Right now, as I'm writing this, I'm standing at the door inside my cell, looking into the dayroom at the other offenders in my housing unit. At a table about twelve feet away from my cell, there's a group of guys yelling, laughing, and arguing over a card game they're playing. At the tables directly behind them are other guys playing games of Monopoly, Scrabble, and Dungeons-N-Dragons. Scattered about the dayroom in groups of different sizes are guys horseplaying, rapping, debating about tonight's NBA Finals game, and just hanging out on the tiers lollygagging. As I stand here, all I can think is, "These are all adults I'm observing, but none of this is adult behavior." Adults don't hang around, playing games and doing nothing all day. So why is this what I'm seeing in prison? Why does everyone I'm observing seem to have regressed to a child-like state of being, reminiscent of the Lost Boys of Neverland from the Peter Pan story? Is there something unique about the prison experience that is impeding our "normal" adult development?
Researchers estimate that 27 percent of offenders were 11 to 20 years old when they were incarcerated, and 34 percent were between the ages of 21 and 30. This means a large portion of us were still juveniles/adolescents and young adults at the time we left society and entered prison - a notoriously cutthroat environment with its own set of rules and standards of conduct. Adjusting to this environment is a double-edged sword: while it is vital to our survival, it is in a lot of ways the antithesis to normal adult maturation. It does not properly prepare a person to re-enter society; it makes them institutionalized (defined as the re-socializing of a person to a state where their habitual thoughts and behaviors are based on the needs, structure, and dictates of the institution they have become part of). None of the primary characteristics of institutionalization - laziness, submissiveness, and passiveness - reflect the behavior of mature adults in society who have responsibilities. Placing juveniles/adolescents and young adults in prison effectively stagnates the natural path toward growth and maturity they might have otherwise experienced in the free world.
There are several possible reasons for this. One is that in prison, we don't have any REAL adult responsibilities. Everything we need is given to us. The institution provides our food, clothing, and shelter at no charge to us. Those of us who have children are not required to pay child support. Even our court fines and fees and any debts we owe are deferred while we are incarcerated. Part of adulthood is learning to responsibly budget finances between needs and wants. We, on the other hand, are allowed to spend 100 percent of our money - the majority of which is given to us by our friends and families - on wants. This lack of responsibility is itself a major impediment to our maturation. After years, or in many instances, decades, of this type of living, laziness becomes a natural part of our character, even if we don't realize it. The same applies for passivity and submissiveness.Read more
Barriers to Parenthood Behind Bars
June 17, 2021
One of my proudest moments as a father occurred three days ago when my youngest son graduated from high school with honors. When I was incarcerated in 2008, he was just four years old. At the time, the gravity of my prison sentence had yet to take root. I didn't know that I would be behind bars when he started his first day of school; or even worse, that I'd still be here 13 years later when he graduated. I was never able to take him to school or pick him up, attend PTA meetings, help him with his homework or projects, show up to his plays, talent shows, music events or sports games, or do anything that normal students do with their parents. Throughout the years, I always worried that my absence would eventually begin hindering his academic performance, but by the grace of God, it never did. I'd like to believe this is because, despite my physical absence, I remained in constant communication with my son through phone calls, letters and emails, and did my best to be there for him in every capacity that I could be. But I'm also aware that despite my efforts, the fact remains that my son got lucky. Statistically, the odds are against children of incarcerated parents excelling through school. He was an exception to the rule.
Trying to have an instrumental role in your children's education from behind bars is unimaginably difficult due to the many barriers that being incarcerated present. For example, prison schedules are highly unpredictable, making it next to impossible to make plans to call our children on specific dates or at specific times. We never know when we'll be locked down and unable to use the phones, or when the phones will be turned off "for security purposes." Add this to the fact that there are usually no more than 6-8 phones in housing units with around 80 offenders, and you can see that even when we are allowed to use the phones, we still may not be able to because there aren't enough of them. Even the most committed parents may be forced to spend days without getting an opportunity to call their children.
The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the cruel & unusual punishment of offenders, ensures that we're afforded the "right" to adequate healthcare in prison. In accordance, most prisons have on-site medical departments staffed with healthcare workers 24/7. There are standards of care they must meet, a formal process for us to request appointments for medical treatment, and even an emergency grievance process for us to request emergency care when needed. On paper, it would appear that adequate healthcare wouldn't be an issue behind bars. But what happens when the healthcare workers (and other staff) at institutions don't uphold the policies/standards that are in place to help us?
Last month, I experienced firsthand how our so-called healthcare "right" is nullified when prison staff undermine the medical policies at their whim. It began when I woke up one morning with what I assumed was a sore tooth. Throughout the day, the pain intensified until it became completely unbearable. By that night, I had a fever and the tooth seemed to be throbbing. It was unlike any pain I'd ever felt, and it kept me from getting any sleep that night.
The next morning when I looked in the mirror, I noticed that a small knot had formed on my gums, right where the pain was emanating from. I immediately knew it was a dental abscess. Dental abscesses are considered medical emergencies because they're pockets of infection. If left untreated, they can spread to other parts of your body, burst, and get into your bloodstream (which is highly fatal), or cause permanent damage to your mouth. I knew I needed to get to Medical ASAP, so - as policy requires - I approached an officer and requested an emergency grievance form. After explaining my emergency, I gave the form to the officer and returned to my cell to wait to be called to Medical. However, the entire day passed, and I was never called. [According to policy, the officer should've taken the emergency grievance form to Medical, had them sign it, and returned a receipt to me so that I'd know they were aware of my emergency. Instead, the officer simply signed the form herself (unbeknownst to me at that time) and gave me a worthless receipt. Medical didn't call for me because they'd never received the emergency grievance.]
For the second night in a row, I was in too much pain to sleep - nor had I been able to eat anything all day - so at about 2 a.m., I approached a different officer to tell her I needed emergency medical treatment. She responded by telling me, "Go back to my cell." I showed her the abscess on my gums, which had swollen even bigger, told her about my fever and the fact that I hadn't slept or eaten, and even explained-- tried explaining-- the danger of the infection. Yet again she responded, "Go back to your cell." No matter how much I pleaded with her, that was the only response she'd give me. She had no desire to help me at all.
An Overly Punitive Prison
What happens when you continually punish a child when they do wrong, while never rewarding them when they do good? When has this sort of rearing method ever been known to produce a positive long-term effect on that child's behavior? Never. In fact, this overly punitive rearing method has been proven to produce negative long-term effects. Although offenders are not children, the "corrections" aspect of the criminal justice system can in several ways be likened to a form of rearing. Just as it is a parent's duty to rear their children into respectable adults, the justice system exists to rear criminal offenders into productive members of society. But where prison administrations go wrong is by acting as the overly punitive parents in response to offender behavior. Just as this practice always yields a negative long-term effect with child rearing, the same negative outcome can be expected with regards to offenders.
When offenders exhibit poor behavior, such as breaking institutional rules, staff are allowed to punish us in countless ways. They write infractions; put us in solitary confinement; fire us from our jobs; take our commissary, phone, email, and visitation privileges; order us to pay fines; transfer us to stricter, higher-level facilities; even add additional time to our prison sentences. The list of punishments at their disposal is too long to fit in this essay. And there is no limit to how much punishment can be doled out to any single offender; meaning if he perpetually displays poor behavior, he will continue being punished again and again and again for each incident.
Good behavior, on the other hand, goes largely unrewarded in prison. In fact, the only reward is being placed at the highest "good time" level. But this is not a genuine reward, as it simply allows us to remain eligible for our state's truth-in-sentencing percentage. Unlike the never ending scroll of punishments, they use for poor behavior, staff do not continue rewarding us for positive strides such as earning college credits and vocational trades, completing rehabilitative programs, making personal accomplishments, remaining free of infractions for extended periods of time, etc. For those deeds, we aren't hired for jobs or given pay raises. We aren't given extra commissary, phone, email, or visitation privileges. We aren't continually transferred to lower-level facilities to be among other model inmates. Most importantly, we aren't allowed to earn extra time off of our prison sentences. Unlike the near infinite punishments allowed for poor behavior, there are no substantive rewards given for good behavior.Read more
Solitary & Mental Illness
February 18, 2021
A few weeks ago, I was awakened out of my sleep at around 3 o’ clock in the morning by the sound of my cellmate (whom I'll refer to as “D”) pacing around the cell and mumbling words that I couldn't make out. My first thought was that maybe he’d been having trouble sleeping so he was up listening to music through his earbuds to help clear his mind. I chalked up the mumbling to him rapping along to whatever song he was listening to. But when I turned around and looked over at him, I was surprised to see that not only was he not listening to his music player; he had his shirt off and was clenching two ink pens in his hands as if they were knives. The expression on his face was one of fear and anger. Though “D” and I had never had any issues, seeing him in this state automatically put me on edge. I had no idea what he was thinking or what he was about to do, so I set up and asked him what was wrong.
“Man, I just heard them out there talking about me!” he exclaimed.
“Who?” I asked
“I don't know! But I think they're trying to come Rob me!” he responded fearfully. “I'm going to stab them if they come in here!”
Again, this was around 3:00 a.m., and our housing unit was locked down. It seemed odd that “D” claimed he heard people plotting against him because no one was supposed to be outside their cells. But just to make sure, I got up and walked to the door to see if there was anyone lurking around the day room.
“See, don't you hear them?” he asked, wanting me to confirm what he thought he was hearing. “You hear them out there talking about me, right?” It was at that moment that I realized he was having some sort of mental health crisis because, as I expected, there was no one in the day room. In fact, it was completely quiet out there. Whatever he was hearing was in his own head.
Throughout the course of the week, “D” began having more of these paranoia-like incidents. He started randomly approaching guys in our housing unit and accusing them of talking about him. He even began walking around with magazines wrapped around his torso, claiming it was to protect him from “them” stabbing him. Seeing the deterioration of his mental state, a few of his close friends and I contacted the mental health department to try to get him some help. When a group of officers arrived later that day to escort him out, we were all relieved, thinking they were taking him to the psych ward to get the treatment he needed.Read more
Today, I watched as my friend Maurice was escorted by officers out of the housing unit on his way to those coveted gates that would mark both his exit from penal confinement and his (re)entrance into the free world. The reason Maurice - or Reese, as we called him - needed to be escorted is because he's in a wheelchair. One of the officers ushering him out pushed the wheelchair while the other pushed a cart containing Reese's personal belongings. A smile stretching from ear to ear covered his face as everyone crowded around him to offer parting words and shake his hand one final time. Seeing someone go home is always a celebratory moment in prison, but for Reese specifically, we had even more of a reason to be happy for him. He'd been waiting on DOC to release him via the Inmate Early Release Plan that Governor Northam authorized in April of last year to reduce the prison population due to the pandemic. In fact, Reese was the very first person at this institution to be administratively approved for early release. Yet, like hundreds of other offenders in Virginia - and thousands of offenders across the nation - his approval ultimately meant nothing because DOC never actually released him early. Today (January 11, 2021) is his regular release date from his court sentencing. Technically, he's still on DOC's wait list to be released "early" . . . .
These COVID-19 early release initiatives were created to help protect us by reducing the prison population. The less people in prison, the more other offenders would be able to practice social distancing. And of course, anyone released from prison would be better able to protect themselves from infection on the outside. By now, it's well known that there are a lot of offenders who have preexisting medical conditions that put them at an increased risk of complications from COVID. But the same states that implemented these early release programs immediately undermined the effectiveness of them by setting "eligibility criteria" that automatically excluded the majority of their offender populations. Why would we need to be "eligible" to be protected from COVID? The criteria varied from state to state, but they generally excluded any offenders with recent institutional infractions, those serving time for "violent offenses," and those with more than 12 months remaining on their sentence. With these exclusions, only a small fraction of offenders was deemed eligible for early release, and that small fraction certainly wouldn't reduce the prison population to the degree needed to make prisons safer in light of the pandemic.
Marqui Clardy December 18, 2020
Although the rate of suicide attempts behind bars far exceed those of the general population, jails and prisons are less equipped to handle this issue. The main reason is that penal institutions are intrinsically punitive, which is counterproductive to the nurturing environment needed to help suicidal patients' needs. There's no better example of this than when offenders are placed on suicide watch. The same way incarceration is designed to deter future criminal behavior by punishing offenders, suicide watch is designed to deter future attempts at self-harm by punishing the patient. It's not comforting or reassuring. It's not designed to address our mental health needs or give us a reason to want to live. We're not even housed in a medical or psychiatric environment. Offenders on suicide watch are inexplicably put in solitary confinement. Instead of being "watched" by staff who are specially trained in suicide prevention, we were placed under the supervision of the regular officers assigned to the solitary confinement unit. Because they're accustomed to dealing almost exclusively with the institution's troublemakers, these are the officers who tend to be more strict and less empathetic toward us; yet they are the very ones tasked with tending to us when we're in our most mentally fragile state.
When I was still in jail awaiting my sentencing, I got so depressed at the prospect of spending the rest of my life in prison that I tried to take my own life by slashing my wrists. Fortunately, another inmate saw what I was doing and alerted an officer, who in turn called a medical emergency. Before I knew it, about a dozen more officers, nurses, and other staff came rushing into my housing unit and surrounded me. I was taken to the medical triage inside the jail where the nurses stitched the lacerations on my wrists and bandaged them. Upon being notified that I had to be placed on suicide watch, I assumed I would be housed somewhere in the medical department. But to my surprise, a set of cuffs were slapped on my wrists (right over the bandages), and I was escorted to solitary confinement. Even in my mental state, I was clear-minded enough to see that what was happening was wrong. Solitary confinement was where inmates who'd committed serious disciplinary infractions were sent. Why, I wondered, was I being taken there? Was attempting suicide considered an infraction?Read more
Marqui Clardy November 2, 2020
I'd like to talk about two very different guys in my housing unit who, in regard to criminal justice reform, may be the perfect examples of why a change in perspective is needed in terms of which types of offenders should be prioritized. The first guy's name is Steve. From all of my interactions with Steve, I take him to be a genuinely good person. He's 32 years old and married with a young daughter. He's not a gang member, doesn't partake in drugs or alcohol, stays out of trouble (and away from troublemakers), and has not incurred any disciplinary infractions or ever been placed in solitary confinement. Religious adherence is very important to him. His social circle consists mainly of other offenders who share his spiritual beliefs. Whenever he's not at a table with them studying their religious doctrines, he's usually somewhere reading or writing his own novels. In fact, he has written 11 novels and published five of them. Nothing about Steve's character or behavior says he's a criminal or a bad person. Before being incarcerated, he had a career working for a restaurant and was studying for his bachelor's degree. He wasn't involved in any criminal activity. The crime for which he's currently incarcerated is his first offense.
The other guy is a former cellmate of mine named Carl. Unlike Steve, I do NOT consider Carl a good person. In the three years I've known him, he has caught several disciplinary infractions and been sent to segregation multiple times for fighting, being caught with drugs, and other reasons. It's clear by his demeanor that he has no qualms about breaking the rules. Carl is also a high ranking member of a notorious gang, and the members of that gang are who he's around all day. Instead of spending his time constructively, he's usually gambling on whatever sports games are on TV or at poker/spades/dice games in the day room. He hasn't enrolled in any rehabilitative programs or vocational classes and is adamant that he doesn't intend to unless the administration forces him to. As far as his education, he didn't graduate from high school, nor has he obtained his GED. In several conversations we had when we were cellmates, he told me he doesn't care about getting a GED because he "can get a job without one." Ironically, he's also told me that he has never in his life had a job, which makes my next statement less shocking: At only 35 years old, this is Carl's FOURTH time being incarcerated - once as a juvenile and three times as an adult. He is a token criminal who has no desire to live a positive, productive lifestyle.Read more
The New Solitary Confinement
Being placed in solitary confinement was unquestionably the worst experience I've had in my twelve years of incarceration. I spoke in depth of that experience in my essay in IAHR's April 2019 newsletter. 51 days is the total time I spent stuck inside that tiny cell with most of the small "freedoms" I'd previously enjoyed in prison either severely restricted or cut off altogether. Toward the end of my stay, I honestly felt as if I were on the cusp of losing my sanity. But my 51 day punishment was a cakewalk compared to some other offenders I know who have spent as long as a year in solitary confinement. There are even stories of offenders spending decades there. For most, it's unfathomable how mentally torturous that cell becomes as the days, weeks, and months pass by. Even if there's any ambiguity about whether it constitutes a violation of the eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the long-term psychological damage solitary confinement has on people cannot be questioned. But thanks to the hard work of advocates and advocacy groups, including IAHR, some changes are being made to solitary confinement practices.
Some prisons, including the one at which I'm housed, have ended the practice of holding us in solitary confinement for prolonged periods. After serving the initial penalty (the number of days to be served in segregation), we are promptly released back into general population. By contrast, when I spent my 51 days in solitary confinement in 2011, my initial penalty was only 15 days. The extra 36 days I was held were due to arbitrary - and completely unwarranted - administrative extensions. Barring certain major infractions such as extreme violence, this no longer happens. And even in those instances, the Warden or his designee are required to approve of holding us in segregation longer than 30 days. I see guys being put in Segregation all the time. Thankfully, they're usually out within a week or two.
Another recent, important change at this institution has been the implementation of an incentive program that rewards us for good behavior. In Virginia DOC, it is known as the "Step Down Program" (a three-level system that allows offenders housed in solitary confinement to earn extra privileges by following the rules), and it has been implemented statewide. Although I have not been in solitary confinement since this program was implemented, I have spoken to several other offenders about the way it actually works. Everyone who is placed in administrative segregation starts out at Level 1, which maintains the usual restrictions for which segregated housing units are known. These offenders are not allowed to have personal property in their cells, with the exception of religious books and a radio; they're only allowed to order a maximum of $15 dollars' worth of commissary per month, which is limited to hygiene and stationary items, and a very limited quantity of snack items; they're only allowed to make two phone calls per week; they only receive one hour of outside recreation per day; and they must be handcuffed, shackled, and escorted by two officers any time they're let out of their cell, whether they're being taken to outside recreation or even to the shower.
August 19, 2020
Scientists estimate that between 50 - 70 percent of a given population needs to be protected against a virus, whether by vaccine or by having contacted the virus and developed antibodies, in order for the population as a whole to be free from large outbreaks. Since the government has yet to approve a vaccine, this threshold, known as "herd immunity," may be what ultimately ends this pandemic. According to the New York Times, parts of some densely populated cities such as London, Mumbai, and NYC that had record numbers of COVID cases may have already reached the threshold and are on the path to recovery. Well, as someone who's also living in a densely populated environment that was hit hard by this virus and is recovering, I'm witnessing firsthand how herd immunity works.
Over the past two months, the majority of the prisoners at this institution were infected with COVID (editor’s emphasis). The unsatisfactory manner with which this pandemic was handled here - which I expounded upon in previous essays - made a large outbreak inevitable. We were all tested around May or June (before the outbreak exploded), and only a handful of those tests came back positive. However, once those cases began spreading, the virus quickly swept through the entire institution. The problem is that, barring a few serious cases, most of us were never retested, which of course means we were never officially diagnosed with COVID in the institution's records. But, documented or not, I know for a fact that there were hundreds of positive cases here because almost everyone got sick and displayed about two weeks' worth of the exact same symptoms, including: chest and nasal congestion; muscle and bone aches; simultaneous hot flashes and chills; fever, fatigue, and COVID's ultimate telltale signs, loss of taste and smell. Instead of retesting everyone, the medical staff lazily attempted to identify infected offenders by coming into each housing unit and doing daily temperature checks.