Sunday, August 9, 2009

Strong convictions: Correction or coercion behind bars?

My wife alleges I'm a dilettante. She noticed I'd started a book I checked out for her, Michael G. Santos' "Inside: Life Behind Bars." Seattle suburbanite, sentenced 45 years in federal prison for cocaine trafficking at 23. It's as graphic, brutal, dispiriting, and raw as I expected.

It's also well-written, educational, and sobering. Santos completed a B.A. and M.A. in prison but a new warden's blocked inmates from post-graduate education for "security reasons," so his Ph.D. from U Conn (no pun intended) remains on hold. Vowing to make himself better by merit rather than cruelty, Santos after sentencing has tried to inform himself and others in prison and outside of it about the inequities inside. To those who dismiss his revelations as special pleading, he notes cases filed in court that testify to such brutality. To those who sense he's angling for his own time off, he counters that his discipline has largely gained him distrust from his keepers. To those bent on punitive measures, he responds that healing will be found by guiding broken people-- often poor, uneducated, deceitful, conniving, and/or mentally ill-- towards a life better able to be lived straight. For 95%, a life spent one day or twenty years from now alongside the rest of us.

He tries to present despite his limitations to material a full picture of the environment faced by inmates and jailers within a federal penitentiary. He makes no excuses for his crime. He also spares no detail for his guards or his peers. All are treated unflinchingly, as he attempts to reveal the reality that so many romanticize, ignore, perpetrate, and exarcerbate. The problem: we as taxpayers have no way to hold accountable those who profit from the misery of 13.5 million inmates. Their time served does not rehabilitate; policy's now content to humiliate.

Santos provides-- from his own experience-- a bold depiction of the tiered process by which often benign city and usually awful county jails in urban areas lead those once convicted into warehousing at federal prisons; he's been transferred about as many prisoners are, often at the whim of authorities or due to overcrowding. Without gangs or respected inmates to protect you in the hole, it's a hell the weak may not survive. This barbarity may reward law-and-order enforcers, but it warps millions who must capitulate to blackmail, smuggling, prostitution, or thuggery as a ransom.

He now is incarcerated in the same county as the prisoner we visited recently. Santos refused to plea-bargain, and faces his guilt without having ever "sought my own release through the punishment of another." (x) Convicted in 1987, he promised himself to not waste his twenty-five-year stretch. He spent a lot of time as a sort of jailhouse lawyer for his less-informed peers. Mostly, he studies and writes in the library.

My wife wondered, however, what happens to the royalties he earns from St. Martin's Press for his book; so far I have no clue. A diligent "success strategist" who's determined to help others like himself, his eponymous website (first-name, last-name, dot-net) sells articles and gives links to his daily blog feed via a resource his wife runs, but I could not find an answer to my wife's question there. His book mentions his imposed restitution-- now required for all felons-- to the tune of two million dollars. I'm not sure how he's going to pay it; his efforts to be a legal advocate, a stock investor via phone calls to his sister, and a Ph.D. in prison studies have all been blocked by his jailers.

My wife's reading an Alice Munro story in the current issue of "Harper's." Her favorite writer, so that comes first. So, needing a break from my heavier fare, I plunged into a report from the underground that we rarely if ever see firsthand. A life as I thankfully've never known it. Santos tells how since he entered prison, American prison populations have increased four-fold: one in fifteen in this country today doing or having done hard time. This does not count many more in jails or on probation. 800,000 people work inside prisons. It costs us $60 billion to house and feed U.S. prisoners each year. Santos doesn't mention this, but I've heard 80% are incarcerated due to the enforcement of anti-drug laws.

My wife figured, given a year ago I'd taught myself chess and read about this pursuit, and then I've been learning about Buddhism in earnest both for personal elucidation and academic preparation for an article and a couple of conference presentations this autumn, I'd found merely my next phase of what to read next in my endless nose in a book progression down the Dewey Decimal System to previously unplumbed shelves. I plead guilty, but what's the alternative? Sit on the couch watching the Dodgers? Amass porn cachés like apparently many of my male counterparts younger or not have? Take up golf?

She in her blog entry about "The Tehachapi Loop" wrote last Friday much of what I'd have mentioned today about the correspondent whom I in my bilingual Irish practice entry three days ago "Ag cur cuairt im bpriósún" in stilted fashion summarized as "B.C." Fifty or so miles east, Santos sits today, with four more years to go. It's at least his twentieth prison; he's in the last stretch before freedom.

He bases his narrative on what he has heard, seen, corroborated, and cross-referenced to reconstruct as honestly and accurately as his limited access (no wardens or officers agreed ever to help him; nobody can visit him at certain prisons he's been at unless he had a "prior relationship" with the applicant before he was sentenced, which undoubtably narrows his circle of possibilities) can verify. He uses psuedonyms, blurs identifying details, and protects privacy even as he exposes constantly the system that never "corrects" and improves and rewards conforming inmates. Instead, the guards and wardens benefit-- as my wife agrees from her own correspondence, research, and observance-- from keeping inmates as long as possible, as liable to recidivism as will thicken the wallets of those guarding them at very lucrative salaries, and as helpless when they get out as when they entered. "Instead of erecting barriers that separate prisoners from society, they should allow bridges that will allow individuals to work their way to freedom." (283; copying some of this entry I will review his book next on this blog, and for Amazon US.)

Santos remarks how the squeaky wheels, the baddest brutes, the made men get favored in prison. They are coddled more, left in single cells, with better food or nicer jobs, to keep them tamed. The ones who follow the rules, he finds, have no incentive to do so, for by their cooperation their parole will come no nearer, nor will their conditions be improved. Santos' own obedience proves this; by his steady gaze-- he likens his style to a periscope view kept above the surface as he glides like a submarine through choppy waters-- he unsettles many of his keepers. Those who keep a steady course are left, when obeying this regimen, to indifference. His own straight-arrow allegiance has not brought him a diminishment of his time; to the contrary, his unflappable scrutiny of his surroundings earns him suspicion from his jailers, even as his attention to discretion and fidelity keeps him in the confidence of his peers with whom he must navigate a constantly jolted routine that finds beatings, murders, entrapment, and betrayal everyday occurrences.

Naturally, as with psychologists, social workers, nurses, soldiers, or teachers in difficult situations, one's emotions must often be detached from one's efforts to do one's job. A necessary professional depersonalization accompanies those who resist burnout; while burnout to the outsider appears precisely what's happened to those who keep doing their job as if automatons. Having taught "at-risk" inner-city youth, runaways in a teen shelter, kids on probation mandated to begin a non-traditional path towards their GED or diplomas, I can attest to the need to distance one's self.

Yet, having entered Tehachapi "Correctional Institution" last weekend, if only for five hours, I agree with my wife when she concluded her entry. She felt as if she'd been punished. The pressure of the guards to be robocops, the lack of niceties or respect that confronts every visitor-- often coming from Sacramento or Modesto at distances two or three times what separated us from "B.C."-- adds to the determined assault on one's own sensibilities incorporated within so many government-run facilities whether schools, hospitals, or prisons, wears down even the casual visitor. You don't need the frisson of Foucault's employment of Bentham's all-seeing Panopticon; today, cameras and detectors and frisks replace human eyes. Still, as always it must be, a steely facade's kept up to drive away weakness, contraband, or distraction. It must be this way, we say; what defines a prison better than a wall?

This intentional oppression pales, for those punished, beside rape, extortion, corruption, intimidation, and chaos which Santos chronicles unflinchingly. He shows how there's no use for what the British term an "Ordinary Decent Criminal" to reform. Today's programs for education and rehabilitation for "B.C." for example: minimal to none. The air-conditioning repair classes he excels in and delights in may be cut due to the woeful state budget cuts in California.

Yet, the "correctional officers" boast our Golden State's strongest union by far in terms of lobbying and clout. Santos cites Thomas Jefferson's dictum that the government should exist to serve the people's needs; for prisons, "the mantra has become to preserve the security of the institution." (281) Even now, my wife found many jobs going begging on line this recession, for federal prison staff.

"B.C." told us about California's lack of jobs for prisoners that train them for skills or allow them to produce practical goods; unlike many states, there's a convoluted profiteering that denies now the "unfair" competition that prison labor would present to business. Although the incredible waste of resources, the boomtowns created by prison construction, and the contractors who alongside the guards need never to justify their expenditures or results to we who foot the bill mean that as Santos concludes:
"This cycle of failure continues as if in a closed loop, justifying the need for more prisons and all the billions of dollars in expenditures that keep the system alive."
I read today that $100 million's spent in our state alone for death penalty appeals, procedures, and housing that could be saved if we switched to life without parole for those on Death Row. But, would the unions and suppliers to our governor, our mayor, Uncle Sam, the "security state" that represents one of the few lasting economic success stories of the current decade agree? "Its growth depends strictly upon a culture of failure and high recidivism." (290) Without them, a governor will not gain power or as the recall of Gray Davis proved, keep it.

I taught a student about a year and a half ago. He was a bit edgy and belligerent, but one of the best in "Advanced Composition." He challenged my dicta and questioned my assignments every class. He mused aloud to all after taking a few quizzes I made up that "your previous job must've been making up tests for the D.M.V." I liked his wit. He had been injured in a riot at Corcoran, long one of Cali's toughest prisons.

A chair had been thrown at him and his back was injured severely. Now on permanent disability, one of a family of those who'd served at the facilities that loom over the vast Central Valley's desolate stretches, he was the only one in his extended family of veterans of the prison force who'd ever been hurt on duty. He'd enrolled in college and sought on his benefits package to start over again. I reckoned he makes now, with a high school education, on pension more than I do with my Ph.D. after fourteen years teaching at my present position.

Was his affliction, the pain he bore, the drugs he took, the rehab he endured, worth it? My other book, and only two such for now I promise, that I found on the surprisingly underpopulated 365 section of the library may answer this. About five years ago, same time as Santos' report, investigative journalist (I liked his "Coyotes" way back about his undercover trek with illegals into El Norte) Ted Conover published his account of his year as a prison guard "up the river" at New York's notorious Sing Sing. "Newjack" will show me the other side of the bars.

As I spoke with "B.C." I wondered how he'd reply to my student the former jailer. I used to doubt that many guards talk freely to their charges, or vice versa, unless to manipulate, coerce, or lie. I'd read nothing really about American prisons but a lot about those in the North of Ireland during the H-Block and hunger strike campaigns. I figured the hostility engendered there tended the norm. [By the way, Louise Dean's fine novel (also reviewed by me on Amazon; written in 2005 same as Santos' & Conover's books) "The Human Season" parallels the tale of a Long Kesh "screw" with a mother of an IRA Blanketman on the protest circa 1980.] But, Santos for the federal institutions shows how with time, many guards and prisoners usually relax their defenses. The danger, as he and "B.C." and my student all can't forget, is that confidence that may be given may backfire, fatally or violently or legally.

This heightens the resentment ticked off in his wardens and jailers by Santos' earnest efforts to better himself by his writing and his website promoting coping skills (some for sale) to inmates, parolees, and their families. By his enterprise and enterpreneurship, he seeks to improve others by his own advice, gleaned on the inside for when he gets outside "the fences." He seeks, and why not, to make a long-term career out of his career that's consumed nearly his entire adult life. He's feared for his hard-won knowledge, and foiled by administration when he tries to earn his doctorate. Contrasted with less-educated, less-motivated neighbors behind bars, Santos shows the threat that an informed inmate presents to a system bent on breaking the prisoner and keeping him cowed. Yet, the alternative's more deadly. The skill with which inmates, perhaps not when they entered but as they endure, learn to bend the rules like they bend a papier-maché bolus into a shank, can and will kill.

Unlike the likes of me sitting beside a Marine vet trying to learn-- as one did last week when I subbed for remedial college English-- what a vowel was and when to use "a" vs. "an," the predicament of guards and inmates, advocates and reformers, complicates simple do-goodism in prison. I can walk in to help that student and then turn away without fear of a backstabbing. He can sit in the room and he knows that, unlike his term in Iraq or his native Lebanon, no violent act will shatter his focus.

Having now a clearer mental and literary picture of what the inside of Tehachapi State or any maximum-security prison looks like, I can better comprehend, under my welcome lack of first-hand observation ironically, what for long has been relegated to rumor, exaggeration, hearsay, tattoos, or cryptic asides from a few of past students. I've taught veterans and "veteranos" both; I don't pry. If they tell us something, as one did in casual class conversation last month about his time in jail, students around him or her let it flow; many come from inner-city or working class, gang-ridden or impoverished, little educated or legally dubious upbringings that remind me of Santos' estimate that 6.6% of residents "will find themselves in a state or federal prison at some point during their lifetime." (xiii) That is, nearly half the population of dense California-- which with its prisons all at double-capacity, builds another one each year: or, twenty million Americans.

Seeing "B.C." face-to-face for the first time after getting to know him as my wife had, through their letters over the past year, means now I have a personal attachment to what were anonymous figures with obscured profiles or uniformed ranks on "Lockup" or "Lockdown." Without being accused of dilettantism-- and certainly any who know me realize I am no bleeding heart-- I hope my encounter with "B.C." at Tehachapi will lead to a lasting and restorative friendship for us both along with my wife's own committment to him and the other two inmates with whom she corresponds and to whom we send books as one way to regain what budgets and revenge have taken away from those doing hard time in a hard state under a hard regime determined to punish rather than reform, and to exact vengeance rather than to right past wrongs.

Photo: "Tehachapi Sunset" by Jenna Russell. Naturally this real estate page fails to mention the correctional facility.

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