Who Needs the Death Penalty?

Here it is, day 70 bajillion (frankly, I’ve lost count) of this whole social distancing, shelter in place, stay-the-eff-away-from-me experiment of ours. I’m not ashamed to say that I’m losing my freakin’ mind. I’m so bored I’m inventing new ways to clip my toenails. (Don’t ask.)

This must be what it’s like to be a prisoner in solitary confinement. If so, it’s an unbelievably harsh punishment. But it goes right along with what I’ve been saying for most of my life: the death penalty is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. In fact, it’s probably a blessed relief for some.

No. I say that if you truly want to punish those who have committed the most heinous crimes, put them in prison and let them rot. That is hell on earth.

I won’t even get into the fact that everything involved with the death penalty is more expensive than incarcerating someone for life. It’s not even worth mentioning that zapping the life out of a person doesn’t bring true closure to the victim’s loved ones. These facts have been proven over and over again.

I’m just saying that making someone go through what we’re all going through at the moment, and then adding no end in sight to it, and the fact that your fellow inmates probably want to kill you, and then having no windows to gaze out of and no access to Netflix on top of that steaming pile is all that they deserve.

So, if anyone ever kills me, please don’t kill them. Just let their minds shrivel up from lack of hope. Let their nerves feel like they’re on the surface of their skin 24 hours a day. Let them want to be anywhere but where they are for the rest of their lives. That will feel like justice to me.

Prisoner

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Prison Labor: Modern Day Slavery

From 1998 to 2001 I worked at the St. Augustine Maintenance Yard for the Florida Department of Transportation. I truly hated that job. There is something off about that place, like it was cursed. The morale there was abysmal, and many of the people were just this side of criminally insane. It felt dangerous, in an inmates-running-the-asylum kind of way. It’s what turned me into a bridgetender. I needed peace, after that horror. So I suppose something good came out of it after all.

One of the things that made me squirm the most in that place is that we had a contract with the Department of Corrections. We paid them. They provided us with slaves in the form of prisoners who not only had no choice, but also were not paid for their labors. They dug ditches in the hot Florida sun. They cleared underbrush, using machetes, in amongst the snakes and scorpions and spiders. They picked up trash on the side of busy highways. They did all the grit labor that our other crews didn’t do. Prison Crews are chain gangs without the chains, and field hands without the field.

Were they treated well? In front of us, yes. But some of the guards were thinly veiled Neandertals, and I have no doubt a lot happened out there in the boonies that we were not made privy to. They used to tell us that the prisoners enjoyed this work, but I don’t see how that’s possible. Yes, they got out in the fresh air, but they were sweat-soaked, underfed, and not doing anything that would give them work experience that they could employ upon release. And after all that unpaid labor, they often still had to pay restitution. After digging ditches for about 4 hours, they were treated to a baloney sandwich, and then were expected to work another 4 hours. If some emergency came up and they had to stay late, the prison didn’t hold dinner for them. They simply went without.

One of my coworkers used to long for the good old days. Back then, when a prisoner got “uppity” and refused to work, they’d be locked in a small metal box in the oppressive heat, and the guards would beat on the box with sticks. “That would straighten them right up.” Now, they only get written up and thrown into solitary confinement. Happy to work, my butt.

I have no doubt that that coworker voted for Trump. He wanted to make America great again. He used to make my flesh crawl. And he was free to go home at night, after standing around not doing a thing all day.

According to this article, entitled “Work Forced”, Florida is but one of several southern states that use unpaid prison labor. In these states, the vast majority of prisoners are African American. Without these P Crews, many rural communities would not be able to function, as they’d actually have to pay people a living wage, and they’d be hard-pressed to find people willing to do this scut work.

Is it any wonder that more and more people are locked up for petty crimes? What a boon to the economy when you can snatch someone off the streets for carrying a small bag of weed, and you can work him for years. Slavery still exists, folks.

And it’s not just those Southern states that are culpable. Other states employ prison labor as well. They just pay them. After prison fees and expenses and fines, some of them are lucky to get 90 cents an hour, which isn’t even enough for them to buy a bar of soap in the prison commissary. In many states, if prisoners have a hundred dollars or more in their prison account upon release, the prison doesn’t give them any further money. Just a bus ticket. Thanks for all your hard work.

Lest I entertain the fantasy that this stuff was a thing of the past, I saw P Crews on a daily basis maintaining the grounds of Indian River State College when I was a student there in 2011-2012. These “hardened criminals” were allowed to move around campus, unsupervised, amongst the co-eds.

And that same article really gave me a shiver when it directly discussed some abuses that were happening out of the same prison that we had our contract with when I worked for FDOT, and in the same area where our maintenance yard worked, so it had to be some of the very crews I used to work around. It said:

The Times-Union reviewed all 105 disciplinary reports issued for “refusing to work” from July 2018 and identified at least nine that were written for work squad members. Two of those were written by the same officer, Steven Holmes, who policed a Department of Transportation work squad based out of Putnam Correctional Institution.

In his response to an infraction, Derrick Harmon insisted that he wasn’t refusing to work, but that he simply felt unsafe on Holmes’ work squad. For a week, he said, he had been suspecting Holmes and another officer were plotting to set him up with a disciplinary report for refusing to work.

The disciplinary hearing team, made up of other officers, found Harmon guilty based on Holmes’ statement, which quoted Harmon saying, “I ain’t getting in no ditches today.”

“When Officer Holmes asked Inmate Harmon if he was refusing to work, he said yes,” the disciplinary report said.

Harmon spent two weeks in administrative confinement before he was reassigned to a different squad.

Two weeks later, another prisoner on Holmes’ squad, Henry Summerlin, complained of personal difficulties and other safety concerns. Summerlin, who told officials he was distraught after recently finding out his wife had died, complained of being forced to work in the middle of a “very busy intersection at St. Augustine Beach.” A couple of days later, Summerlin said, Holmes denied his request for a new pair of safety glasses and gloves.

“He stated that he already told us that we needed to start keeping up with our equipment better and that he could not keep getting us new ones every day,” Summerlin wrote in his statement.

“You know that I have been taking it real easy on your ass,” Holmes warned the men, according to Summerlin’s statement on the disciplinary report.

After spending a week in administrative confinement, Summerlin lost 10 days of “gain time,” or time earned off his sentence. He was then reassigned to food service.

I can’t believe this is happening in the 21st century.

As a matter of fact, the documentary that I recently blogged about, 13th, mentions that prisons nationwide have also forced their inmates to work in sweat shops for some very well known companies. Microsoft. Boeing. Victoria’s Secret. JC Penney. Seattle Fish.

Do you eat Idaho Potatoes? Odds are very good that your potato was planted, harvested and packaged by inmates. In fact, more and more farmers are using prison labor because now that we have such an anti-immigration stance, they’re finding it impossible to employ anyone else for that back-breaking work. So, like it or not, we’ve all eaten off the backs of an involuntary farmhand at some point or another.

It kind of makes you think, doesn’t it? Government sanctioned slavery. Here and now.

I know I’ll never look at an Idaho potato the same way again.

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Nowadays the uniforms are a solid light blue, and the shackles are gone, but the work hasn’t changed a bit.

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13th

I know it can be a hard sell to get people to watch documentaries, but if you watch only one documentary in your life, it should be this one. 13th can be seen on Netflix. I’ve had the good fortune to see it twice. Once on my own, and once as a part of my Race and Social Justice Initiative training at work. Each time, it brough out a storm of emotions within me.

This movie discusses a very shocking loophole in the 13th amendment to the US constitution. The amendment reads as follows (italics mine):

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

We’d like to think we’ve abolished slavery in this country, but that’s not at all true, as this movie makes blatantly obvious. Once “official” slavery was abolished, this country had a big, sucking vacuum where all that free labor used to exist. The solution to that problem became obvious rather quickly. After emancipation, convictions for petty crimes began to rise, and they’ve been rising steadily ever since. As it stands, America has 5% of the world’s population, and 25% of the world’s prisoners. There are 2.3 million Americans in prison today, and the majority of them are African American. And oh, are we ever good at putting them to work.

We’ve criminalized drug addiction. We’ve waged war on crime. Politicians began to talk about “getting tough” and “law and order” as a backlash against the civil rights movement. We’ve had harsher sentencing for crack than we do for cocaine, and these drugs are divided along racial and economic lines. We’ve called these people super predators and beasts. They are considered enemy combatants that we should be able to stop and frisk with impunity.

We’ve perpetuated the myth that black men are rapists. Something we rarely think about is that the history of interracial rape is far more white male/black female. Which makes a creepy amount of sense, given the unequal power dynamic.

We created a three strike policy in this country that requires mandatory minimum sentencing. This means that judges can’t dispense justice with any type of discretion. For example, if someone had been convicted of two petty crimes as a brash young teenager, and then lives an upstanding, crime free life for another forty years, and is then talked into plea bargaining for a crime he didn’t commit to avoid this mandatory minimum situation, that person will practically be thrown under the jail, as the saying goes. 97% of those locked up have plea bargained for that very reason. Which means they aren’t really getting any justice at all.

Even former President Clinton now admits that his Omnibus Crime Bill was a mistake. It has militarized our police departments, and funded a lot of prisons which then needed to be filled to remain profitable. It has doubled the prison population.

This has decimated the African American community. Black men have a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison, whereas for white men, the statistics are 1 in 17. It has left a whole generation of leaders incarcerated. African Americans comprise 6.5% of the US population, but 40.2% of the prison population. This makes it difficult for the black community to defend itself.

And have you ever thought about the injustice of the Stand Your Ground laws in some states? Stand your ground allowed George Zimmerman to hunt down and kill Trayvon Martin. Where was Trayvon Martin’s right to stand his ground?

And then, you have to think about all the convicts who pay their debt to society and never have their rights fully restored. It can be nearly impossible to find a job when you get out of prison. And 30% of the black male population in Alabama has lost its ability to vote. Is that democracy? Really?

Two other issues that this movie discusses in depth are ALEC (the American Legislation Exchange Council), and Prison Labor. Those issues are so intense that they’ll each have a blog post of their own.

The frustrating thing about the modern day slavery in this country is that I feel personally helpless to do anything about it. And if I’m honest, most of the time I get to not think about it. I can sit in my white privilege comfort zone and focus on other things, like my next vacation or the fact that my dog wants to go for a walk. It’s a big source of shame for me.

The very least I can do is blog about this issue in an effort to signal boost the voices of the less privileged. So here I am, doing the very least I can do. But it sure doesn’t make me feel any better.

WAR & CONFLICT BOOKERA:  CIVIL WAR/BACKGROUND:  SLAVERY & ABOLITIONISM
The scars aren’t as visible these days, but they’re still there.

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Kolyma

Kolyma was a word that I had never heard until a few months ago. I suspect only 1 out of every 100 Americans has ever heard it. On the other hand, it likely causes the average Russian to shudder.

It is a region in the far eastern part of Russia, and is part of Siberia. It’s a harsh climate, bitterly cold all year round, and covered in permafrost. It’s isolated, and inaccessible for the better part of the year. You can only reach the place by boat for the very brief period when the ice breaks up on the Sea of Okhotsk.

Humans are not meant to live in such harsh conditions, and no one in their right mind would do so. Not voluntarily. Kolyma is a place to be avoided.

From 1930 to about 1954, it was home to the most brutal labor camp in Soviet history. It is estimated that 250,000 to more than a million people died there, after working in this Gulag under starvation conditions, mostly to extract gold.

It was a place where violent criminals were considered the cream of the crop. They got the most privileges. The inmates that were treated the worst were the political prisoners, which mostly consisted of academics or intellectuals.

You could find yourself sent to Kolyma for a variety of trivial reasons. One man, it is said, was sent there for refusing to write a song about Stalin. You could also wind up there for decades, if you survived, simply for speaking out against the state or refusing to incriminate friends or colleagues. After World War II, many Soviet POWs who were released by the allies were then sent to Kolyma for 10-25 years for “collaborating with the enemy”.

Many authors have written about Kolyma. The one who has touched me the most during my research on this post was former prisoner Varlam Shalamov. You can read one of his moving stories, Condensed Milk, on-line. It really shows how much your humanity can be taken away from you, and how your whole focus, your whole survival, can be reduced to one can of condensed milk. You can also read some chilling quotes from his book, Kolyma Tales, here.

It is said that this Gulag shut down in 1953, but many people, oddly enough, remained there voluntarily. And in truth, there were still some prisoners there. The last prisoner was supposedly released in 1990. Most structures in Kolyma are disintegrating now, and most people are gone. But no one knows for sure how many bodies lie beneath the permafrost.

What I find most disturbing about Kolyma is that it occupied such a horrible place in human history, and yet so few people know about it. It makes you wonder what else we are missing.

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Civilians vs. Law Enforcement

Recently I set off a heated debate in my world. I mentioned that I was glad to see that felons who have served their time in Florida have finally had their voting rights restored (unless they were convicted of murder or felony sex crimes).

Florida has always been the most restrictive state in terms of felony disenfranchisement. According to this article, in Florida, before Amendment 4 was passed, “one in 10 voting-age adults, and almost one in four African American adults were barred from voting for life because of a previous felony conviction.”

It’s clear to me why this has been the case. Florida is a red state, and it was feared that most people who have been in prison would vote blue. Also, with the disproportionate number of African Americans convicted of crimes, this was a handy way of depriving that minority of the vote, which, let’s face it, is the deep South’s wildest dream. (Now they’ll just have to rely on gerrymandering to get their desired results, and they’re quite good at that.)

I really believe that if we think that prisoners who have done their time have paid their debt to society, then we have no right to prevent them from participating therein. Now, do I expect that most of them will? No. Most of the rest of us don’t vote, unfortunately. Why should they be any different? But they should have the option.

The more roadblocks we place in their paths, the less likely they will be to reenter society with even a modicum of success. We set them up for failure. We make it nearly impossible for them to find decent jobs. We don’t want them as our next door neighbors. We don’t want them voting. Is it any wonder they remain on the fringe of civilization?

When I expressed this opinion, I got a lot of pushback from the people I know who formerly worked in the law enforcement field. The general consensus seemed to be, once a felon, always a felon. They have no inclination to participate in society.

When other friends, civilians like me, said that this might give them some incentive to do so, the law enforcement people opined that they know better. They won’t change.

We civilians piped up that even if only a tiny percentage wanted to change, that’s worth it. That’s when things got hostile. Apparently we shouldn’t form an opinion because we’d never experienced what the law enforcement types have experienced.

Then we pointed out that the law enforcement types wouldn’t, by definition, come into contact with the felons who were trying to change their lives, so their stats are biased.

More anger. Have we personally seen people attempt to change?

Yes. Examples were given.

That response, of course, was ignored. One person from the law enforcement camp  said they used to laugh at all the “do-gooders” who were attempting to change felons.

But we never said we were attempting to change them. We were just glad that they had their rights restored, so that they could make their own choices.

We civilians pointed out that we were sorry that the experience of law enforcement had left them so jaded. The law enforcements fired back that they were realists and that we had no right to weigh in since we didn’t have their experiences. (I half expected them to start calling us Muggles.)

We were then told that we can’t change anyone. They had to change themselves. Again, we pointed out we are trying to give these people the opportunity to change themselves. Again, this went unheard. They just said that they speak facts.

(Actually, no. These are opinions based on experiences, but clearly these opinions are so strongly held that they see them as facts.)

I can understand why one would become bitter and cynical when dealing day in and day out with the very dregs of society. It actually happened to me, too, for a time, in a job where I dealt with a lot of liars and people prone to fraud. That’s why I quit. I didn’t like how it was causing me to view society in general.

I think there’s a reason why law enforcement types often socialize only with one another. The rest of us don’t get it. We Muggles have a completely different worldview.

But we don’t get it because we have the luxury of hanging out with the majority of society, which is either law abiding or has paid its debt and is attempting to move on. How lucky we are. How grateful we should be.

Law enforcement is necessary, and I’m very glad that it exists. But unfortunately I believe that it’s a career path that warps one’s view of society. People in law enforcement have to live in a dark world, and therefore they have a tendency to forget how to see the sun. And it’s a little scary to think that people with warped views of society are in charge of keeping the peace.

I honestly don’t know what the solution is for this. But I’ll still maintain that if even one Florida felon enters the voting booth, I will consider Amendment 4 a smashing success. Congratulations Florida, for finally getting something right. (In my opinion, of course.)

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Countries are Artificial Constructs

One of my friends applied for a high level federal job many years ago and put me down as a personal reference. Some guy in a suit showed up at my door to interview me about her, and one of his questions was, “Is she a good American?”

That made me blink. Uh, what does that mean, exactly? I suppose one could agree that the Unibomber was not a good American, but did that turn him into a good something else?

I’ve always found it rather absurd to judge people based on the nationalities that are placed on their shoulders simply by virtue of birth. Cultures know no borders, and I’ve yet to meet a single human being who agrees completely with the actions of his or her government.

That’s why I can’t get worked up about immigration or buying American. What makes me so special? I’m only a second generation American myself. Why do I have more of a right to be here than anyone else? And why is it better to support a hard working American who is producing a product so much better than supporting a hard working person from Bangladesh? Do they not have families to support as well? I suppose the fact that I have traveled has given me more of a global perspective.

In many places, national boundaries run right down the center of city streets. How different are you from the person who lives just across the way? Are you more different from them than from the person who lives right next door?

In Istanbul you can walk from Europe to Asia and still be in Istanbul. What does that mean to the people who do that every single day? Do the Istanbullu-Europeans distinguish themselves from the Istanbullu-Asians?

When the Berlin Wall was constructed, we considered this barbaric, and watched as people desperately tried to escape their confines. Prisoners, too, do not want to be where they are. What does that make them? Some countries have border disputes with their neighboring countries. What does that do to the mindset of the people who are living in those disputed areas?

In Saudi Arabia the crowds must applaud at public beheadings. Can we really believe that not a single person in that crowd is not inwardly horrified, inwardly too terrified not to applaud? Are those people less or more Saudi than the guy who did the beheading, or for that matter, from the person being beheaded?

In many areas of the world groups of people wish to break away from the country of which they are a part, but are not allowed to, usually because the real estate in question or the industries are too valuable. It’s not that those countries necessarily want to keep those people who don’t want to be there. But they want those property values and that gross national product.

When children in Iran are made to chant “Death to America”, they are quite often as disaffected as their counterparts in America who are required to say the pledge of allegiance every morning at school. They are just going through the motions to make it through the school day. At least that was the case with me. I didn’t feel a surge of patriotism during my chant. If anything, that forced chant about the death of total strangers probably has the opposite effect. It does not make them hate us. It makes them sick and tired of all the stupidity.

If someone in a democracy stages a protest, are they not being even more democratic and therefore more patriotic than the person who sits idly by and doesn’t question anything?

In many parts of Asia, cohesive tribes exist that straddle borders. The Hmong people live primarily in China, Vietnam and Laos. Do they relate more to the people of their own country, or to fellow Hmong from other countries?

We tend to think of the Aborigines in Australia as one cohesive group, but they actually consist of more than 400 groups, each with its own culture and language. Still, I’m sure they feel more like each other than they do those descendants of criminals which seem to have moved in, from their perspective, just yesterday.

If you know you are gay and your country decides that that is a crime, do you feel less of a citizen, or do you just have less respect for those who are in charge of your country?

When China stole Tibet from its people, the Tibetans did not wake up the next day feeling Chinese, and I’m sure they still don’t.

We all have more in common with each other than we do with our governments. We live, we laugh, we love, we struggle to survive, we take care of our families. Politicians, governments, walls, and checkpoints do not define who we are. The more we all realize that, the less we will feel the need to wage war.

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