#YouKnowYou’reLockedUpWhen


#YouKnowYou’reLockedUpWhen

People you once would’ve swiped left to are now right, right, right. A few years in and everyone’s a 10.

You’ve thought of countless different ways to take yourself out and weighed the pros and cons of each.

You start believing you’re in love with book authors, artists, musicians, poets who “speak to,” “understand” you that you’ll never meet and who are either twice or half your age.

You become one of the two personality types: a) obsessed with showering as frequently and as long as possible, fantasize about it; b) shower not when your celly threatens to beat your ass, but only when they threaten to pour water on your TV.

Torture is epitomized by the restaurant advertisement commercials on TV.

You wake up just a few minutes before they ring the bell and bellow “COUNT!” in the morning because you’re #institutionalized

Every single recipe you see in a cooking magazine you try to emulate, prison-style, with crazy substitutions. Every. Single. One.

Someone asks you your religion, you respond with “David Sedaris.”

Can sleep for 18 hours straight, because oblivion is the only way to Forget.

You eat, sleep, self-mutilate, shit, repeat; Because Depression.

Just managing to wash a few pairs of underwear is a major accomplishment for the day.

You call people who (never) answer, and (never) will.

Sex either dominates your thoughts or you become completely uninterested in it.

You cease to care or care too much.

“Who fucking cares, I’m gonna die here anyway.”

You start to question your sexuality, when just a few months earlier you were bashing those who were “gay for the stay.”

You take offense to drop-the-soap jokes and go to great lengths to explain why they’re so offensive.

You’ve mastered multiple musical instruments, languages, academic subject areas, and The Art Of Keeping Pepper Spray Out Of Your Orifices When Shit Hits The Fan.

You become more cynical than Diogenes. Woof.

Prison Tip #1637: Don’t spit on people. Just don’t. K, thx.

You get your skull bashed in with a lock-in-a-sock before 6 am count; what’s a ‘Good Morning?’

You have to piss in a cup because the COs won’t let you out of your cell to use the common restroom. Not fun, trust me.

Gel pepper spray sticks to the surfaces of The Block for weeks, continuing to burn and cause pain because it was just Created To Suck.

You listen to officers’ radios, just ear hustling because you’re nosy and have a need to know what’s going on.

Other incarcerated people usually do not make credible sources if they’re storytelling. Widely and ironically dubbed ‘inmate.com,’ they’ve been certified fake news by us pseudo fact checkers.

When you hear someone say “I didn’t do it, what happened was…” you can’t help but roll your eyes and say “Frankly I don’t care if you did or didn’t, I still want you out of prison, like, yesterday.”

You give yourself pathetic prison-hacked pedicures on the reg because some things never change.

You start to look at your Prison’s Administration as omnipotent, omniscient, supreme Beings. You can’t help it– especially if they’re nice!

While getting ready in the morning and loudly exclaim to no one in particular “Hmm, what outfit should I wear today? Cocoa Brown Uniform #1, Cocoa Brown Uniform #2, or Cocoa Brown Uniform #3?” At first glance they may appear the same, but #3 is your “Church Outfit” and #2 you’ve distressed for that Grunge Look.

Your incarcerated lifestyle allows you to be More Hipster Than Most. Pshhh, sellouts.

 

(Photo Credit: Ms. Magazine)

#YouKnowYourLockedUp

#YouKnowYourLockedUp when …

You have to learn how to thread your eyebrows with a piece of string you’ve pulled from your pants.

You have to make instant coffee with the lukewarm water in your sink.

Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks are all different variations of Ramen.

To keep your sodas somewhat cold, you plop the bottles in your toilet’s water. Pinkies up when you sip, ladies!

“Bend over it and spread ’em open” ceases to have a sexual connotation.

You have to wash your clothes by hand in any available receptacle: a wash basin, a mop bucket; even a cleaned-out trash can when times get tough.

You master the art of the bird bath during lock downs or stints in solitary confinement. Gotta hit the hot areas, people.

You stand by the cell door waiting in anticipation for mail every afternoon, even those days you know none is going to come.

Coffee, water, brush your teeth since the dental department exists only in name and couldn’t be more indifferent. Rinse, and repeat.

You forget trivial things like what your cell phone number was, but remember what your mother’s favorite sweater felt like when the fabric was pressed against your skin.

You get a flashlight beamed in your face every 30 minutes as you try to sleep at night.

Your private, personal, emotionally and psychologically raw, vulnerable journals are read by and the contents inquired about by the search team during routine cell searches. Privacy? Common human decency? What foreign concepts are those?

Your voice is suppressed, your rights violated, your opinions dismissed on a daily basis because you are subhuman: an “Inmate.”

 

(Photo Credit: Ms. Magazine)

Tampon Christmas at SCI Muncy

I was in for a surprise when I returned to my housing unit, the Young Adult Offender Program, after a visit with my father, June 29th, 2018. After I checked in with my housing unit officers, one of the two of them instructed me to wait a moment. She disappeared into the staff bathroom, which doubles as a supply closet. When she reemerged, she wore plastic gloves and held a large brown paper bag. Immediately I felt confusion, even irrational feelings of dread: what did this mysterious, unsolicited bag contain? My officer approached me while opening the bag, and with a grin on her face, produced three individually wrapped tampons. “Merry Christmas!” She exclaimed. Accepting the tampons, my confusion heightened. What was going on? Did I make it back to the right housing unit after my visit, or one that looked eerily similar with identical mural paintings decorating the walls? Stunned, I watched as she made her way to each cell door, doling out exactly three tampons per person. I turned to my other housing unit officer for some clarity.

The awe of the unit must have been palpable, because the officer I turned to for an explanation stepped out of the office and into the hallway to make an announcement regarding this tampon Christmas. She informed us that our prison is supplying every inmate with three tampons in addition to the thirty pads we receive monthly as a sort of trial run. Contingent upon how it goes, the DOC may start providing us with more free tampons.

Realistically, three free tampons won’t make much of a difference considering the frequency with which tampons are supposed to be changed. However, that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, or PADOC, may begin providing incarcerated people who menstruate with tampons is certainly small progress. Currently, the PADOC only provides people who menstruate with thirty free, individually wrapped pads a month. If a person bleeds heavily and needs more than thirty pads, they have to battle the bureaucratic medical department to be issued more.

Incarcerated individuals can purchase menstrual products through commissary in addition to the free state-issued pads: a 22 pack of generic panty liners costs $1.08, and a 20 pack of Always brand unscented party liners costs $1.86. A 28 pack of Always brand ultra thin pads with wings costs $7.17!

The average inmate pay is $0.19 an hour, which for most goes towards other personal hygiene products and food. Many prisoners do not have outside support, forcing them to work long hours with slave-like wages for the things they need and want.

Until now, tampons have only been available through purchase off commissary. The price of an 8 pack of regular absorbency tampons is $1.82, and an 8 pack of super absorbent tampons costs $2.05. Many people who menstruate prefer tampons as they are hygienic and allow one to comfortably remain active while menstruating.

Tragically, society has treated menstruation as a dirty, shameful issue. Thanks to many activists this perspective seems to be changing. Every woman in every place on Earth, free and incarcerated, deserves free feminine care products. Incarcerated women are one of the world’s most marginalized populations: it is imperative that we change this fact by bringing attention to and illuminating the issues incarcerated women experience. These issues include topics more frequently exposed such as inhumane treatment, disparate and unfair sentences, as well as those issues discussed less often– even period problems!

 

(Photo Credit: Ms. Magazine)

Strip searches: a daily, degrading routine I have been subjected to since the tender age of 14

Strip searches: a daily, degrading routine I have been subjected to since the tender age of 14. Less than a month into being 14, I was still experiencing some pretty awkward, uncomfortable, and funky things going on with my pubescent body, and I hadn’t yet fully embraced that I was, indeed, very much a woman. These factors made my first few strip searches all the more excruciating.

I remember how terrified I was, being certified as an adult and being transferred from a juvenile facility to an adult county jail. It felt surreal. Almost immediately after my arrival I was stripped naked and placed on suicide watch– also naked, but for a scratchy turtle suit.

When I first arrived, a female officer brought me into a small, dank, dungeon-like room with harsh lighting and ordered me to take off all my clothes. Dumbfounded, I just stared at her for a moment until she clearly repeated herself. I quickly realized that I didn’t have much of a choice, and I found her uniform to be quite intimidating. Trembling, I went through the motions of removing my clothes until I stood before her, the totality of my flesh bared. I was suddenly hyperaware of my hammering heart, the blood roaring in my eyes, my flushed cheeks, the cold sweat trickling down my back and under my breasts. I felt so exposed, so humiliated. My eyes were squeezed shut, my fists clenched at my side, my head down: I was deeply ashamed of my nakedness, silently apologizing for it. With my eyes shut I swore could feel the searing heat of her eyes roving across my body, dissecting it, though logically I knew she did no such thing.

I recall the lead in my stomach, the bile in my throat as I was ordered to open my mouth, raise my tongue and run my fingers along my gums. Reach my arms to the ceiling and pick up my breasts, lift up one foot at a time while wiggling my toes, and finally turn around with my back to the officer, squat down, spread my butt cheeks, and cough.

Afterwards, she left the room, allowing me to change in privacy, though I viewed it as giving me the chance to regain my nonexistent composure. She noticed the tears that burned in my eyes, my quivering lip. I was in neither psychologically nor emotionally equipped to handle the experience that brought me to prison, nor the ones that followed it.

Strip searches continued to be as humiliating, degrading, and difficult throughout my year in county jail– I was always a reluctant participant. After I pleaded guilty and was sent to state prison, eventually things began to change as I adjusted and adapted. The sad reality is that I became numb to the dehumanization I was regularly experiencing. Eventually, strip searches ceased to perturb and humiliate me to the extent they once did. I came to accept them as one of the unfavorable facets of my life in prison; I became desensitized to objectification.

One should never stop being bothered by something as degrading as strip searches, no matter how frequently one is subjected to them. However, it is important to realize that it is one awful and inevitable aspect of being incarcerated that, until it is amended, must be tolerated. Sometimes, courage isn’t always having the loudest voice: it is knowing the difference between when to remain silent and when to speak up and stand up for what is right.

So I will continue to endure squatting and coughing if it means I’ll be able to see my loved ones, friends, and family in the prison’s visiting room. We all need to make sacrifices sometimes, compromise our values for a greater purpose– even those of us on the Inside.

 

(Photo Credit:  Ms. Magazine)

Incarcerated women like myself practice Hygge on a daily basis

Since our slightly less urbane and definitely not gluten-free ancestors performed magic by discovering fire, the desire to be cozy has become innate for far more than just survival. I had no idea the love of coziness had a name: all I knew was that it was one of my reasons for existence, and there was nothing better after a long day than to don my favorite sweatsuit, taking care to look as lumpen, misshapen, and questionably inhuman as possible. I would heat up a fluffy blanket in the drier, grab a hot beverage of choice, and delve into whatever I was currently reading along with my mother, who was an avid reader as well. Apparently a love of reading is hereditary. Oddly enough, I only discovered the sense of comfort and well-being I adore so much has a name, Hygge, while in prison, which I learned reading an article in Time magazine. Thanks, Time!

After reading the article, I quickly asked a loved one to order me a copy of “The Little Book of Hygge” by Meik Wiking– the CEO of The Happiness Research Institute based in Copenhagen. I was charmed by the book’s enriching techniques and suggestions as to how to make your life more “hyggeligt”; areas included lighting, ‘togetherness’ and socialization, food and drink, clothing, and the furnishings of your home. What inspired me the most is how incarcerated women like myself practice Hygge on a daily basis, in spite of our oppressive, restrictive environment.

Hygge practices are highly individualized and unique for everyone, and behind prison walls they are as well. Some of my favorite Hygge practices mirror what brought me comfort at home. When I’m not busy, I still love to change into my favorite sweatsuit and crawl into bed with a book, and I enjoy listening to music, effectively tuning out my environment. Every night to wash off the sweat of the day I take a long, sauna-like shower; as the steam envelops me and the hot water massages my muscles, I am able to relax and unwind, let go of whatever worries and emotions have been gnawing at me throughout the day.

I’ve observed, fascinated, as my peers knit luxurious scarf and hat sets, blankets, mittens and gloves, and, my personal favorite, socks, that appear professionally made. Not only is wrapping yourself in these soft, woolen, colorful items comforting and the definition of Hygge, but the very act of knitting and crocheting is, as well. I’m sure I would find it very soothing if I had the patience.

In addition to our artistic creativity not being stultified, we women prisoners have proven ingenious in regards to our cooking abilities. What could be more Hygge than prison-made macaroni and cheese, lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, stromboli, chicken stir fry, or cheesecake? Maybe a lot of things, but still.

Though activists like myself may be ardent in our belief that an environment such as prison is one that no human being deserves to be confined in, America continues to incarcerate more people than any other country, making us a Prison Nation. Human beings having the uncanny gift of resilience and adaptation, many of us incarcerated individuals adapt to the situations we are in, and try to make the best of them. However, no amount of positivity and humanity we prisoners bring to the penal system, no amount of “reform” that lawmakers vow but never quite seem to put into action, will ever mitigate the Draconian, cruel, backwards mentality that human beings are disposable and should be thrown away when we make bad choices instead of teaching us to make better ones.

Comfort can be a great thing– but Noam Chomsky warned us about its illusions.

I remain fully aware of the life I helped to take while strumming my guitar, watching a movie, playing chess, or participating in sports here in prison: most days the guilt threatens to swallow me whole. I’m sure many of my peers experience similar feelings of remorse. Prison isn’t filled with monsters. It’s filled with people like you and me, who have made terrible decisions. It isn’t an ugly place; you can find beauty and compassion if you know where to look. If you are ever in Muncy, Pennsylvania, I’ll gladly show you.

 

(Photo Credit: Ms. Magazine)

Shonda Walter, a 36-year-old Black woman on Pennsylvania’s death row

Shonda Walter, 2005

Shonda Walter is one of two women who currently sits on Pennsylvania’s death row. Pennsylvania has two women’s prisons, Muncy and Cambridge Springs. Muncy is both maximum security and the intake prison for all women prisoners in Pennsylvania. Muncy also houses Pennsylvania’s death row for women. Every woman prisoner in Pennsylvania first comes to Muncy, where her `security level’ is assigned, based on an assessment of criminal record, medical, mental health, and substance abuse. Lower security prisoners are sent to Cambridge Springs; the rest stay at Muncy. The question of how Shonda Walter’s ended up on death row may be the final nail in the coffin of the death penalty in the United States. Shonda Walter’s story hinges on the State-allotted destiny for young, low and no-income, Black women.

Shonda Walter was tried and convicted for murder. At the time of the murder, Shonda Walter was in her early 20s. At her first trial, Shonda Walter’s lawyers were a hot mess. They freely conceded her guilt to the jury, and they never presented her, or the jury, with any options or explanations. In her appeal, the judge described her attorney as “unintelligible.” The Pennsylvania appeals court found that Shonda Walter had indeed had terrible representation, and then went on to uphold the conviction and sentence.

Shonda Walter is a 36-year-old Black woman, and that is where the Constitution ends.

Shonda Walter has new attorneys who have filed a brief with the Supreme Court. Her attorneys argue that the ordinariness, the typicality, of Shonda Walter’s case, or pre-ordained fate, means the death penalty is unconstitutional. The adjudication of death sentences is capricious, arbitrary, and bears more than a `taint of racism.’

In an amicus brief, a group of social scientists zeroed in on Pennsylvania’s racist patterns: “Social science researchers have … turned their attention to Pennsylvania. One study on the role of race in capital charging and sentencing found that African Americans in Philadelphia receive the death penalty at a substantially higher rate than defendants of other races prosecuted for similar murders.”

Further, across the country. African Americans are systematically removed from capital offense juries. In Pennsylvania, “prosecutors struck on average 51% of the black jurors they had the opportunity to strike, compared to only 26% of comparable non-black jurors.”

As Shonda Walter’s attorneys’ conclusion suggests, none of this is new: “There is a palpable inevitability to the demise of the death penalty in this country. Whether it be now or in the future, the cast of its last libretto will be a familiar one: an innocent victim senselessly murdered, a psychologically damaged defendant, a lawyer with at least one foot on the disfavored side of Strickland’s Maginot line. And, as here, the case will have progressed through a system overshadowed by interminable delays, arbitrary and discriminatory application, and the now inescapable conclusion that too often we err in a way no court can mitigate.”

Too often we err in a way no court can mitigate. Another world must be possible.

 

(Photo Credit: The Marshall Project / Bill Crowell / The Express / AP)

Pennsylvania built a special hell for Miriam White

Yesterday, Ellen Melchiondo reported on a visit to the Restricted Housing Unit in SCI-Muncy, a women’s prison in Pennsylvania. She noted, “In one of the pods is confined Miriam White, who in 1999, at the age of 11, stabbed a complete stranger to death in Philadelphia. Miriam was sent to various institutions before landing in Muncy. I could barely see Miriam through her window, because on it, she was finger painting with her feces, slowly, deliberately and trance-like.” Here is Miriam White’s story.

On August 20, 1999, eleven-year-old Miriam White argued with a cousin. Miriam then grabbed a knife and ran out of her South Philadelphia foster home. She ran down the street, passing some children, turned the corner, and saw Rosemary Knight, fifty-five years old. Miriam ran up to Rosemary Knight and stabbed her in the chest. Rosemary Knight died on the spot.

Rosemary Knight was a hairdresser and the principal wage earner in her household. August 20, 1999, was the twenty-seventh wedding anniversary of Rosemary and Jerome Knight. Miriam did not know Rosemary Knight.

Miriam White was a young “troubled” Black girl. Her infancy and earlier childhood was one of violence and abandonment, followed by a succession of institutionalization and foster homes. In February 1995, Michelle White Stevens took in the then-seven-year-old Miriam and her two younger siblings. In 1999, Stevens adopted the children. By all accounts, the house was a loving household.

Miriam White progressed and crashed, progressed and crashed. She has been diagnosed with severe mental illness and severe intellectual disability.

According to Miriam White, she wanted to hurt someone so that she would be sent back to a juvenile institution. She was careful not to attack children. After she stabbed Rosemary Knight, she ran to nearby hair salon, “trembling and begging for help because she had just stabbed someone.”

Up to this point, the story of Miriam White and Rosemary Knight, and all those around them, is tragic. Then it gets worse.

Pennsylvania is one of the few states in which anyone charged with first-degree murder must be tried as an adult. That includes eleven-year-old Miriam White. So Miriam White was placed in solitary in an adult jail while the adults tried and failed to figure something out. The judge tried and failed to find a compromise. The defense attorneys tried and failed to argue for reason. As her attorney argued, “Who, judge, at Muncy is going to take young Miriam through her first menstrual cycle. . . . The older, nurturing inmates?”

And so, in August 2007, Miriam White, eighteen years old, pleaded guilty in adult court to third-degree murder and possession of an instrument of crime, and was sentenced to 18 to 40 years. According to some legal scholars, it’s doubtful that Miriam White is competent to take a plea or anything else in court.

Miriam White’s “case” is littered with fine language. She “haunts” the criminal justice system. The initial judge’s ruling concluded, “I cannot exonerate Miriam just because I feel sorry for her. I cannot return Miriam to juvenile court just because her life story makes my heart weep. My oath as a judge requires that I decide this case on the basis of the proofs in court. The decertification petition is denied.” Miriam White’s case is “tragic” as it is “heartbreaking.”

That’s how the story is told, but not how the life is lived. Today, sixteen years and two months later, where is Miriam White? “I could barely see Miriam through her window, because on it, she was finger painting with her feces, slowly, deliberately and trance-like.” Justice is served, humanity denied.

 

(Image Credit: Martin Vargas / Solitary Watch)

Pennsylvania built a special hell for women: The Restricted Housing Unit of SCI-Muncy

Women serving time at SCI-Muncy Prison in Pennsylvania

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has two state prisons for women, Cambridge Springs and Muncy; both are named after the town in which they are located. Cambridge Springs is in the far northwest and Muncy in the central region; there is no such facility for the place where most prisoners come from, southeast, specifically, Philadelphia. That says a lot right there, but I will not be commenting on the hardship for visitation this places on family, friends, the potential for educational opportunities and advocacy, the lifeblood of the women. Muncy houses the prototypical prison within the prison: the Restricted Housing Unit (RHU), which I recently visited.

To enter the RHU, one goes through a locked gate before being buzzed inside. Upon entering, you immediately get a sense of being hermetically sealed: no sounds or smells from outside, no feeling of fresh air. There are four “pods” that are triangular shaped, two on each side of the wide, sterile hallway. From the center of the RHU and above is the interior Correctional Officers watchtower, or “bubble”. There is no long line of cells that would justify being called Death Row; Death Triangle would be more appropriate. However, the two capital cases are housed next door to each other, so there is a mini-death row within one RHU pod. The two women sentenced to death are no different in their crimes than some women serving life; they just had very different judges. Inside this pod is a small multipurpose room where only they can watch TV and do arts and crafts. There is a yard connected to each pod: it is concrete with a chain link roof, perhaps to provide shade. The RHU doesn’t have tables and chairs for the women to eat or socialize. Food is delivered through the wicket, and socializing is done by screaming through the doorjamb. There is one flat screen TV on the wall, which would be very difficult to view through the small, narrow window on the cell doors. Counseling is done inside of a phone booth size, wire mesh cage; the woman sits inside this cage to receive her therapy. Each woman is in a single, solitary cell. Visitation is used as a behavioral management tool. If they act up, visitation is withheld. If a woman is reluctant or refuses to leave her cell, the correctional officers have two choices: either leave her in the cell to suffer or forcibly remove her. The correctional officers usually take the path of least resistance and do nothing. If they do get a visit, or if they are allowed a visit, it is done behind plexiglass via a phone. After the visit, the women are strip searched. It has hard to imagine why the need for a strip-search; they wear an orange jumpsuit and are handcuffed and chained are around the feet.

One pod is completely empty. It houses the Young Adult Offenders, (YAO). It is currently being transitioned into a DTU: Diversionary Treatment Unit. It is no different than the RHU pods, except for a small fitness room and the tables and chairs in the center of the pod. I say leave it empty.

In one of the pods is confined Miriam White, who in 1999, at the age of 11, stabbed a complete stranger to death in Philadelphia. Miriam was sent to various institutions before landing in Muncy. I could barely see Miriam through her window, because on it, she was finger painting with her feces, slowly, deliberately and trance-like.

Long-term confinement can last many years in the RHU. It’s mind boggling why the prison system doesn’t realize that their methods and policies are failing the women. On this particular day, I saw no therapy being conducted. No visits were taking place. No activity was taking place outside of the cells. And that was no coincidence. Sadly, it was just another day in the RHU.

(For more information on the RHUs in Pennsylvania prisons, check here for the class action lawsuit that the Disabilities Rights Network of Pennsylvania filed and won. For results of the lawsuit and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections response, check here. And here’s the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Access to Mental Health Services Handbook.)

 

(Photo Credit: Let’s Get Free: The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee)

A Tour of SCI Muncy: Always an elephant in the room

Pennsylvania’s SCI-Muncy, opened as Muncy Industrial Home for Women in 1920.

On March 10, 2015 I toured SCI Muncy along with seven members of a Pennsylvania non-profit. Of the seven, four of us visit Muncy on a regular basis. The day began with a meeting with Superintendent Robert Smith, Re-entry Coordinator and media spokesperson Troy Edwards, Assistant to Smith, Renee Shrimp, the health care administrator and a couple of Unit Managers and a couple of other people.

The meeting and conversation was lead by our questions and concerns. If we didn’t ask, nothing was freely offered. No one asked us about our work with the women. They didn’t seem to really care if we were there or not. This was my second meeting with Smith, when he was Acting Superintendent and he knows how hard it is for me to keep it together when wanting better care for the women and more involvement with their confinement. All of our needs were met, though there always seemed to be an elephant in the room. If we didn’t like what we heard or if we disagreed, that line of thought quietly evaporated. We all seemed to be on our best behavior.

There’s a lot at stake at times like this. How much pushing for the real truth can I do or objecting to policy without experiencing potential retaliation and my visits becoming denied? Questions and comments had to go nameless. Situations were described with just enough detail so as not to reveal the actual source. Occasionally names were mentioned, since the prisoner’s needs and situation were so obviously known to all. I hope that some of the concerns we raised made the staff realize that we are watching and we want to be part of the solution.

In the bathroom connected to this meeting room, I noticed many beautiful black and white photos mounted on board depicting woman at Muncy with their faces turned away from the camera involved in work: sewing, washing dishes, stuffing pillows with straw. I assumed they were taken before Muncy became part of the PA DOC in 1953. They were on the floor, fallen and stuck between the cabinet and the floor, gathering dust and scratches. I wanted to smuggle them out. On the windowsill was a large box of documents that belong to a current prisoner. I didn’t have time to go through them. But it seemed rather cold and careless to be dumped there.

After an hour and 45 minutes, I had talked and listened enough and needed to get moving. As I peeked on the tour itinerary that was in front of Smith, I asked him if we were touring the unit where Sharon Wiggins lived and died. It wasn’t on the schedule, but Superintendent Smith knows my devotion to Sharon and he agreed to take us there. It was our first stop and we went into Bethune Unit.

Bethune is neither a cottage nor a trailer/modular. It’s kind of a prefab gym. I immediately noticed all the various shades of over cleaned, dull surfaces of brown and beige: the flooring, walls, painted metal. It was all metal, vinyl, plastic materials. I immediately saw my friend Naomi Blount. We were not allowed to hug, but we managed some arm holding. She showed me her cell. This was the first cell in a woman’s prison that I have seen and entered. No doubt the cell had been personalized, but the condition of the “furniture” was shockingly awful. Rickety old metal that revealed several layers of multiple colored paint. The floor space between the bunk beds isn’t wide enough to do sit-ups. The mattress wasn’t as wide as the bed frame. It would tough to lay on one’s side without touching the wall and having a foot hang off the edge. The window was tiny. Only one seat at the table. A new plastic toilet seat. Oddly, the ceiling is a drop panel type.

The setting of Muncy is rural. During the summer the aroma of cow manure permeates. The rest of the year, it smells like creosote from a rail road tie processing company across the 405. The original residential “cottages” are almost a century old. To accommodate the increase in population, they added huge, attached trailers with low ceilings. It looks cheap and shoddy, because it is.

When the women sit on the top bunk bed, their heads are a couple of feet from the ceiling. There is no privacy. The newest housing is where the new arrivals are classified; it also holds punitive punishment, various mental health “treatment” units, young adult offenders and death row. The infirmary in another kind of warren. There, the psychiatric observation cells are located, medicine is distributed, dialysis is given and terminally ill women die. No one wants to recuperate in the infirmary. It is ugly, impersonal, poorly lit and brown-beige.

We had lunch in the officer’s dining room. The walls were adorned with unsigned prisoner-made art. As you finish your tray of food, you leave it on the table to be taken away by a prisoner employee. I thought that was rude on our part as visitors.

Unfortunately, we ran out of time and didn’t see the education building, library or chow hall. That will be another tour.

 

(Photo Credit: Karen M. Morin, Historical Geography Journal)

Youth has constitutional significance: Ending life without parole

Sharon Wiggins died last year. Wiggins was a 62-year-old Black woman living with serious health problems. But it wasn’t her health that did her in. What killed Sharon Wiggins was the criminal justice system in Pennsylvania. Sharon Wiggins died behind bars at SCI-Muncy, the maximum security and intake `facility’ for all women prisoners in Pennsylvania, as well as the site of its death row for women.

Wiggins entered Muncy at the age of 17, convicted initially to death and then to life without parole. She spent 45 years behind bars. When she died she was the oldest and the longest serving woman prisoner in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has more prisoners who began as juvenile lifers than any other state in the Union. This means Pennsylvania has more juvenile lifers than any place else in the world. It’s the Pennsylvania way.

South Carolina has a better way.

A couple weeks ago, the South Carolina Supreme Court took the United States another step towards ending life without parole, LWOP, for those convicted of having committed crimes while juveniles. The Court’s decision in Aiken et al v Byar has been described as “notable for its breadth” and “groundbreaking.” It could be.

Fifteen South Carolina prisoners, including Jennifer L. McSharry, petitioned the Court to reconsider the constitutionality of their having been sentenced to life without parole, to death-in-life, when they were children. The Court largely agreed with the fifteen, arguing, “Youth has constitutional significance. As such it must be afforded adequate weight in sentencing.”

The Court’s judgment is based on a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Miller v Alabama, which decided that mandatory sentences of life without parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders. That decision built on, and expanded, a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Graham v Florida, which found that life without parole for juveniles who had not committed murder was unconstitutional. Each decision has expanded the space for decency, common sense, and humanity, and these from a Court not renowned for any of those qualities.

The South Carolina Supreme Court had to decide on whether Miller v Alabama was retroactive. That is, if it’s wrong today, does that mean it was wrong before we came to our senses? The Court answered decidedly Yes: “We conclude Miller creates a new, substantive rule and should therefore apply retroactively. The rule plainly excludes a certain class of defendants— juveniles—from specific punishment—life without parole absent individualized considerations of youth. Failing to apply the Miller rule retroactively risks subjecting defendants to a legally invalid punishment.”

Sentences have consequences, and they too must be subjected to at least a constitutional review. There’s more to the South Carolina decision, and it all expands the application of Miller v Alabama. Would that earlier courts had decided that perhaps the impact of punishment should be thrown into the equation, rather than rely on mandatory sentences. Would that earlier courts had decided, and long ago, against a system that cared more waging a war on this and a war on that than it cared about the actual individuals and whole populations thrown into increasingly overcrowded, underfunded, toxic environments. Would that all of this had never had to come to courts at all.

Would that this had all happened long before Sharon Wiggins ever entered prison. Since 2008, the number of women sentenced to life without parole has risen precipitously, and who are they? “Among the females serving LWOP for offenses committed in their teenage years, the vast majority experienced sexual abuse in their childhood.” They are the abandoned, the sacrificed. But the end may be near. For Jennifer L. McSharry in South Carolina and thousands of women across the land, a change could be coming. They stand a chance, a bare chance, of not becoming another such sacrifice.

 

(Photo Credit: TakePart.com)