there were images of yet another police shooting of an unarmed black man on the news and an advertisement for a new TV drama about a group of criminal investigators whose job was to ensure that the innocent were not wrongly convicted.  The abuses of the criminal justice system are finally making headway against the “tough on crime” agenda of the politicians, police, and corrections agencies in this country.  Grass roots organizations are cropping up in every state of the union calling for reform.  Even the president, whether you agree with his polices in general or not, has gone against the conventional wisdom of his political party and seeks to introduce some reforms into the federal corrections system.

A recent news article put a spotlight on the fact that we are not talking simply about convicted felons, but that a much larger number of people accused of misdemeanors that don’t even carry jail/prison time are serving time simply because they can’t afford bail.  According to a 2016 report by the Department of Justice over 11 million people pass through 3000 jails in the US every year.  People are even dying in jail from lack of urgent medical care and proper oversight in over-crowded and antiquated facilities.  During the recent arctic cold blast, a jail in Brooklyn, New York was plunged into darkness and freezing cold for several days when the electric and heating service to a portion of the facility was interrupted by an electrical fire.  The inmates were apparently tapping S.O.S on the windows of their cells calling for help.  The warden of the facility denied the severity of the problem even while inmates were calling the defenders office and pleading for help.  My own experience in jail was a cell so cold that frost formed on the inside of the window, no extra blankets and only a thin cotton jumpsuit for warmth in a room so cold you could see your breath.  So, I can empathize with the desperation of the situation and believe that it is true contrary to the official statements of the warden.

George Bernard Shaw once said “Some men see things as they are and ask why.  Others dream things that never were and ask why not.”   I find myself falling into the first category.  Don’t get me wrong, we need dreamers but after living through the nightmare of prison I don’t sleep very well at night.  Change must happen and the longer it is put off the higher the cost both financially and in human terms.  That is the point of prison reform.  Not just the recognition that there is a problem but there needs to be action taken to address the issue.  Not studies to determine the severity of the problem or pilot programs to explore alternatives.  The experts have already done these.  It is up to the people to demand that those in leadership of our government stop denying or minimizing the problem but take the advice of those whose occupation and preoccupation is focused on the problem.  It is like global warming.  People look at the cold winter and ask where is this so-called “global warming?”  The problem is that global warming is a poor term often used out of context when the issue really is “human activity induced climate change.”  A short catchphrase doesn’t properly encapsulate the issue.  The use of the phrase “prison reform” has the same sort of problem.  People look at crimes reported on our 24/7 news cycle and think that our society is less safe than it once was.  FBI crime statistics have shown that crime rates for all major categories have decreased steadily since the 1980s.  They then give credence and credit to the stricter laws and harsher penalties for causing this trend.  Research has shown that other factors have had a greater effect on crime reduction and that the stricter laws and harsher penalties have actually hindered what would have been even larger reductions to crime rates.

Prison reform is about addressing the underlying causes of crime and taking a reasonable approach to punishment.  Broken homes, single parent families, education, addiction, and poverty are at the core of prison reform.  Shutting off the street to prison pipeline that is responsible for the severe overcrowding, and all the problems that come along with that is what we are talking about.  The racial disparities in incarceration rates among the minorities from urban environments.  The aging infrastructure of prisons and jails that our society can’t afford to maintain let alone build more.  The erosion of respect for others different from ourselves that allows us to justify treating them not just poorly but as subhuman.   As somehow not deserving of basic human rights even thought they are enshrined in the Constitution.  This is was prison reform is about.

To know about a crime either before or after it occurs and failing to do anything with that knowledge is to be considered an accessory and makes one guilty by association.  So, wouldn’t it be true then that to ignore the advice of experts regarding the urgent need for prison reform could rise to the level of criminal negligence at the very least, or a gross misconduct in office and breach of trust by politicians who cling to alternate facts or decry reporting on prison problems as fake news?  For once I would like to see Solomon proved wrong that there is something new under the sun.  I pray that the logjam will be broken, and long overdue reforms will be instituted to our criminal justice system.  This will only happen when the people hold their representatives accountable and demand better treatment of our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters, our friends, neighbors and aliens.

House Arrest

 

house arrestBeing on parole is not freedom.  Too many guys coming out of prison think that having received a parole that they have earned their freedom, that their sentence is complete.  But that is not the case.  While on parole you are still under the control of the MDOC.  Parole is prison without the razor wire.  You have a parole agent who keeps track of you, meeting regularly to monitor your compliance with the stipulations of your parole specified by the Parole Board.  They have absolute control over whether you stay out or return to prison for any parole violations.  On parole you must successfully complete some specified term living in the community, sometimes with severe limits on where you can go and what you can do.  This varies from person to person and is based on the crime committed and other factors.

A typical parole can last up to 24 months.  The stipulations of the parole generally require that the parolee maintain regular employment.  You must also pay a supervision fee and any outstanding debts incurred during incarceration in addition to any unpaid court costs, fines and restitution associated with the felony conviction.  Frequently programming such as AA or NA may be required for those with a history of alcohol or drug abuse.  Additionally, some receive their paroles with program requirements waved while they were in prison because they were classified as “low risk” to re-offend during a psychiatric examination but must now take programming from an approved vendor as a condition of parole.  Failure to successfully complete programming will result in a revocation of parole.

After the conditions of sever deprivation, loss of personal control and decision making in prison some are so focused on redressing the privations that they quickly violate the terms of their parole.  For some it is satisfying the urge to indulge in their addiction for alcohol or drugs.  For others it is about hustling to get the money together to resume their lifestyle.  However most of these hustles are illegal.  Once a person has been in prison the odds of them returning are greater that they will return to prison than the odds for a person who has never been going for the first time.

tether-e1552099483450.pngTo address this problem the MDOC has tightened the conditions of parole in some instances so that it is in actuality “house arrest.”  All excursions from the residence must be approved in advance.  Many are paroled on GPS tether to prevent cheating.  At this level of control, the parolee is practically helpless and becomes reliant on family and friends to take care of many of the tasks that they would like to do for themselves, thus continuing to experience the conditions they experienced in prison.  With this level of control those without a support network are at a severe disadvantage.

Housing itself is a problem.  Transitional housing is in sort supply and in many communities is non-existent.  Those coming out of prison may only have a matter of weeks to find employment and permanent housing before being forced to leave the Parole halfway house.  Then there is the problem of finding affordable housing for those with a felony conviction, especially sex offenders.  Many apartment complexes and landlords will not rent to felons.  In some places such as Oakland Co there are a few rental companies that will but not in every community and not in sufficient numbers to address the current level of demand.

Employment is not as much of a problem as it used to be given the present economic environment.  However more needs to be done to train felons for jobs that pay a living wage.  Many are forced to take minimum wage jobs without benefits or career potential.  The MDOC has made changes to its Employment Readiness initiative over the last few years by revamping their vocational programing but much more needs to be done to ensure that people coming out of prison are employable.  Movements to “Ban the Box” have gained traction in the last few years to at least give felons an opportunity to interview for a job before they are eliminated from consideration for a position in some places like the city of Detroit.

While commendable movements like this are just the tip of the iceberg.  So many are coming out unprepared to hold steady employment due a lack of a basic education or even basic literacy skills.  As a tutor I saw it every day first hand, the lack of interest or desire to join mainstream society.  The smug satisfaction on many of my students faces knowing that they could simply wait out any requirement to earn a GED let alone make satisfactory progress toward earning one and still get a parole.  No thought toward a living a life as a productive member of society.

For many who have served long prison sentences returning to society has significant challenges.  Technology has changed everything: smart phones, the internet, shopping, the workplace, even cars.  Nothing looks familiar to someone who last saw the free world in the 1980s or 1990s.  Life is far more complex than it was, especially from the perspective of someone who has lived a very simple and highly controlled life.  The ability to learn and adopt technology can have a very steep learning curve for someone who isn’t familiar with it.  Then to make it more complicated parole stipulations may prevent the parolee from accessing technology.  Sex offenders are prohibited from having smart phones or computers with internet access.  Some convicted of financial crimes are prevented from having bank accounts.  A convicted murderer on parole has fewer restrictions than many other felonies.

One thing that is certain is that no one really wants to go back to prison but for some it is easier than reintegrating back into society.  What is needed are advocates and mentors; either family, friends or strangers willing to help parolees make the transition.  There are faith-based organizations, church and para-church ministries and other not-for-profit organizations out there that have programs to help.  The problem is that there are not enough organizations, people and resources available in all the places that they are needed.  Secondly, the information available to prisoners preparing for parole is often out of date and incomplete.  Inmates aren’t able to communicate with these organizations easily or effectively to make the necessary arrangements.  Since many don’t have someone on the outside to make arrangements for housing or employment in advance when they are paroled it becomes an immediate crisis.  The last thing a parolee needs is more stress.

Many inmates when preparing for their parole hearing make a Parole Plan in which they lay out what support is waiting for them upon release.  Unfortunately for many it is ‘pie in the sky.’  What looks good on paper in order to impress the parole board may not be worth the paper it is written on.  For example, the employment opportunity that I listed in my Parole Plan was voided by one of the stipulations of my parole.  For some, they are forced to parole back to the county in which they were convicted rather than being allowed to choose a location with more access to resources because they don’t have family there.

Something else to note about parole is that the conditions stipulated by the parole board remain in effect for the duration of the parole.  There is no easing of restrictions based on the completion of certain milestones such as completion of required programing or finding gainful employment.  Parole agents may in some cases have fewer contacts with the parolee but can at anytime show up unannounced to check on you.  For the most part parole is stick and no carrot, there is no reward for cooperation and good behavior.  No graduated easing of restrictions to allow for a true transition back into society.  In some cases, parole officers will make it even more difficult for their parolees by denying requests to approve housing, employment or other activities for reasons that seem mercurial at best.  They may also actively seek to find reasons to revoke a parole or to at least scare the parole with threats of incarceration-the scared straight approach.

While there have been changes to parole in recent years to reduce the number of parole violators being sent back to prison, still more needs to be done.  The MDOC needs to do a better job of preparing the 95% of their inmates that will return to society.  There should be more Reentry programming that focuses on linking those soon to be paroled with agencies and organizations that will be able to provide access to services, programs, resources in the area where they will be paroling.  Access to employment services including in-prison hiring interviews, pre-enrollment for Social Security, Veterans benefits, and Medicaid would go a long way to preparing parolees for success.  Parole should be a transition, not more punishment.  A way to help put the parolee on the right track rather than a revolving door back to prison.

Two Sides of a Coin

Two Sides of A coin
photo by Jamie McCaffrey

Think of a coin.  The image that is stamped on the head and tail is just a thin facade on the surface.  Forever bound together yet separated by the vast bulk of the material. Likewise, victims of crime and those accused of committing crime have one thing in common, both take issue with the criminal justice system.

Victims are made to relive their traumatic experience over and over.  They may be made to feel like they are somehow at fault for having something bad happened to them.  From their perspective the system is slow to move, and all too often denies them the justice they seek.

The accused feel that there is a rush to judgment, that facts don’t matter, and their side of the story is irrelevant.  They believe they are being railroaded into taking a plea agreement to avoid extremely long sentences because of the fear that even without physical evidence or multiple eye witnesses that they will be convicted.  Guilty until proven innocent.

In our modern democracy with guaranteed rights one wonders how either perspective could possibly be true, let alone both, yet they are.  It is the system that is the problem. Crime has been part of our society from the dawn of time but the way we deal with it is prehistoric.  Modern society has applied science to evidence collection; psychology to profile criminal behavior; trained investigators evaluate information and identify suspects; and the media spreads the word and enlists the public’s assistance to track down the perpetrator.  Then the lawyers and courts get involved and everything goes sideways.  Truth doesn’t matter only procedures and precedence.  Under the law, black and white have taken on new definitions the only have meaning in that context.

Humans are the ones who makes decisions about the charges; humans weigh the evidence; humans reach a verdict; humans pass judgment; and humans carry out the sentence.  It is the human factor that thwarts, short circuits, circumvents, or stymies the rules and regulations set in place to safeguard the process.

Evidence is planted, missed, or ignored.  Witnesses are coerced, intimidated, or discredited.  Police brutality, corruption, racial profiling, entrapment, illegal interrogation, false confessions.   Political agendas, prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective assistance of counsel.  Fallibility of witness memory.  Victim statements manufactured and manipulated by leading questions.  The wrong person picked out of a lineup. Innocent people are convicted in sent to prison.  Guilty people get off on technicalities. The real perpetrators get away with murder even.

Humans with their prerogatives and passions; their intelligence and ignorance; their biases and beliefs; their motivations and methodologies; their dedication and dispositions are the cause when the prosecutor brings charges or decides to close the case; the jury gets the verdict right or  gets the verdict wrong; when a person is convicted by a judge or when another judge overturns a conviction; when the parole board grants a parole or when they deny it.

You see it is all connected and yet disconnected at the same time.  Both functional and dysfunctional; both transparent and opaque; both fair and biased.  The one thing it is not is perfect.  It may be the best we have, but we need to see it for the flawed system that it is and take that into account when preparing to cast stones.  In John 8:7 Jesus said, “Let he that is without sin cast the first stone.”  Studies have shown that in the state of Texas more than 5% of those put to death for murder were later found to be innocent.

So, what are the odds that someone convicted of a lesser crime might be innocent? Maybe we should save our vitriol for someone who truly deserves it rather than applying a liberal dose to every case.  In a previous century tar and feathering was carried out by a mob of angry citizens. Today it is a virtual tar and feathering that happens in the media and on the Internet.  As a society we have become quick to judge and condemn others while demanding grace and mercy for ourselves.

The problem is that we can’t judge ourselves, we are at the mercy of the court.  Maybe, just maybe if we took a little more time and care in our decision making; looking before we leap; thinking before we act; putting ourselves in the other persons shoes; and “doing unto others as we would have them do unto us,” occasionally we wouldn’t find ourselves in such a messed-up situation. You can’t undo harm and there are no take backs in punishment.  Saying “I’m sorry” or “My bad” can’t put things right. As the nursery rhyme says, “All the Kings horses and all the Kings men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again.” And this is true whether he was pushed, jumped, or fell.  Regardless of whether you are the victim, or the accused just remember that we’re all in this together for better or worse.  Blaming others, excusing ourselves, or sticking your head in the sand can’t fix the problems in the criminal justice system.  Be part of the solution rather than the problem.  Hold the system accountable.  Don’t let a few bad apples spoil the whole barrel.  Demand better treatment for both victims and the accused, or someday when you find yourself in the system it will be too late.