Pushing past that toe-stub of a critique, I want to riff off of Patrick’s NY Times essay (please read it, it won’t take long) by exploring my own questions about when does a luxury become a necessity, and when does deprivation become cruel.
If you expect that the Idaho Department of Correction’s (IDOC) prison system has to be a horrible place given the politics of the state, let me assure you that it’s not. Almost every week I read about conditions at prisons in Louisiana, Florida, the Rikers hell-hole and others, and am thankful that Patrick isn’t there. There are life-threatening problems with the Idaho prison system, and Patrick and I have seen many of them, but his situation could be worse. I’ve interacted with many people who administer the system and the advocates who work with them, and have found IDOC personnel to be largely competent and caring.
That description does not include the Geo Group Lieutenant in Eagle Pass, TX, who was wearing a “Punisher” patch on his sleeve when I paid a visit.
US News seems to have a list for everything and Idaho clocks in at #40 here. My list of issues where Idaho badly needs improvement include:
- High incarceration rates and long sentences
- Extended ad-seg (solitary) stays
- Crowded facilities
- Outsourcing residents to out-of-state private prisons – currently Geo Group in Eagle Pass, TX and CoreCivic’s Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, AZ
- Chronic personnel shortages
- Poor healthcare
- Spotty adherence to written policies and missing records
- Scarce resident opportunities for education and work
A quick detour regarding the ad-seg bullet. Patrick was in ad-seg for two years after participating in an act that his 16 person “walk”, as a whole, engaged in. I don’t know the what and why of the act, and I may never know more unless I’m still on this side of the drool and dirt personal achievement level when he’s released. So, let’s stipulate that some ad-seg may have been warranted. I question whether two years is in anyone’s interest.
All of these failings are affected by the politics of the state, but the final decisions on where to scrimp are administrative choices. Because multiple examples of these issues are presented at Book of Irving #82431, I won’t go into them in any depth here. Instead, I will address those usual deprivations that society expects to be a part of incarceration. Minor or not, they exact a toll not just on the incarcerated, but also on their families and loved ones. In keeping with the title, I will focus on the transition from deprivation to injustice that happens at both the margins of luxury/essential and incarcerated/supporter.
I want to call this effect de-humanization at the margins. Prisoners and families encountering these issues are rarely seen by the public because, you know, they aren’t really human. Countering these are the little ways the prisoners and families, and even the prison staff, respond with what I’m going to call micro- and macro-nobilities.
My son ended up in prison despite our shared privilege. We had a few lean years when I was in school where the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program was an important family food source, but that was years in the past by the time Patrick was sprinting down the path to prison.
When Patrick’s NY Times essay said…
With decades-high inflation affecting Americans everywhere, prices of certain essentials have swelled beyond some prisoners’ ability to pay.
That is not a financial problem for Patrick, since he has his family’s support and we’re doing OK, but it is a problem for many others. Breaking that quote down further; Why does Patrick say these items are essentials? Doesn’t the prison provide all of the essentials?
The question of what is appropriate and humane clothing seems like a good place to start, as Patrick used it to introduce his essay. While these exact questions may not have been discussed in a conference room or even vocalized, someone is obviously weighing them:
- Is occasionally going outside a human right? If the system is well understaffed, can we wait a month or three before we allow it?
- How much comfort do the clothes need to provide during weather extremes? (There’s a related summer/winter interior HVAC question that some prison systems are absolutely failing on.)
- Do frozen feet and hands count as too much discomfort?
- How about if frozen extremities progress to frostbite, but don’t lead to permanent injury?
- How many such permanent injuries should the system allow before oversight is encountered?
The answers that you come to are likely to differ from those that many institutions will arrive at. Pick just one of the first four questions and you may think that it sucks, but it isn’t “horrible.” I grew up in Wisconsin and have only lived in northern states. I do plenty of outdoor winter activities, some voluntary and others not, so my extremities have been frozen to the point I couldn’t feel them many, many times. It’s very uncomfortable, but not life-threatening. And that’s just the way it is.
Frostbite, mild to extreme, starts to move the needle from “That’s just the way it is” into the realm of “That was really stupid”; Or further into “That should have been prevented” territory. Let’s hope the people making the decisions adhere closer to the just-uncomfortable domain.
What do you think happens when outside rec opportunities come in quanta of 1 hour, no more and no less, no matter the weather? In some weather that will be life threatening if you’re not dressed for it. Idaho has been known to have “some weather.” Let’s say you’ve been locked down for a week, because of short staffing or any one of the usual numerous reasons, and now have an opportunity for outside rec, but the weather is challenging. The clothes you have available could mean that your decision, skewed by your emotional need to get out of your small cell, will put you at high risk for “That was really stupid”, or worse.
The right to go outside for rec is important enough to be included as rule 23.1 in the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules). The “if weather permits” clause in that rule is a margin that may be shaved. Another is which clothing items, especially those appropriate for inclement weather, must be purchased. The ability to purchase these items often depends on the finances of your outside support system, or whether you even have anyone outside who can help.
Nutrition is another area where skirting close to the margins happens. Nutrition in prison is a big expense that is carefully managed. Sunday is “Starve Day” at Idaho prisons. Breakfast and dinner are served, but only an informal lunch might be found for those who bag up muffins at breakfast. Male residents, apparently by virtue of an extra appendage, get two muffins, while female residents only get one. Patrick writes here that there are other sex-dependent differences in serving sizes. Other posts from over the years at bookofirving82431.com describe serving size changes that don’t match posted nutritional information, and staples that become suddenly unavailable.
In the Times essay he mentions that there are some meals he simply can’t stomach. Pre-incarcerated Patrick and I have challenged each other with food dares, as guys do. He has a pretty solid stomach, so these items must be noteworthy. Not being able to eat something because it turns your stomach, whether or not it also makes you involuntarily spray it in one direction or the other, is probably not incorporated into the careful nutritional and economic balance.
While apologists may present a case that squeeze cheese, generic packaged cake desserts and ramen are luxuries in prison, they leave out the humanity inherent in being able to occasionally partake of such a simple luxury. More importantly, they ignore that for some these items are actually nutritional/caloric necessities.
I was a light-middle weight NCAA wrestler; I’m weird about food. The scientist I trained to be is also skeptical of many common nutritional edicts that are created for an idealized person (spherical with consistent density) and in concurrence with requests from Big Food lobbyists. I’ve laughed at metrics like recommended daily calories and BMI, which indicated I was near obese at a time when I did not having enough body fat to float in water (that happens when you’re a short athlete). I make sure that Patrick is able to purchase commissary food items, and I worry about those residents who can’t find one of the scarce low-wage jobs or don’t have other financial support. You know that those folks could easily find themselves on the wrong side of that margin.
Patrick has another important point to make:
Four decades into life, and I’m still asking for an allowance.
I hear the mental stress this dependency is causing. How bad do you think this distress is for the many incarcerated whose families include kids and elderly dependents, and where their partner is in a low-wage job? A common response is that they should have figured that out before they committed the crime. Who should have figured that out? Did the decision-making process that put them into the system include the family, the kids, or the person who is figuring out the right quantity of misery to inflict on someone as punishment for a bad and/or stupid act?
In a Q&A session included in a follow-up NY Times newsletter, Patrick was asked about his introduction to the commissary system. After calculating how much it was going to cost to exist at a minimum standard he said,
This made me regularly contemplate removing myself from the equation — and the logic that supports this train of thought is hard to shake.
In that newsletter Q&A he attributed the additional, unexpected costs to general profiteering. There’s no need to bring the cost of corruption into plain old end-stage capitalism.
I expect the prices on commissary items to increase with inflation as an ethical and rational response. What’s not ethical is using substitutions in branding and size to hide price increases that go well beyond the rate of inflation.
Idaho’s agreement with their commissary supplier includes a clause that stipulates that prices should be comparable to the cost of similar goods available at local convenience stores. Of course, both the supplier and state have agreed upon incentives to game the system. I strongly suspect that the clause has not been audited recently. Patrick recently received a grievance response regarding this question that we’re still digesting. Once digested, we will publish our analysis onto our website.
Families are being stressed as prison systems shift the costs of incarceration onto them. Like the state university systems, but with fewer people named “Dean”, states have been short-changing prison system budgets for many years. The shift has secondary effects upon prisoner health and readiness for life after prison, and cascades into affecting the health and stability of their families.
I implied a lot in the title of this diary and only provided a small subset of the many daily attacks navigated by the institutionalized and their supporters. Rather than sticking with that negative rant for the rest of this diary, I want to pivot to talking about the nobilities shown by the people I’ve met along the way.
— There are no more polite people in the world than those waiting in line for a prison visitation with a loved one. The first time I went a-visitin’ I was overly cautious about not offending anyone in a way that could possibly impact Patrick. It was obvious to my linemates waiting outside the gate that I was a newby and they took the initiative to walk me through the process.
— Once I got inside for my first visit, I didn’t know how staff was going to behave nor how strict they would be in interpreting rules and punishments. For many of the staff I interacted with, especially in Eagle Pass, the prison was a good paying job to be had in a lousy local economy. They wanted to do a good job and they understood that it was a stressful time for everyone. They were human and treated us as the same. I often read stories where that is not the case, but I'm betting that my anecdotes are more accurate to the whole in Idaho’s system.
— The Idaho Commission of Pardons and Parole has a good reputation for just decisions, even though politics may occasionally cause them to be overruled.
— I’ve joined communities of families of the currently- and formerly-incarcerated who help each other prepare for the issues that come with having a loved one on the inside. They also prepare families for when that person walks out of the gates.
— The people running re-entry programs should all be eligible for sainthood, if their personal beliefs include that career path.
— I’ve met a few other prisoners along the way. Of the ones I’ve met, all acknowledge their guilt. I recognize that many whom I haven’t met could rightfully claim innocence, but my experience tells me that the common saying that there is no guilty man in prison is a too-useful and too-common lie. Like my son, they own what they did and are working to become better people. In Patrick’s case, I may not agree with the length of his sentence, but I consider both of us to be lucky that he was picked up before he was found dead. I notice that most initial interactions the incarcerated have with the general public, as Patrick does when he is introduced to a new audience, include a statement of guilt (listen here for two examplars). The expectation by the public to hear that statement has to be wearing, but I haven’t heard anyone say that they wouldn’t make that statement any time it seemed to be wanted.
— Maybe I’ve been lucky with the random set of people with whom I’ve interacted. I know that there are incorrigible people in and around the system, and that some that I’ve met might be playing me. One of my brothers is a former prison guard and his experienced glasses are a lot less rose-tinted than mine. Still, I’m often struck by the lack of guile in the interactions I observe, and the remorse I see. If I’m being played, I don’t think it’s happening very often. I can’t speak to the forces that lead to recidivism, but I know a lot of people who can and are trying to get better and help each other.
— Patrick and I talk to a lot of organizations that are working to help the incarcerated, their families and improve the system. Some of those organizations can be found here. Because this diary was triggered by the NY Times article, I want to thank the Prison Journalism Project for inviting Patrick to contribute, and for helping guide him through the process.
— Patrick’s website, bookofirving82431.com, includes news, prose and posts that are difficult to categorize. He’s been at it for a while, so if you’re a patient reader you’ll see his journey as a writer and his recovery from mental illness. If you’re not so patient and prefer a curated sampling, try this one.
I publish the website and do a little light editing on the articles there. We publish a monthly newsletter-format article titled “First Amend This!” that keeps getting better and better. You can subscribe at the website for email notification of new posts.
In case you were wondering… Patrick’s response to Professor Coclanis’ opinion in the Washington Examiner was the following:
Because I find it more rewarding to punch upward with my prose, I'd prefer to encourage Professor Coclanis to continue his passion of writing and remind him that I, too, have a tendency to make mistakes.
Since this is my first diary at DailyKos after a couple decades of lurking, I decided to take the opportunity to introduce myself. I’m Dwight Irving, a recently retired technologist with a Ph.D. in Chemistry, experience in a few engineering disciplines and a long-ago youth spent on the farm and in the machine shop. My favorite activity is making crap, stuff and what-is-thats. I’m a usually-quiet introvert who challenged himself by speaking regularly in front of technical audiences, and once hosted a horn-band radio show with the tag line, “You don’t know what the quiet guy is going to say... when he has to say something.”
My handle CrossroadsAgent was chosen around the same time that Patrick and I were trying to get a startup called CrossroadsAngel off the ground. We are both musicians and CrossroadsAngel was to be a B2B networking service for the arts marketplace. That was before Patrick started losing altitude. Anyway, that startup, and others, didn’t make it to The Show, so I was lucky to be invited back into the corporate world for my pre-retirement sprint.
I kept my political profile quiet until now because I often worked in technology sales organizations. I self-stifled because it’s stupid to give someone an irrelevant reason to not buy your wares, and sales organizations usually have a conservative bias.
That Google Alert yesterday morning might have triggered more than a single diary. So here I am, you know, out and everything. What’s the quiet guy going to need to say next?