Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Story Problem

Say a young woman did something really horrible--like murder four people. While she was in the county jail awaiting trial, her public defender arranged for a social worker to visit her, talk to her, help her prepare for trial, and for what might come after. Say the social worker was a friend of yours, and she told you stories about this woman--about the abuse and deprivation the prisoner had suffered all her life, and say the social worker came to understand (as you surely will too) that this abuse and deprivation were central factors in the woman's path to this horrible crime. Say that your friend the social worker becomes a kind of friend of this woman, perhaps her only friend, her only support, the only person in the world who listens to her with compassion, so that after her contract to work with this woman ends, she continues to visit, and write letters, and send gifts. Even when the woman is tried, convicted, sentenced to death, and moved from Cook County to a prison that is two-plus hours away, your friend continues to visit. Even though the drive to the prison is long and bleak, and actually entering the prison is frightening and disturbing, your friend continues to go, because she knows she is this woman's only friend and because she wants to go. Even though your friend's heart is breaking every time she sits with this woman and listens to her hopelessness (she has young children who she may never see again), she visits again.

Say that one day your friend gets a letter from this prisoner, and this is what the letter says: In the middle of one night, guards entered this woman's prison cell, handcuffed and shackled her, and put her on an airplane to a prison in Florida. No one told her why. She was not allowed to take anything with her--her books, notebooks (she writes poetry), photographs. The prisoner described the life at the new prison, which involved a kind of orientation in which she was awakened every morning at 5 am, allowed to take a two-minute shower, then returned to her cell where she had to sit on her bed with her feet on the floor, all day, until it was time to go to bed and do this all over again. This was to go on for several weeks before she would be allowed any privileges, but before she could complete her orientation, she was again handcuffed and shackled and moved to another prison in Florida.
     Why would this be, your friend asks you. She had been tried and convicted in Illinois. She committed the crime in Illinois. Why would she have been moved? You, of course, do not know the answer to this, but you wonder, and you thought it might be worth putting it out there to ask.

People can do terrible things and still be people. Recently my daughter told me about one of her college professors who was fired because 30-some students complained that he had sexually harassed them (my daughter was not one of the complainants). My daughter was appalled to learn this about her professor, but she also said that he was an inspired teacher, and that losing him would be a loss to the department. I was struck by the confusing truth that one can be a mess, even a monster, in one--but not all--aspects of one's life. This seriously undermines the concept of good and evil--especially the idea that we are either one or the other.


Margaret P. said...

Mental illness, personality disorders--aren't these some of the forms "evil" takes?

Susan Messer said...

Absolutely, Margaret P. But when we acknowledge that, we have no one to hate or blame or demonize, and we're left to sit with the anguish of it all. Not easy.

Now . . . any theories as to why the prisoner would be moved?

Margaret P. said...

Yes, I have a theory. It's possible the prisoner was disruptive, making it more difficult to manage the prison/prisoners. I also believe (though I'm not sure) that there's only one prison for women in Illinois, which could explain why she was sent out of state.

Susan Messer said...

Ah . . . yes, I suppose this is possible. Thanks for weighing in. But say the prisoner had been telling your friend that she was doing quite well in the Illinois prison. I suppose the prisoner might not have wanted to make your friend sad or worried by telling her that she had been in trouble, as perhaps your friend would then consider giving up on her and not visit anymore.

Nicole Hendrix said...

Susan --- The management of the correctional population is completely under the purvey of the administration of the facilities. Prisoners may be given an opportunity appeal their transfer but these are often rejected. There could be a number of reasons for the transfer but my best guess is to relieve overcrowding. I found this website with an article about a similar case: http://www.bnd.com/2011/06/17/v-print/1752990/illinois-doc-wants-coleman-shipped.html. There are at least three correctional facilities in Illinois for woman (Decatur, Dwight, and Lincoln I know specifically). Interesting that none of these indicate an overpopulation on the DOC website.

As fascinated as the general public is with CSI and media portrayals of justice, they are equally uninterested in the gritty, often dark reality of criminal justice.

Susan Messer said...

Thanks, Nicole. You've filled out the picture.

Clearly the prisoner wasn't given a chance to appeal. And with no indication of overcrowding . . . Still a mystery then. And if she had been disruptive, an option besides moving would have been solitary confinement, right? This was something the prisoner dreaded. Guards in the Florida prison knew about her crime and spoke about it in a taunting way so she could hear.

Some people might think that she deserves whatever she gets. I admit that part of me does. But part of me doesn't.

Margaret P. said...

I am curious about the timing of this woman's transfer in relation to the abolishment of the death penalty in Illinois in March 2011. Any ideas when this transfer occurred?

I just consulted a colleague of mine who worked most of his career in the correctional system and also used to do prison audits for American Correctional Association accreditation, including audits of prisons in Florida. This is what I learned:

- Transfers occur for two reasons: (1) to relieve overcrowding; (2) to give the person a change of environment either for their own safety or the safety of others.

- I checked a book he had for 2010 to look at the statistics on the women's prisons. There is most definitely an overcrowding problem, with one of the prisons actually having a daily inmate population twice the capacity of the prison.

- But my colleague also stated that the abolishment of the death penalty could have triggered the transfer, in that it could have stirred up emotions in the woman that they felt could be mitigated by a change in environment, routine, etc.

- The first prison in Florida might have been an intake facility where the prisoner is evaluated and classified and then sent to the most appropriate prison (one that might be better equipped to deal with the prisoner's situation/needs). He said that most prisoners on death row never get an evaluation as to their issues/needs, so this prisoner would have been due for an evaluation.

- He has never heard of the practice of making someone sit on the bed with their feet on the floor and has no idea what purpose this would serve.

- He said that usually a prisoner would get to bring their personal stuff with them when they are transferred--or at least select a portion of their stuff to take with them. He also said a prisoner on death row is usually allowed to keep more stuff than other prisoners. And how much they can bring depends on the space and rules in the new location.

- It is typical not to inform a prisoner that they are being transferred, as transferring prisoners is a very risky situation. Escapes can happen especially if the prisoner has time to prepare.

Susan Messer said...


Thank you (and your colleague) a million times over. This is very valuable info. I believe the prisoner was just transferred within the past month or two--so May or April. All the available info is coming from letters from the prisoner, who is likely is some state of trauma, so who knows . . .

Scary stuff.

rasirds@cox.net said...

You have all made some lofty and hopeful assumptions to help satisfy one's normal reactions to such atrocities.

Hitler was an animal activist.

I wrestle with my case in addition to resting it.

The problem isn't the story. The story is the problem.

Susan Messer said...

Thanks for your contribution. These are hard issues, ultimately related to our humanity. What is more important and problematic than that?

rasirds@cox.net said...

Thank you for printing my comments. They were not meant to marginalize those above me.

Nothing is more important than issues concerning humanity.

We went to Las Vegas (the reason for my late reply) only to see our son perform, which was a thrill. Ten minutes from the Strip of greed, the homeless and the helpless are strewn on the streets like yesterday's newspapers. When our government is fighting wars instead of feeding PEOPLE and providing health care, the middle class is higher on the already loose ladder rungs. Las Vegas is "Soylent Green" updated.

Prison conditions in AZ are unspeakable and when prisoners are freed, they are unprepared to contribute positively to society and, even worse, the only way they can get health care is to remain in prison.

The line between reality and morbidity is shorter daily because those in power are too shortsighted and money-hungry to understand that they too are affected.

Susan Messer said...

Here's a note sent to me by friend, poet, and criminal justice observer/scholar Renny Golden:

According to the Bureau of Justice, the Sentencing Project and prisoner rights groups there is a profile of the average woman prisoner which I'll list below. The hypothetical woman you mention generally fits that profile except in one critical area---she committed a violent crime. Thus she is exceptional in terms of her response to abuse but not in terms of her experience of abuse. It seems important to offer a social context for evaluating the question of women's imprisonment in order to understand the "problem".

there has been a 400% increase in female incarceration in the last 15 years; at the level of state imprisonment for African American women the increase is 800%.
70-75% of these women are mothers; the majority are women of color
80% were convicted of drug related crimes
50% have been physically or sexually abused
23% were mentally ill
50% never received a high school diploma
30-40% were homeless
the majority never made more than & $7 or $8 per hour
most were unemployed at time of arrest

It would be interesting for folks to speculate as to why there has been a 400% increase in incarceration of women. Some would assume women just became more prone to crime but my research indicates the following:

+the war on drugs begun by Ronald Reagan with the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act and the Crime Bill in the mid 1980s mandated draconian sentencing guidelines, called Mandatory Minimums, that force judges to sentence sellers or users of five ounces or more of crack cocaine to FOUR YEARS in prison (5 ounces of crack is comparable to 5 sugar packets)
+before Reagan's war on drugs the amount of $ spent nationally on the war on drugs was in the low millions; 4 years after the drug laws were passed the cost nationally was 11 billion; it's way higher now. DEA and prison industry won $$; but drug addiction has soared; prison pop. has soared; drug rehabilitation has NEVER soared. According to the ILLINOIS DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS "86 % of the prison population needs drug rehabilitation, but only 16% will receive it."
+criminalyzing addiction has created a racialized imprisonment system (largest in the world) that benefits some and destroys families. There is a film "War on the Family: Imprisoned Mother and the Families They Leave Behind" available from emee award winner filmaker Jackie Rivet Rivers of Peace Productions 773- that documents the stories of Illinois mothers in prison and their children left for 4 years (these are the lucky ones who grandma watched---if the prisoner did not have a care-taker for the kids that state takes them into foster care and MOM almost NEVER gets them back)

As to the prisoner's being moved w/o cause and or explanation...I don't know. But it is not the most egregious practice. ACLU's documentation and class action suits against prisons, including Illinois, indicates case after case of sexual abuse and rape of women prisoners (current wardens of Ill. women's prisons are more vigilant about such abuses) but they continue across the country. Rare public outcry about these abuses or the continuation in 37 states of shackling a mother during labor and delivery of her baby. These women and their children are nobody's concern.

rasirds@cox.net said...

The last sentence says it all, especially when multiplied by too many more atrocities of human rights in this country while the mainstream media concentrates on making an effort to distract us.

Jim Poznak said...

Let's not forget an amazing part of this true story, the effort and compassion shown by her social worker.

Susan Messer said...

So true. Thanks for saying that. and also the social worker's loss . . . of a relationship that had come to be meaningful.

Margaret P. said...

Yesterday "This American Life" re-broadcast a show from 2002 about the Prison Performing Arts project in Missouri--definitely worth a listen. Though it doesn't deal with issues of women in prison, it does touch on your original question about evil, I think.

Here is the podcast about a group of inmates at a high-security prison as they rehearsed and staged a production of the last act of Hamlet.


Susan Messer said...

Thanks for that. I remember hearing that a couple years ago. Loved how they wove the stories together of Hamlet, of producing Hamlet, of the prisoners playing the parts. Probably time to listen to it again.