Category Archives: life in prison

Lindsay Lohan’s jail break

Jail is an awful, dehumanizing place, and I don’t envy Lindsay Lohan for having to spend time there.

In case you’ve fallen behind in your tabloid reading: Lohan, the talented, but increasingly troubled actress, began serving a 90-day sentence today at the women’s jail in Lynwood, California.  She got it for failing to show up to court and violating the terms of her probation on earlier misdemeanor drug and driving charges.  

 In the run-up to her surrender, there was a predictable face-off between those who felt Lohan was getting what she deserved and those who thought she’d be better off in a rehab program.

While I agree that jail isn’t going to cure  a serious substance abuse problem, I have to say I’m glad she’s there.   And no, not just because this proves a famous actress isn’t above the law and has to pay for what she’s done like everyone else.   Initially, I thought that might be why as I’ve often expressed how I feel about rich or celebrated lawbreakers getting special treatment.

But ultimately, I realized it was more because of Lohan’s similarities to others who are doing time  behind bars.   If you take out the spoiled actress part and all the money, she’s actually a  pretty typical inmate.  Consider:

Lohan, who first charmed me playing twin sisters in “The Parent Trap,” has some incredible gifts.  My hope  is that she’s able to see this as a wake-up call and use her time away from society — which is expected in the end to be around 23 days — to face her problems.  Going to rehab is almost fashionable among the Hollywood set.  But sometimes people need a bigger dose of reality to get them to truly want to change.   Just as with Roberty Downey Jr.,  whose drug use ultimately earned him a prison term, this could be a turning point for Lohan. 

Readers, what do you think?  Have any of you ever been prompted to change your life or deal with major shortcomings because of  a jail or prison term?  How did you do it?

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Filed under addiction and recovery, alternatives to incarceration, life in prison, personal responsibility, second chances, sentencing alternatives, starting over, taking responsibility, women ex-offenders

What you have the power to do

“The most common way  people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”        

             Alice Walker, author of “The Color Purple”

I love this quote.  It reminds me of something I’ve struggled with on occasion.  Like say, last week when I was having a career-related ” poor me”  party, and forgot that I wasn’t completely at the mercy of events;  that there were some steps I could take to on my own behalf.

Yes, I was guilty of giving my power away.

If you’re starting over with a criminal record, you might also feel you have little power.  That’s okay.   It’s perfectly  understandable to worry about taking charge of your life again, particularly if you’ve served time and had most of your daily movements proscribed. 

But you do have more power than you realize, and even if you don’t feel it now, you can reclaim it.  Here are some of the most common areas where people with criminal records (and even those without them)  tend to give up power and strategies on how to get it back.            

 Job Search

  • Signs and Symptoms:    Thinking no one will hire you because you have a criminal record, thinking you’re turned down for jobs because of your past or because there’s something wrong with you.  Giving up prematurely on an employment search, getting overly nervous in interviews because you’re afraid you won’t get the job. 
  • Remedies: Assessing your strengths and weaknesses so you know what you have to offer an employer and how to sell yourself.  Being upfront about  your background and how you’ve changed and moved beyond it.  Acknowledging you understand why an employer might have concerns, but emphasizing how you will work to the best of your ability to prove yourself.  Realizing that everyone gets turned down for jobs, particularly in this market, and persisting in your search for as long as it takes. 

Relationships

  • Signs and Symptoms: Staying in a relationship where you are unable to be your best self, or one that is abusive or otherwise unhealthy.  Can include romantic relationships or friendships where you are encouraged to engage in behavior that is not in your best interest. Becoming involved in a relationship where you feel you must sacrifice your dreams or desires in order to make someone else happy.   Carrying grudges or anger from slights or hurts in the past.
  • Remedies:  Learning to value your own wants and needs as much as other people’s.   Making sure you do not have to sacrifice who you are to maintain a friendship or relationship.  Seeking out alliances with individuals you admire who are living the kind of life that you aspire to. Leaving relationships that are abusive or otherwise unhealthy.  Dedicating yourself to developing your own strengths and reaching your own goals.  Letting go of blame for past hurts and moving on with your own life.

Addiction

  • Signs and Symptoms:  Usually obvious and unhealthy attachment to substances or practices that are destructive and ultimately take over your life; drugs, alcohol, gambling, thrill-seeking, sex, etc.
  • Remedies:  Acceptance, treatment and support.

Dealings with Law Enforcement:  

  • Signs and Symptoms:   Unnatural or exaggerated fear that even though you have served your time, police or local law enforcement (sometimes even probation officers are included here) are out to get you.
  • Remedies:  Realization that you have control over your actions.   As long as you choose to abide by the conditions of your release and become a law-abiding citizen, you should not be in trouble again.  Realizing the people, places and things that can get you in trouble and avoiding those can go a long way towards helping you stay on the right path. 

Readers, how about you?   Have you ever struggled to hold onto your power?   Have you ever given it away and regretted it?   And if so, how have you gotten it back?

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Filed under addiction and recovery, companies hiring ex-offenders, criminal records, employment ex-offenders, ex-offender psychology, goal-setting, life in prison, personal responsibility, reentry, second chances, starting over, talents

More inspiration…blogathon style

I’m having a hard time believing that Wordcount Blogathon 2010 ends tomorrow.  I’ve  blogged for 30 straight days, something I wasn’t sure I could do when I agreed to take part in this crazy thing.  Looking back now, it feels like the time just flew by.

It’s amazing what 100 writers urging each other on can accomplish in just a month.  As odd as it seems, I may actually miss it.  The blogathon generated it’s own kind of energy, as well as, a camaraderie often missing in the solitary life of a writer.  I got  ideas from my fellow bloggers and was  encouraged to stretch in ways I might not have otherwise. (Haiku, anyone?)  And while I found new readers,  it also led me to some fascinating work that others are doing.

On weekends during the blogathon, I’ve been posting poems or inspirational stories that might be of interest to ex-offenders and those who help them.  Today, I’d like to single out some newly discovered sites that really inspired me.

1.  First, a  shout out to Prison Photography for leading me to this great graphic on the number of incarcerated individuals in the U.S. by state.  It was created by the Pew Center for the States.   It’s designed so that you can click on the state and automatically find out how many are people are in prison or jail there.   It’s also color coded so you can automatically see where the high concentrations of inmates fall.   Blog author Pete Brook is a Brit who lives in Seattle and describes himself as an amateur photographer.  His blog features fascinating prison photos from photographers around the world.  His ultimate goal, he says is to “prick people’s curiosity about the prison systems that exist within their societies.”  How much do you know about yours?

2.    Correctional Nurse.net Lorry Schoenly is a registered nurse who works in corrections.  She’s also a writer and educator.   I just discovered her site this week and haven’t been able to scratch the surface in terms of all the information she has there.  Some of her recent posts include advice on dealing with the fallout from pepper spray, how to help prevent suicides in prison and jail and how correctional staff can identify and deal with alcohol withdrawal.  I can tell this is a blog I’ll be coming back to again and again.

3.  Ed Pilolla Ed is a fellow-blogathoner and journalist who used his 30 days to continue composing love letters he plans to  publish in a book soon.  Each daily post brought a new letter and another lesson for me in evocative and exquisite writing.  In his free time, Ed also was  kind enough to stop by this blog to offer comments and encouragement.

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Filed under ex-offender psychology, inspiration, life in prison, offender health, prison reform

Robert Frost on surviving the night

I was looking for inspirational poems and came upon this one —Acquainted With the Night — by the American poet Robert Frost. Frost  experienced his share of heartache and depression during his  life.  Some scholars say this poem alludes to feelings of shame.

I know, I know — you’re wondering where the inspiration comes in.  Actually, you can find it in  his other poems  — like the well-known The Road Not Taken .  The fact that Frost could write both is, I think, a triumph over his experience of the “night.”

It can be done.

Enjoy…

Acquainted with the Night      by Robert Frost

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain — and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
A luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

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Filed under hope for ex-offenders, life in prison

What I learned in prison: an interview with author and ex-offender Piper Kerman

If you follow this space you know  I was initially skeptical of Piper Kerman and her recently released memoir, Orange is the New Black.  The book  chronicles the 13 months that Kerman, a blue-eyed blond with an East Coast pedigree, spent  in federal prison for money-laundering.   Ironically,  she’d committed the crime years earlier,  when bored and just out of college she fell in love with a drug dealer and agreed to transport a suitcase of dirty money to Belgium.  Authorities caught up with her in 1998 after the ex- lover ratted her out, at a time when Kerman had a promising career, a doting boyfriend and was by all accounts  living an exemplary life.

The author in Marie Claire Magazine

My fear was the whole  fish-out-of- water aspect of her story was going to, a) obscure the fact that privileged background or not,  she had committed a crime, and b)  lead to a self-absorbed confessional that wouldn’t shed any light on the challenges faced by most women in prison.

Okay, so call me jaded…

Fortunately, I was also wrong.   In her book, Kerman is quick to take responsibility for past mistakes.  She’s also well aware of the benefits her background afforded, even in prison.  “I am lucky in more ways than I can count,”  she says.  The fact that  her fiance visited regularly, and a friend created a job for her post-release, seems to have made her more sympathetic to the difficulties fellow prisoners faced.  While revelations about power-tripping guards, sub par accommodations and the bonds women form behind bars may not surprise many people,  Kerman does a good job of highlighting the myriad reasons why prison often doesn’t work.  Since her release, in fact, she has continued to advocate  reform and also mentor women in the system.  Recently, we had a chance to chat about her experiences, what she learned and what she hoped to accomplish in writing the book.

You make it clear that in some ways prison was different from what you expected.  What surprised you the most?

It’s shocking to me how wasteful the system is.  Not that I thought prison would be effective and efficient. But when I saw the people I was locked up with, the idea of incapacitating them at public expense was ludicrous.  These people were not violent.  The idea that this was the best use of taxpayer dollars, the best remedy to low-level crime, just doesn’t make sense.

I mean yes, there are folks who will use violence to get what they want.  But overall, I think the depiction of prisoners and prisons as solely, unjustifiably violent is inaccurate.  That’s why I wrote the book.  I don’t think people are aware of who’s in there.  I don’t think they’re aware of the waste in terms of locking these people up in the first place.

At the same time, I’ve known women, and men, for whom it seemed prison was the only answer – the only means to stop them from breaking the law or hurting themselves or others…

Yes, I’ve seen that too.  I met women who said, “If I hadn’t been locked up, I’d be dead now.”  Still, prisons aren’t much of a remedy for crimes of poverty. If you look at the way the system works right now, you’re more likely to be locked up for a crime that comes out of poverty – drug addiction, abuse, crimes of economic necessity. Mental illness is also a big factor if you can’t afford and access care.  Prison cells are not a remedy for any of those things.  They don’t solve those problems.

Did a lot of women struggle with these issues while you were incarcerated?

There was not a lot of drug use at Danbury (the federal prison in Connecticut). But there was a lot of talking openly about it.  That’s why I think there needs to be a shift in resources to focus on demand and not supply – to deal with the addiction piece.  And right now there isn’t.  The Danbury addiction program was only offered to an incredibly limited number of prisoners.  You could only gain access to it if your judge included it in your sentencing.  That’s where the quality of your attorney is so important.

One woman in my dorm was dying to get back on drugs and was very straightforward about it.  She would say, “You don’t understand.”  She was right.  Seeing people struggling like that was really something that changed my attitude.  In my 20s, drugs and addiction were an abstraction.  At Danbury, I saw how drugs affected people I cared about, and I feared for their health and safety.  It was difficult to look around the dorm and see people whose lives had been destroyed by drugs.

In the book, you also alluded to your own struggle.  How one “had to resolve not to believe what the prison system – the staff, the rules, even some of the other prisoners – wanted you to think about yourself, which was the worst.” You described how visits and letters from your friends helped stave off doubt and shame.   Yet,  some of your fellow inmates who lacked that support, were the ones who taught you the secret was “to focus on what you have to give, as opposed to what you want.”  Can you talk a little about that?

That was one of the things inspiring to me about the other women.  I don’t consider myself a particularly religious person.  The people in there with me, some were religious, some less so.  There was this woman who gave pedicures to me.  She was a hardworking person and a cheerful person, not a proselytizer-type.  It really jumped out at me when she said, “I have a lot to give.”  Her belief was tied to her faith and her God.  Other people I talked to expressed their faith as love, the idea that they felt worthy of love. Self worth is such a big issue to people in prison – either in confronting their offense, or because of other compounding factors on their shoulders. I think when folks bump up against authority that can be a really huge stumbling block in terms of staying focused on the positive. That recognition that you have something to offer is SO important.

Particularly considering reentry is so difficult?

Reentry is tough.  Even for a short sentence.  I think one of the things that’s hard for people who have never done time to understand is how completely the institution takes over your head —  the degree to which the real world recedes and how quickly it recedes.  It’s considerable.  Rather than envision the future, you’re just struggling to get through the day.

This is the madness of really long sentences especially for nonviolent offenders.  There’s a mental or emotional consideration. I became close friends with a woman who had done 13 years.  She was going home and was really scared. Women face so many issues, reuniting with children, finding work, and dealing with relationships. It’s tough.

And it’s not that offenders’ families don’t love them.  Families are incredibly stretched, so they can’t always visit.  Also, many factors that go into security of the system impact the inmate’s ability to return to their real lives – like making it difficult for people to visit or making it hard to make phone calls.  So those ties to the outside world just get weaker and weaker.

Most prison systems offer some sort of reentry services for just this reason, but apparently you weren’t too impressed with Danbury’s.  You write about an employment class where the instructor just advised everyone to research jobs on the computer — that is, until a fellow inmate told him you had no access to computers.

It was so obvious that the facility had boxes to check off.  There were eight required classes – housing, health services, employment and some others.   The only useful one was on probation.  Folks from a local halfway house came and talked about the requirements.  Literally every other class was taught by someone who worked at the prison.  One was taught by the former warden’s secretary.

My impression is that it’s really variable.  I know people who have come from prison who were helped a lot.

In the book you talk about writing resumes for some of your cellmates…

Yes.  When women were ready to go home, it would be, “I have to have a resume.”   I remember one woman had worked in the prison carpentry shop.  She had an idea that she could get into the union and be a carpenter.  But when I asked what job experience she had she said, “I sold drugs for 11 years.”   It’s really tough with the low skill sets, but when you have someone who doesn’t graduate from high school what do we think will happen? It’s massive piece employment, not just on a practical level, but on an emotional one.  I got an interesting query from a gentleman who contracts prison labor for phone companies.   Maybe the jobs pay so little they wouldn’t be worth it.  I don’t know whether those types of jobs create a pathway.  But something needs to be done.

Do you keep in touch with any of the women you met?  Do you know how they’re doing?

In recent years, since I’ve been off probation, I have been in touch with some of them.  Many folks in the book have been in touch in the last few weeks.  A lot of the women I knew are doing alright.  But most of them had resources.  Some are working in advocacy.

And the others?

A few that I’m not in touch with have disappeared.  Many of them were young.  The whole issue around juveniles and young adults is so depressing.  I had not spent much time around teenagers. A lot of the 18 and 19 year olds I saw at Danbury were very angry, but they were also looking for guidance.  It’s an incredible missed opportunity to help them make better choices.  They’re warehoused essentially.  These young girls come in completely out of control.  They have trouble getting along with inmates, getting along with the guards.  Then they’re back on the street and many of them end up returning to prison.

What was the most difficult part of your own sentence?

I came close to losing my mind when I was moved to federal prison in Chicago while waiting to testify.  The conditions of incarceration make a huge difference.  I was definitely in shock that first week.

That was also when you came face to face with the former girlfriend who turned you in?

Yes.  But in the end, I’m grateful we crossed paths. It gave me a chance to see I’d been putting all this energy into assigning blame -when it was completely me.

Given that Orange is a book about prison life, I have to say I was surprised I laughed so much while reading it.  Did you do this intentionally?

Humor is a huge survival tool.  I know I used it a lot while I was in prison.  And to write about it, God knows, it’s a depressing subject. That’s one of the biggest barriers to folks wanting to learn more about the system.  I wanted to make the book accessible — not only to give advice to help the reader, but to do this as a true reflection of what the time was like.   I couldn’t do that without humor.

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Filed under employment ex-offenders, hope for ex-offenders, life in prison, prison reform, reentry resources, resumes, Uncategorized

Where books are scary

Believe it or not, one of the places is Virginia, which recently instituted  a ban the books campaign in all state correctional facilities.

Yes, it sounded a little crazy to me too.  But apparently a free program that’s been providing prisoners with something to read for the past two decades has become too dangerous for VA authorities. And too much work. Or so the Quest Institute, a non-profit that runs “Books Behind Bars,” was told last month by prison officials. While declining to provide details, VA DOC spokesman Larry Traylor told the Washington Post, there were growing concerns that someone could smuggle “contraband to a prisoner by secreting it in a book.” Think Andy Dufresne’s rock hammer (above) in the Shawshank Redemption. Except, oops – that was actually brought in with the laundry by another inmate. Dufresne only hid his escape tool in the Bible after he was back in his cell.

In the case of the prison book program, the folks at Quest think it was a stray paper clip and CD that accidentally made it into a Virginia shipment. Not a good thing, certainly, but not a rock hammer, either. I’m all for security concerns and safety – but inmates quietly reading vs. bored felons gossiping, gangbanging or worse? Who would you rather supervise? Or see released in the near future? Even in Virginia — a state known for making prisoners as uncomfortable as possible — passing out books seems less pampering than common sense, particularly when the most frequently requested volumes are the dictionary, the Bible and the Koran. Coming on top of last year’s discontinuation of college courses in some facilities, this new ban is just silly, not to mention counter-productive.

Now I know many correctional facilities still have their own small libraries. I also know the pickings can be slim. One of my students recently requested a thesaurus because she wanted to build up her vocabulary for job interviews. There wasn’t one in the library so the librarian shared her own, which unfortunately dated back to WW II. A sympathetic guard ultimately printed out a Word-of-the-Day from her computer and gave it to the inmate. Don’t we want to encourage offenders like her who want to educate themselves and hopefully finish their terms more focused and able to get a job?  Particularly when it costs us nothing?

What’s been your experience? Anyone benefit from reading while incarcerated? What books meant a lot to you?

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