Why our local government still jails poor people even though they lose money doing it

 

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I attended the meeting of a local organization of different faith communities who are deeply concerned about the fact that poor people sit in jail due to lack of money for even the lowest bail bond, which amounts to poor and mentally ill people sitting in jail before being convicted of a crime. There were a lot of good questions and comments by a lot of good people, despite this being such a complicated issue.

Facts and figures were discussed, including the price of keeping one person in jail in our county for one day – $87. This was mentioned in passing, but this dollar amount must have made an impression on one older, very professional looking white man in the corner. He piped up and asked probably the best question of the evening: [paraphrasing here, he had all the math worked out] So if it costs so much to keep people in jail, why are we still doing so even though it’s not economically smart and the taxpayer loses money?

A tepid silence fell over the room then, and since I abhor a vacuum, I softly muttered three words, “It’s an industry . . .”  Several of the people doing most of the talking nodded and expressed grim agreement with me, but didn’t expound. The truth is that we didn’t have time to get into the particulars of bed quotas, the prison-industrial complex, political corruption on every level, and the apathy of those people not affected by criminal justice problems. I would personally recommend he delve into some Chomsky.

A disability activist I know went to a different meeting recently which aimed to start a dialogue about affordable, appropriate housing for the disabled, who are often homeless in my town. The mayor was there to answer questions and listen, but at the end he explained how his hands were tied as far as any housing solutions for us. The money and political will simply isn’t there.

I completely believe him about the lack of political will and concern for people like us, but there is plenty of money in our coffers. However, those funds are being diverted towards projects which directly target this population in a destructive way. I read the local paper and it is constantly crowing about new expenditures by the city, such as paving over and eliminating the one place downtown where the homeless and mentally ill can find shade from the southern heat and simply exist.

Or the new plan to spend tens of millions to expand the local CoreCivic (formerly CCA) prison facility capacity to “reduce overcrowding.” (Another way CoreCivic reduces overcrowding is by allowing people to die on their watch.) A tax hike was approved for this “public service” but no alternative or restorative solutions even make it up the ladder of power for consideration.

All the groups trying to change this stubbornly entrenched system of maltreatment and injustice towards the vulnerable have several big obstacles at the moment:

  • Republican control of pretty much everything right now – hence the lack of “political will” which just seems like garden-variety compassion to me
  • how to organize and who to involve – it’s been decades since the last round of sweeping civil rights reforms in America and we are rusty at this
  • lack of charismatic leadership in key communities – we (minorities and the disabled) are so beaten down and robbed of our power and credibility that it is difficult for community cohesion to happen
  • where to even begin – criminal justice problems are complicated and it’s difficult to find a chink in the armor of such a well-established system of institutions backed up by those with money, power, and many lawyers

But it doesn’t matter. These are times that define who we are and if we can’t find it within ourselves to correct atrocious treatment by our own leaders, locally and nationally, we don’t deserve our sense of American entitlement. We are no better than the multitude of countries we look down on for dystopian maltreatment of their citizens and those seeking asylum.

If you are concerned about these problems, roll up your sleeves, do some internet research, and call meetings in your communities. Don’t forget to cooperate with other helpful organizations in your area and share information. Show your local politicians that your city isn’t just about new businesses, nostalgia, and building projects for tourism and gentrification. Define your community by how “the least of these among you” are accommodated and saved from horrible circumstances.

Why it’s not cool to roll your eyes at awkward people

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For a while I’ve wanted to discuss one of the most frustrating aspects of having a different social presentation: gestural aggression. What’s that? It’s something just about everyone engages in on a daily basis. I’m not talking about obscene or threatening gestures. I mean the ones that we drop into conversation to let the other person know that they are mildly perturbing or that they are crossing an invisible boundary. It includes all sorts of “shade” –  huffs, sighs, arm crossing, and, of course, the eye roll. These actions can often accompany snarky, muttered, or condescending remarks.

Although this sort of passive-aggressive body language is the expert territory of teenage girls, I see people of all demographics and cultures using this suite of gestures. This is not so much a form of instinctive communication as it is a form of learned social and conversational policing by those who are more able to conform to the unspoken expectations of the interaction.

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Although sometimes an eye roll can be priceless.

For instance, I tend to get eye rolls when I get “overly” enthused during an interesting conversation. Interesting conversations are few and far between for me at times, so when I find myself speaking to someone about a favorite topic I can get “carried away” and go on excitedly after the other person is ready to speak again or change the subject. This is par for the course when dealing with an Aspie and we all do this regularly, but there are consequences that others might not be aware of.

When people roll their eyes at me it hurts, and though I don’t read body language as instinctively as others, no eye roll ever escapes me. I can fucking hear them. I just have no earthly idea how to respond in real time to something that feels so hostile to me when I am sincerely trying to be as agreeable as I can.

An eye roll says, “You are weird and inappropriate and are now on thin conversational ice.” It says, “I don’t have enough respect for you to be patient with you. You are not worth listening to.” Once more I am quietly “told” that I’ve somehow screwed up my talking again and another person is growing tired of me.

While one eye roll or exasperated sigh isn’t enough to derail my mood, the silent censure adds up and I get the overall impression that regular people don’t want to interact with me as much as I want to be included. Gestural aggression sends a harsh message over time that you are not welcome or tolerable. It makes you more nervous and less confident when you try to talk to people later on.

Don’t get me wrong: I know better than most that conversing with a socially impaired person can be laborious and frustrating. I try to make it easy on other people I’m around by putting forth a monumental effort to not draw any eye rolls or bore anyone. I consciously, meticulously try to match the tone, topic, and appropriateness level the other persons sets. I make an effort to let the other person have their say without compulsively interrupting.

But it’s exhausting, and I don’t always succeed. Paradoxically, I can police my own social presentation better when I’m less familiar with someone, but as I grow more comfortable my more exasperating conversational differences start creeping in because I feel safe being myself with that person. In the past, those people to whom I let slip my awkwardness may become confused and annoyed and pull away. Let the self-flagellation begin!

I want the socially traditional among us to understand that most weirdos are doing our damndest and attempting to offer something of our carefully guarded, loner selves to other people. I long for positive interactions and better communication skills, but when people express conversational disdain and censure, it derails those attempts to not be an isolated, squirrelly freak. And it’s not my fault.

I’ve watched so many otherwise kind people rudely shut down the conversational efforts of those autistic or simply awkward people they have decided not to extend social tolerance to. This is an insidious form of ableismPeople mostly think of ableism as being insensitive to those with physical disabilities, but people with invisible disabilities – like social and communication disorders – are still boldly discriminated against by even those who love them using social judgement and unconscious exclusion.

What I’ve discovered in my own long history of talking with other awkward people is that it’s entirely worth the extra patience and occasional misunderstanding to get to know the fascinating and insightful people trapped behind uncool exteriors. Please try to meet us part-way because enjoyable, meaningful communication always depends on the efforts of everyone involved.

 

 

What it’s like to be autistic in jail

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We are now accustomed to seeing people of color suffering at the hands of ill-applied policing techniques on the nightly news. A lot of us are still trying to process incidents like these and others are actively defensive on behalf of the blue lives in our communities. However, we seem unable to see police mistakes and misconduct through any lens other than race in America at the moment, and that’s leaving out entire vulnerable populations who might not be people of color or people of color who are targeted for reasons other than (and including) race.

[PLEASE NOTE: I am NOT saying that we should stop looking at policing through the lens of race, but we do need to add other at-risk types of people to the conversation who keep suffering at the hands of law enforcement and the criminal justice system. I am also NOT anti-cop or unaware of the horrific shit police deal with on a grueling daily basis. I believe poor training and funding are to blame, as well as a criminal lack of mental health and disability services.]

For instance, being black in America instantly, visually places you in a marginalized underclass regardless of actual economic status or intent, but there are other ways to enter a targeted group other than having a different skin color. Being disabled or mentally affected in any way also puts a person at a greater risk of being victimized by a series of interconnected and deeply broken institutions. The other main groups affected by police misconduct are school children and very poor or indigent people of any color. God help you if you are some combination of the above.

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Yes. School children.

While I have discussed the prevalence of police misconduct involving disabled people before, I’ve never talked about what the consequence frequently is when it’s not death: jail. Not being taken to a mental hospital or even a regular hospital. Not being connected with helpful services or a concerned case worker. Jail. The place where our society sends the people it doesn’t want to see anymore.

Sometimes I think there’s just two types of people in the world – those who’ve been held captive by a hostile force and those who haven’t. Either jail is something that makes your favorite shows more interesting to watch or it’s something that changes the course of your life forever. And makes all those shows look dumb as hell afterwards.

I’ve been to jail a few times. OK, more than a few. I’m not going to go back over why I ended up there, so let me tell you what there is like. People with autism have traits that cause serious problems in a captive situation:

  1. Sensory sensitivities
  2. The need to be in control of what is happening to us and our environment
  3. Difficulty understanding and immediately responding to questions or commands
  4. The need for medications to be administered in a timely manner
  5. Physical disabilities
  6. Not understanding unspoken rules
  7. Meltdowns

Jail is a sensory nightmare even for completely normal people who can mentally block some sensory input and regulate their emotional response to it. To me it was bright, loud, hard, and so very cold. All the time. Day and night it was buzzing artificial lights, slamming metal doors, clanking chains, people screaming and vomiting and weeping and laughing, COs shouting stuff I might need to hear. The smells and tastes ranged from pitiful to foul. The lights were never off and everyone had to put tube socks (called eye-socks) over their eyes to block out the light to sleep. I didn’t sleep.

This input alone caused my blood pressure to go into dangerous territory during all my stays. It was never treated although they were aware of it and concerned.

In jail you (and your concerned family) are never told what’s going on, what’s about to happen, where you will be taken, or who can be of help. The jails are not running a customer service model, in other words. Your concerns about what’s happening to you are purposely ignored, even exacerbated. This utter confusion and lack of control is horrible for anyone to endure (in fact, used by the Nazis as torture), but imagine you are someone who depends on a strict schedule and/or familiar surroundings to keep from having a serious meltdown.

Trust me, don’t ever have an autistic meltdown in jail.

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They’ll drag out this puppy for you.

In jails around the country, any person exhibiting recalcitrant, repetitive, or any unusual or simply annoying behavior can be put in four or five- point restraint chairs and tased to within an inch of their lives. I still have my scars. I was in no way a danger to myself or others at the time, I simply, very politely asked for some time to calm down before they started sticking needles in me. They didn’t grant me that wish. I’d already told them I was having a “mental health crisis” which was the best way to describe it at the time.

In law enforcement lingo, this is called a “pain compliance technique.” Nice.

Strapping someone down for any reason and tasing them is still apparently legal even though the UN Council on Human Rights and Amnesty International have roundly condemned this practice in the USA.

Y’know. Because it’s torture. That’s right, America. We don’t just torture in Guantanamo Bay and other “black sites”; it happens in every city and county in America right in the middle of your community to the most vulnerable people you can imagine – the mentally ill and disabled. Because we can rarely fight back literally or legally. (No one believes what we tell them, if we can tell them, anyway.) So they get away with stuff like this and a million other malicious slights and dangerous inefficiencies.

Like denying vital medications even when breathless family members rush them to the jail with instructions about administering them in a timely fashion. This also happened to me with an anti-convulsant and several psych meds that one should absolutely not be suddenly taken off of. Or in many cases humiliating the physically disabled by not providing the most basic medical supplies they need.

The point of jail is not to keep you away from society to keep society safe: it’s to insert you into an economic system that profits from you being there, as long as you are someone who lacks credibility and agency. As long as you are a warm body that can be kept barely alive (if not entirely sane), you are treated like a product to be processed as efficiently as possible by understandably depressed and scandalously under-paid, under-trained staff.

Right now in my town which I love so much, a young autistic man is being held in jail after an altercation (domestic assault) with his aunt who couldn’t calm him down. This young man is underserved and now sitting in an environment that will traumatize him for years to come, without his family, surrounded by a bunch of tough customers who will not know how to deal with his differences. (Did I mention that jail is also a socially brutal place?) He is being denied needed medications and the jail is keeping his mother in the dark about his condition.

I’m very concerned that the above story will be the last we hear about this boy. When, O when, will we stop and take a look at the larger, more frightening portrait of American criminal justice and realize that absolutely anyone who is powerless or misunderstood is unsafe? Jailing is an industry and, as such, needs to both grow and find new sources of “raw material.” When you are sick or disabled, and therefore can’t either produce or consume enough for the economy, you become the commodity itself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jump Outs: The WTF police tactic you’ve never heard of

It’s already happening in a town near you.

I recently recalled an incident that happened at least 15 years ago on New Year’s Eve when I experienced a seldom-discussed insane policing tactic. I had only begun my evening when I left one bar – on foot – to see what was going on at another one. I carried a clear plastic cup filled with plain water, no ice, wasn’t intoxicated yet, but planning on it and trying to keep hydrated.

Out of the ether, a nice SUV screeched to a halt beside me and a preppy-looking dude with a short haircut jumped out and accosted me in a loud commanding voice.

“What’ve you got in that cup there?!! You got booze?!!” Without giving me time to process what was happening or identifying himself he barged into my personal space, which is precious to me, and grabbed at the cup in my hands. I was confused and frightened. My night just went from zero to WTF in 2.5 seconds.

I thought I was being aggressively harassed and reacted defensively like any woman alone on a sidewalk at night would who is suddenly swooped down upon by a SUV-load of psycho dude-bros . I got upset is what I’m sayin.’

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What is this shit? Ride ‘n’ Rape?

I shoved my cup at him and yelled, “It’s water, asshole!” He sniffed it like he was the Official Street Beverage Inspector-General, angrily threw it down on the ground, and just as quickly vanished back into the vehicle and roared away.

Without another word.  Like fart fairies in a fucking wind tunnel.

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Although the SUV was completely unmarked, all the guys in it were dressed like 2017 Nazis, and he never identified himself or why they pulled over to harass me, I got the distinct, no, certain sense that they were plainclothes cops. I had encountered police and military types before and they can take the cop out of the uniform, but not the uniform out of the cop. However, this type of police behavior was so beyond the pale of what I thought was constitutional that I was never for sure.

But in the past few years I’ve read a lot of books about policing, and I came across a few descriptions of this wild and typically discriminatory police tactic. Usually only black men in urban areas experience anything like this. It’s an aggressive, unconstitutional form of “stop and frisk.” Cops will see a group of black youth hanging out in a “crime prone” area, and will jump out of unmarked vehicles sometimes in plainclothes and sometimes pointing weapons at the group. They are lined up against a wall and frisked.

However, in this excellent article on ThinkProgress a 16-year-old black girl explains that although these happen all the time in Washington DC, “They check the boys. They don’t check the girls.” This article from three years ago states, “Girls have yet to be targeted by these actions.”

Well, I’m a girl and a white one too. And this was years ago.

I’ve combed the Internet and found absolutely no example of this tactic being used as a New Years Eve vice squad operation to hassle people who are possibly drunk in public. So far I’m the only white woman on record who has ever encountered this method.

Guess I’m just extra special.

Of course, the DC police chief Cathy Lanier vehemently denies that this is a method still used on a daily basis. (As do all police chiefs who have to address this practice in their departments.) Even Norm Stamper in his seminal book Breaking Rank makes no mention of this particular method.

ICE is currently using plainclothes agents to aggressively approach possible illegal immigrants outside of courthouses. And getting it wrong like in the video below.

The greatest danger of this is that people who are undocumented will avoid going to the police or courts to report crimes committed against them. The other danger as Ana Kasparian points out in the above clip, is that when you are approached like this you have no idea you are dealing with state or government officials. Who may or may not be armed and ready to shoot.

What if I’d actually hit that cop who jumped out at me in defense? What might you do if some randos who rolled up on you began to speak and act in an aggressive, frightening manner?

This is just another way that police actions are putting citizens at greater risk rather than reducing it.

Interesting sidenote: There’s actually a reality TV show called Jump Outs that “pits contestants against elite police Jump Out Teams. Contestants must plan and move a [fucking] amulet across a wasteland all while being tracked and chased by police.” I guess the entertainment industry is more willing than police officials to admit that this is common practice.

 

 

 

 

 

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“Rough Riding” and the Death of Freddie Gray

“Rough rides” are commonplace. It happened to me. More than once.

A man walks past a mural of Freddie Gray in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of Baltimore

So it appears that the Department of Justice is not going to file charges against the six officers involved in the death of Baltimore resident Freddie Gray. I’ve been looking back on the details of this case today and it still makes me angry. Yet no one else familiar with American policing tactics is surprised by this.

The moment I first heard this story break I was 100% certain what had happened. I still am. Because it happens all the time and it happened to me more than once.

To refresh your memory:

Two police officers on bikes began to pursue a young black man in a poor neighborhood when they “made eye contact with him” and the man promptly fled on foot. From personal experience, police officers are very serious about making eye contact with random people and immediately responding to any “furtive movements or body language.” I can personally attest to a glance that ended in my being arrested.

He was apprehended, recorded being placed into the wagon, and at some point in his transport he sustained a neck injury that led to his death several days later.

Why Freddie Gray ran upon seeing the cops is a bit of a mystery. He had a knife on his belt, but the last time I checked that wasn’t a crime, even in a bad neighborhood. Although the police report says it was an illegal “switchblade,” it turned out to be a “spring assisted” blade which is perfectly legal there according to the Baltimore City DA. I’m going to speculate that Mr. Gray had a history of being stopped and frisked or just plain hassled by cops in his area. He grew up dreading them. I’m willing to put money on it that he wasn’t entirely sure if his blade was legal or not. Even if he did know it was legal, he understood that if the cops noticed it, legality wouldn’t matter for him.

Ironically, he might have been afraid of being shot and killed. So Freddie freaked out and took off, and the consequences were all out of proportion anyway.

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(Wikipedia)

Above is a map of all the confirmed stops the police van made before he was taken to the station. Notice they took the time to do some errands and made a lot of sharp turns along the way.

Freddie was somehow injured and/or just too upset by being chased down by cops that he couldn’t get up into the van without assistance. In that video I see a terrified young man, hurting and having an emotional meltdown. I also see inconvenienced cops. Some officers assume that any difficulty you might have following their orders is intentional so as to make their night worse. Every “perp” is a diabolical liar who acts pitiful to manipulate the circumstances. I’m not saying this is never true, but it’s far less common than is generally assumed by police and corrections officers.

The van pulled over in order to shackle him because Gray had become “irate” in the back of the vehicle. So he was either having a physical/emotional crisis or giving the cops lip. There was no way he could hurt them in that position though. After that, they picked up another arrestee and went to the grocery store for some reason.

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We may never know why.

Likely in that long, strange trip, the cops took the turns not-so-gentle and did so in a frustrated frame of mind. Freddie Gray had the same kind of neck injury that occurs if you dive headfirst into a dry pool. The amount of force necessary to do that degree of damage suggests that the police were intentionally trying to knock him around. Only six days earlier the BPD had issued new rules about safely securing prisoners in transport. It is more dangerous for them to lean in and secure an upset arrestee, and better solutions need to be explored, but they don’t have to drive like maniacs.

I am no stranger to being unable to keep your feet under you while being transported in shackles. I’m not sure exactly how Freddie was bound, but the backs of those vans are slippery steel boxes with a narrow shelf bolted to the inside as the only “seat.” In order to prevent getting slammed around, one has to “surf” the curves and turns they make. This means you have to be able to place your feet wide apart and grab onto the walls with your hands. This is impossible with hands and feet bound close together.

Several times riding in the back of the “train” as we call it in my town, the level of safety has devolved into a dark cavalcade of slapstick comedy. Everybody has to physically brace themselves by grabbing onto other inmates who may or may not go down with you anyway. Sometimes one person will have to yank someone by the back of their shirt or pants to keep them from smacking their heads on the wall or floor – or ceiling. Keep in mind that frequently the prisoners are ill, injured, or disabled in some way, in addition to being bound hand and foot.

Other times, instead of not enough passengers, they cram way too many of us in those things. The last ride I took, we were packed in so tight, hip to hip, that each woman in turn had to lean way forward or way back because our arms and elbows were too wide to fit. I was leaning forward as I recall, and there’s a particular sudden swell in the freeway on the way to court from the jail. The van accelerated and bumped up on one side which cracked the back of my head against the inside wall so hard I was nauseated and the other women cried out in angry alarm.

Hey! You throwin’ us around back here!” yelled the goddess-sized black lady who’s side I was stuffed into. We all saw the two COs up there look at one another and burst into laughter. Then they just turned up the radio and chatted in a self-satisfied manner while a few of the girls quietly cursed and asked me if I was OK.

Blessedly, I was OK, but Freddie Gray had no one and nothing to brace himself against the casual cruelty tolerated by American policing and corrections.