UNC Chapel Hill’s Arts and Sciences Magazine has done a feature story about both Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass and Razor Wire Women. Check out both the print article and the accompanying video story.
We Mourn Troy Davis and Call for Abolition of the Death Penalty, a post by Jodie Lawston and Ashley Lucas28 Sep
On September 21, 2011, Troy Davis was put to death by the state of Georgia by lethal injection. He was accused of the shooting death of Officer Mark MacPhail in 1989. Throughout his years on death row and during the execution procedure, Troy Davis maintained his innocence. In fact, this case was wrought with doubt about his guilt: seven of the nine witnesses in the case recanted or changed their testimony about his guilt, and there was no physical evidence found at the crime scene linking him to the death of Officer MacPhail.
On the same day, Lawrence Russell Brewer, a white supremacist gang member who was one of three men who dragged James Byrd Jr. to his death in 1998, was executed in Huntsville, Texas. Byrd’s death received national attention due to not only the racist roots of the crime, but its brutality: he was tied to the truck bumper with a logging chain, and dragged three miles until his body was shredded. Brewer’s execution received scant media attention, no doubt because of the utter brutality and racism involved in his crime. What has become news is his last meal request, which included an array of foods from chicken fried steak to a triple meat bacon cheeseburger. This request led Texas authorities to end the last meal request for prisoners on death row. From now on, they receive what the kitchen offers and nothing more.
While the death of Officer MacPhail is undoubtedly an unjust travesty, and while it is difficult to sympathize with the white supremacists in the Byrd case who were brutally violent, we are left with the question of what good comes from capital punishment? Who does it serve? Does it make society safer?
As Death Penalty Focuspoints out, capital punishment has been eradicated in the vast majority of countries in Western Europe, North America, and South America. Studies have confirmed that the death penalty does not deter people from committing crime, and that one of the most important factors that determines whether someone receives the death penalty is the quality of their defense. Racial disparities exist, with those who murder white people being more likely to receive the death penalty than those who murder blacks (the case of James Byrd, Jr. notwithstanding). Moreover, the possibility of executing an innocent person is always present. Just last week, two North Carolina men were exonerated for a murder they did not commit ten years ago. Kenneth Kagonyera and Robert Wilcoxson, two innocent men, were pressured to plead guilty to second-degree murder so that they would not face the death penalty or life in prison. Clearly, our criminal justice system is nowhere near flawless.
Despite the fact that federal and state governments in the U.S. have convicted and executed individuals who were later found to be innocent, we continue to practice the death penalty. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, as of January 2010, out of the total death row population of 3,261, there were 61 women awaiting execution. With the exception of women like Aileen Wuornos and Karla Faye Tucker who make media headlines for deviating from gender roles, many of these women are invisible to the larger society. The website “Women of Death Row” is one of the few sites that are devoted exclusively to women facing capital punishment; it features their artwork and stories so we can contextualize their lives in more than their crimes.
While we do not condone murder on an individual level, we also do not condone murder when it is committed by the state. Capital punishment does not bring victims back to life, it does not curtail crime, and it costs society more than life imprisonment. Troy Davis’ wrongful death should be a wakeup call to all of us. The death penalty needs to be abolished immediately. May Troy Davis rest in peace, and may the rest of us not rest until the bloodshed has ended.
Registration is now open for the Prisoners Family Conference. Jodie and I will be speaking about Razor Wire Women, and we look forward to meeting other prisoners’ family members at the conference. This is not a scholarly conference (though scholars besides the two of us will be in attendance); it is a gathering for primarily for prisoners’ family members, activists, and community service organizations.
Louisiana has some of the harshest sentencing laws in the United States, and as a result the state has an increasingly large group of elderly prisoners who grow ill and die behind barbed wire fences. The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola houses the majority of the state’s incarcerated population; 5, 108 prisoners–most of whom are black men–live with the knowledge that somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of those who serve a sentence at Angola will die there.
A former plantation, which sits on what the prison’s website declares to be “18,000 acres of the finest farm land in the south,” the Louisiana State Penitentiary is a world unto itself. In fact, the entire town of Angola is surrounded by the prison’s fences. Residences for the guards, including a school and baseball diamond for their children, lie inside the boundaries of the prison. The prison fences also surround a fully operational farm and the warden’s personal golf course–both tended by prisoners laboring on the same land their enslaved ancestors were forced to farm. Angola is so geographically isolated that many prisoners’ families cannot afford to visit regularly or at all. Many of the men at Angola are so cut off from the outside world that no one claims their bodies when they die. Even some who do have family willing to bury their remains ask to be put to rest at Point Lookout, Angola’s cemetery, because after having spent decades in this prison, they know no other home.
Faced with the logistical, financial, and psychological toll of a high number of aging and infirm prisoners, Angola’s warden Burl Cain instituted a hospice program. A trained staff of hospice nurses and volunteers from outside the prison work with both dying prisoners and incarcerated volunteers who wish to add meaning to their lives behind bars by helping others. The Angolite, a news magazine entirely written and produced by Angola prisoners, has provided very moving coverage of the hospice program. Angolite staff writer Lane Nelson volunteered for many years in the hospice program and wrote about his experiences in the magazine. (Nelson has since earned his release from prison.) In July 2011 the Oprah Winfrey Network aired an original documentary about Angola’s hospice program. Produced and narrated by Academy Award winner Forrest Whittaker, Serving Life follows four new prisoner volunteers in the hospice program through their training and first few experiences with terminal patients. The film’s narration falls into some stereotypical descriptions of the patients and volunteers as “hardened criminals” and often identifies the prisoners speaking to the camera by both their names and their crimes. Despite this unhelpful reinforcement of the idea that each man is irrevocably criminal, the film ultimately argues that both the dying and their incarcerated caregivers are vulnerable and compassionate individuals, strong in their humanity and fragile in their inescapable corporeality. They are, in fact, just like the dying and the care-giving who are not in prison.
Prisons have many rules about physical contact. Sexual relations among prisoners or between prisoners and guards are prohibited, though, of course, such things happen regularly in secret. Physical fighting, too, is against the official rules but happens with a certain regularity in all prison populations. Even hand holding and hugging are off limits in most prisons. In hospice care the rules change dramatically. Patients have to be touched for reasons of medical necessity and the principles of compassion which form the foundations of hospice care. Incarcerated volunteers must bathe the ill, moisten their dried mouths as they gasp for breath, change their diapers, and hold their hands. Those deemed to be in their last days of life are put on vigils where prisoner volunteers keep watch at their bedsides around the clock in four hour shifts until the patients expire. Touch in these moments becomes essential to human dignity, and no hospice patient dies alone.
The incarcerated hospice volunteers also design and sew personalized quilts for the patients, to keep them warm in their last days and to drape over their bodies when they die. The quilts viewers see in Serving Life are adorned with butterflies soaring above open hands with handcuffs at the wrists–a suggestion that even those in prison will fly free in the next life.
To say that the labor and the extraordinary strength of the hospice workers are inspirational would be both trite and a drastic understatement. Hospice care providers do incredibly difficult and sensitive work, and those who do this work in prison with people who will not live to see their freedom must face not only their patients’ deaths but the stark reality of the lives they’ve lived as well. This film brings into focus the experience that many prisoners’ families fear most–watching their loved ones die in a place where we cannot be the ones to keep vigil. At least the families of those at Angola know that someone will be with their fathers, brothers, and sons when they pass from this world. My gratitude extends to the incarcerated and free hospice workers at Angola and to the prison administration that enables them to serve their fellow men in this most significant manner.
Watch the trailer for Serving Life, and look for it in your local TV listings.
Many editorials and news articles have wistfully mourned the current state of the United States Postal Service since the Postmaster General announced in January 2011 that over 2,000 post offices will close in the next two years. With the agency’s significant debt mounting each year, many have begun to question whether or not we need a postal service, which many now see as an antiquated means of sending and receiving communications and news.
Lovers of old-fashioned letter writing are waxing nostalgic in op-ed pieces all over the country, and I certainly cast my lot amongst those who believe that we express ourselves in a different, often fuller, way when we put ink to paper and compose a message meant for a reader to hold and keep. My concern about the US Postal Service is tied to this but has more to do with people who have much less access to other forms of communication than I.
Rural postal customers and those who live on remote islands, in the Alaskan tundra, or on isolated reservations places harbor real dread of becoming even more cut off from the rest of the world. This subject has had some news coverage, usually accompanied by a human interest story about a community of devoted letter writers who use the post office as a place for socialization and the keeping of traditions.
What I have not yet seen in the news about the postal service is any coverage at all about how the timely and consistent delivery of mail effects prisoners and their families. Prisons are truly the last great bastions of letter writing in the U.S. and perhaps the world. Though some prison systems now enable prisoners to receive messages sent via email, the vast majority of communication between those in prison and those of us who are not occurs through the hand written word. The cost of visits and telephone calls are prohibitively expensive for many prisoners’ friends and families, but even indigent prisoners can usually find a way to lay hands on pen, paper, and postage to get in touch with the people they need to reach outside the walls, including their lawyers, prisoner advocacy groups, and journalists.
Though I have not seen any studies documenting this, I highly suspect that the necessity of letter writing in prison has a significant impact on improving literacy among a great number of prisoners and on encouraging intellectualism among certain members of incarcerated populations. Countless prison memoirs and essays attest to the fact that receiving mail in prison fortifies the soul, taps into the wellspring of hope in the most desolate of places, and staves off feelings of isolation and abandonment. Often mail in prison is delivered by guards calling out the names of those receiving mail as they walk down the tiers of cells, and to have one’s name called offers a special status to those with letters coming to them. The other prisoners and the prison staff are made aware that someone in the outside world is paying attention to this person. Even if what is being delivered that day is a magazine or other impersonal publication, the recipient of such mail has a person in the world beyond the walls who cared enough to send reading material. So many of the 2.3 million incarcerated in this country have no one who writes to them, so those who do receive mail have a special status. Prisoners and staff alike report that regular receipt of phone calls, visits, and mail make a person less likely to suffer abuse while incarcerated. Everyone in the prison is aware of who has people on the outside who care about them, who would advocate for them in a crisis, and those who do not are more vulnerable. Who would complain if they disappeared? To whom would they report a rape or an attack?
The level of isolation and lack of agency experienced by prisoners raises the stakes of communication with the outside world. Almost by accident, I discovered the profundity of prisoners’ desire to reach out to people in the free world, even strangers. When I decided to write a play about prisoners’ families, I also wanted to include perspectives from those in prison but was not able to secure permission to conduct interviews in prisons. The next best thing, I decided, would be to solicit letters from prisoners to tell me about their relationships with their families. I placed an ad in a newsletter put out by the Coalition for Prisoners’ Rights in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Their newsletter is sent without charge to all prisoners and for a nominal fee to their families and advocates who subscribe. It has a broad circulation throughout the U.S. and into some parts of Canada, and I placed an ad in the newsletter saying that I was the child of a prisoner and a student who was writing a play about prisoners’ families. If these folks would be willing to answer a few questions about their relationships with their families, they could write me at my address at the university where I was studying. The first week after the ad appeared in the newsletter I had received 100 letters; by the end of the second week that number had doubled, and by the time I graduated and moved away several years later, I had received letters from over 400 prisoners telling me about what had happened to their families. I conjecture that part of this overwhelming response came from the need that so many of us have to talk about what prison has done to our families, but perhaps another significant part of this was the implicit promise that I would read their words, that I and anyone who might see these stories represented on stage would become witnesses to some aspect of these lives that prisons conceal.
I send a lot of mail to people in prison and encourage those of you who have a connection to a prisoner to do the same. Strong connections with people in the free world help prisoners live better lives both during and after incarceration. This website has a new page which provides the mailing addresses for the incarcerated contributors to Razor Wire Women who wish to make their contact information public. Je’Anna Redwood suggested this addition to the site, and we are now writing letters to all other incarcerated contributors to the book to ask if they would like their addresses listed as well. We will only list addresses if and when each contributor requests that we do so, as a means of protecting their privacy. However, if you read the book and want to share your reactions with a particular contributor whose address is not listed, you can send your letters to me, and I will pass them along to the writer or artist in question.
Last year my postman actually thanked me for the number of letters I send on a daily basis. He said that if everyone sent as much mail as I do, the US Postal Service would not be in trouble, which is something friends of mine have been saying as a joke for years. His comment made me feel incredibly gratified because someone noticed my efforts to stay connected to my father and other people about whom I care. Prisoners are doing more than their fair share to support the Postal Service. Let us do the same in support of prisoners.
Taxing Prisoners’ Families: Pay for Visits in Arizona, Pay for Health Care in Texas, a post by Ashley Lucas16 Sep
After the passage of SB 1070 (the toughest immigration legislation in United States history), the Minute Men, and Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Tent City, many of us thought that Arizona could sink no lower in terms of devaluing the rights of its residents, but yet another gross offense against human decency has evolved in the Grand Canyon State. Anyone who wants to visit a prisoner in the Arizona Department of Corrections must pay a $25 fee.
Essentially the Arizona prisons have responded to the state budget cuts by taxing prisoners’ families who are already among the most vulnerable populations in the state, and the added cost for visitation will certainly deter family members from visiting.
Popular discourse surrounding the financial cost of incarceration tends to focus on what the state pays to lock someone up and court costs, but we seldom examine the monetary losses suffered by prisoners’ families. When a person enters a prison system, s/he loses the ability to be fiscally responsible. The incarcerated can neither pay their outstanding debts–legal or otherwise–nor provide financial support to their families. Prisoners have only two ways of accessing funds. Either someone in the outside world deposits money into an inmate trust account run by the prison system, or in some states prisoners can earn money for jobs performed in the prison or on work release.
Some state prison systems have found ways to take a cut of the money families send to their incarcerated loved ones. In California, prison sentences often include a fee to be paid in restitution to the state, which in practical terms means that both prisoner wages and deposits made by family members to prisoner accounts are taxed with a certain percentage of the funds going to pay the restitution costs. Every time a family member deposits money for a prisoner to use, the state of California takes 55% until the prisoner’s restitution costs have been paid.
Prison wages vary from state to state, but the Prison Policy Initiative cites the average of the maximum wages paid to prisoners by states as $4.73 a day. In Texas and Georgia prisoners are not paid at all for their labor.
You might be wondering why folks in prison need money at all. Prisoners can only spend funds in their trust accounts at the commissary within the prison or send their money home to their families or others on their visiting lists. In Texas, indigent prisoners are not given toothpaste, just tooth powder which one scrubs onto the teeth with one’s fingers. Other hygiene products, like deodorant, can only be obtained if you have the money to buy them. Prisoners can also buy stamps and letter-writing supplies, which for families who cannot afford the expense of collect phone calls or travel for visits serve as the primary (or only) means of communication between a prisoner and her/his loved ones.
Prison commissaries also sell food products, which have proven invaluable for prisoners with dietary concerns. For instance, starting in 1995 the Texas Department of Corrections fed prisoners a meat substitute known as Vita Pro, until the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the prisons could no longer serve it. During the years that Vita Pro was being served, many prisoners, my father among them, could not attain adequate nutrition from the food provided in the prison chow hall and reported terrible digestive problems whenever they attempted to eat Vita Pro, which was served at almost every meal for four years. Therefore, money to show at the prison commissary was essential to their health. Those without funds had to make do with Vita Pro or find ways to trade for commissary food in the prison’s underground economy. Prisoners’ families, mine included, felt an urgency to provide our incarcerated loved ones with funds to pay for food. This cost, like so many others in the prison, gets displaced onto people who have not been convicted of crimes, who are helping to prevent recidivism by maintaining essential family ties with prisoners.
Now Texas families are being hit with a new and frightening fee: $100 a year to cover the cost of a prisoner’s health care. Since Texas prisoners earn absolutely no wages for their prison jobs, the only means by which such fees can be paid is by family members, and this $100 a year will only buy our loved ones access to health care so bad that the Texas Civil Rights Project’s latest report on the subject calls it a “Secret Death Penalty.”
Get Tough on Crime advocates say that prisoners deserve to pay for every conceivable thing, but even if one buys into that extreme ideology, one cannot force a largely indigent population to cover the costs of its own incarceration. Instead families take on the myriad financial burdens of incarceration. Most of these families are already among the working poor, and incarceration cost them a breadwinner in the household. Many incarcerated people, especially women, fulfilled caregiver roles in their families prior to their incarceration, so their displacement from the home means that families must find alternative means to care for the children, elderly, and incapacitated people in their households. We family members also cover the costs of travel for visitation, collect phone calls, and the legal debts that court battles leave in their wake. Now we must pay for the basic rights to see those we love and to provide them with ineffective health care.