Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Echoes of Attica

                  On a regular work day for me in a newspaper wire room, 'ripping and reading', in September of 1971, Attica was introduced to me; not as a place but as a cause. The cause was justice! It was on the ninth day of that month the infamous riot began, resulting in the loss of 39 human lives and becoming known as “the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War”. The reason for the riot was the request by the inmates for meager improvements in their hygiene and diet and work conditions.

                   Three days ago the echoes of Attica resounded. After almost three years crawling through the court system, three correctional officers, Sean Warner, Keith Swack and Matthew Rademacher, were allowed to plead  to a misdemeanor conviction for misconduct for savagely brutalizing an inmate (George Williams) after dragging him from his cell to a darkened corridor where there were no cameras to witness. He was beaten with batons, fists and kicks until he begged for his life, as inmates in nearby cells watched the attack.  His injuries were two broken legs; one had to be realigned surgically using a plate and several screws; a fracture of his left eye orbit; several cracked ribs; a broken shoulder; and multiple cuts and bruises. He had a mere four months left of his sentence before he could step out into the air of Wyoming County, NY.  But the word ‘mere’ is really a misnomer when it comes to serving time, especially at Attica. Each hour could prove to be a life threatening encounter. Warner, Swack and Rademacher will not be returning to the bucolic cornfields where Attica sits and their penalty includes entitlement to their pensions even as they are rid from the system.

                        Why do we have a different and seemingly secretive brand of justice system for our once trusted institutions; our churches, our universities, our prisons, our military? Are these bodies so separated behind gates, bars, razor ribbon and ivy covered walls that we’ve agreed to keep the knowledge and penalty of the violence inside? It’s time to treat criminal behavior, wherever it occurs, with the same laws we are all governed by! As for Attica, the rumbles of violence are thunderous...echoes usually become almost inaudible over time but little has changed at Attica. Ask George Williams.

                        I invite you to read here a small segment of my book “Geranium Justice” describing my welcome to Attica:

                        Then came the day that did change everything in my life. It was September 9th, 1971, while I was working in the wire room ‘ripping and reading’ that I learned about Attica, along with the rest of the world.  I read the accounts of the riot that had been fomenting for a while because inmates wanted to have more than one roll of toilet paper per month and more than one shower a week, and reasonable non-racist work assignments, among other fair demands.  The reports came to me in stereo as while I read the wires I talked by phone to Joe who was covering the story circling the prison battlefield in a helicopter. By the next day, 1,281 inmates held 43 hostages and took control of cellblocks and buildings trying to get the officials’ attention. After four days of repeated attempts at negotiations by the inmates and standoffs by the authorities, the machismo of Governor Rockefeller trying to be in power rather than right, resulted in his sending in between 500 to one thousand state troopers spraying the population in the yard with bullets after they were felled by tear gas from the sky making Attica’s grounds the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War”. It cost 39 human lives and made an indelible imprint in the annals of history; a cautionary tale of injustice.


“There are different ways to get to Attica: the state can send you, you can visit or you can work there. But everyone has to travel on (I-90) West to Exit 48, to Route 98S, to Route 238S. Turn right at Exchange Street traffic light. Facility is on left. There’s no U Turn if the state sends you.”



Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Still Rikers Island

The brutality towards inmates by corrections staff at Rikers Island continues in spite of the national spotlight shining blindingly on this 413 acre parcel of land that sits in the East River. Since 1932, it has been the gateway for hundreds of thousands of human lives entering our criminal justice system; some for a long time and some for a little while and some not even guilty. For this is the place where people are warehoused while the scales of justice are being balanced and while they wait they become the property of the Department of Correction. The stories of abuse abound even as reform is purported to be taking place. Here’s my written snapshot of the Island excerpted from my book “Geranium Justice”: “When one goes over the bridge to Rikers Island in East Elmhurst, Queens, you can’t help but notice the drama. The island is half the size of Central Park. Families are doing their time on the outside and waiting in long quays to see their loved ones. The self contained island stretches before you and every six hours the stench of low tide adds to the surreal colony that sits between Queens and Bronx Counties with 15,000 people living here classified in ten different buildings. This is also the flight path and within reach of LaGuardia Airport. It’s so close that the jets blow off fuel as you round the ring road to the first staging point. Before crossing the bridge over the East River you’re stopped by officers and must show your clearance. I watch the families who are dropped off at this ‘first base’ and who have to wait outdoors in all weather for buses to take them across to the Island. They are mostly the faces of women and children; the mothers, the wives, the girlfriends, their kids. You feel the intimidating and arrogant attitude of the officers who so hate their work and are serving their own time counting their days until retirement. Once over the bridge if you’re in a private car, you find a place in the huge parking lot before entering the ‘control building’ where the ordinary visitor signs in, gets searched and puts jewelry, purses, possessions in lockers before stepping on yet another bus to the individual jails. No ordinary visitor me, I drive my car to the parking area in front of ‘C-73’ avoiding the bus that goes throughout the complex. This is where the women are housed. I draw in a huge breath and pray this goes well, my first of thousands of times. Jails are strange lockups. You might say they’re the original in mixed housing. They house people who have been convicted of a crime and are awaiting transfer to state prisons, they house people who are held without bail or people who can’t make bail awaiting trial, they house people who have been convicted of crimes that carry only jail time of up to one year and they house people who have never even jay-walked in their lives. The emphasis here is on security, designating separate housing for the different classifications. Ultimately, all kinds of women over 21 live here, guilty and not guilty. I show my credentials in a heavily deodorized hall to a CO behind a teller’s window (a bubble) and the first gate opens. I sign several different visitors’ books before an escort guides me through the labyrinth of halls and bars to a place that will become my office on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Coming Home

Geranium Justice has been on a break but wait, it’s about to start again. There are so many stories to tell you; tales of redemption, second chances and successes, in spite of the odds stacked against the outcomes. These will belong to those who’ve been on the other side of the walls, those who are still there and those who are doing their time on the outside working on correcting damages done to them and by them. I want to thank you all for reading Geranium Justice. Although many of you have been among the rarest of people who claim not to have been affected by crime or the criminal justice system (although this is hard to believe as we are all tax payers), you have all told me that after reading the book you’ve become sensitized to the issues and that you’ve envisioned and connected to not only me but the people I’ve written about. I thank you again as these people don’t have a voice and few hear them when they do speak. While my book is my story, I’ve heard so many of you relate to my experience of single parenting, women’s issues in the work place, following a dream and taking risks for what you believe in. It’s hard to look the other way once we become aware of injustice. Our great moral questions lie beneath the screaming daily headlines of brutality in our prisons, convictions of innocents, the death penalty, privacy vs. public safety, restorative justice and the many ordinary debates that consider individual rights along with greater public good. I hope to take you along in my travels exploring these questions and I expect we will find that one size does not fit all. My search is also to bring you hope in a way that will balance the scales of the fear and sensationalism we regularly hear. You have time to read Geranium Justice which is available online through Amazon and Barnes and Noble and ebooks, if you are behind the times. Check back often as I will catch up with you soon. “There is a field beyond right and wrong. I will meet you there” Bobbi

Friday, August 29, 2014

Another parole hearing for Lennon's shooter

After 34 years and his eighth parole hearing, Mark David Chapman, the shooter of John Lennon was again denied parole by a three member panel of the New York State Parole Board on August 20, 2014. The following is an excerpt from my book “Geranium Justice” which details my meeting with Chapman. For the full chapter and his future transcripts, read my book. “A Monday in December at 10:40 in the night and I’m walking hand in hand with a date on Central Park West. We can’t help but notice blockades, people and police activity on the corner of W. 72nd Street where the Dakota apartment building sits. This is commonly home-base for celebrity watchers and autograph seekers, as many well-knowns live here. But this scene feels very different, somehow haunted and ominous. We’re told by onlookers that John Lennon has been shot. After taking in the scene, we believe that if the crowd’s report is true, the victim needs some privacy and the police need room to do their job. And so we move on. To bolster this decision, I confess that I’m not a huge Beatles fan, am no stranger to crime scenes and am not a voyeur. And so we head for one of the many cafes in the neighborhood. The next few days the media is spilling over with all angles of the murder. People have set up camp and cameras in Central Park, soon to be named ‘Strawberry Fields’. Memorials abound. The shooter surrendered at the scene so there’s no manhunt. The public is lusting after Chapman as he’s taken their hero from them. In another age, we might have seen a lynching. But I remind you that my agency, the New York City Board of Correction, is responsible for making certain that safety and security is in place for all prisoners and that the jail minimum standards dictated by the court are met. In the coming days I find out much more about Mark David Chapman and about how he’s living. I don’t have any inkling now that he’ll be a focus for me through two jobs. Now writing this, three. On Thursday morning, the 11th, a few days after the shooting, I report to my office across the street from City Hall. I’m told to check out Chapman’s lockup at Bellevue Hospital, The day is murky in every way possible. The sky is distinctly gray. There’s a muddle of sounds echoing angry screams, sad moans and excitement on the street. The vision of Bellevue Hospital alone emits fear wrapped in doom like fog. There’s a gauntlet of reporters and photogs that I have to cross through…from the bus to the hospital door. The police framing the entrance are keeping the screaming mob away from me. Am I the wife? “Just who are you?” News has carried about Chapman; that he’s from Hawaii, that he’s married, that he grew up with a childhood like Lennon’s. The reporters are clearly confused as to who I am and why I’m being admitted. “Are you Gloria?” they ask and I suddenly become the story. The monotone gray continues as I enter the door that opens only into an elevator which takes me up a few floors to the prison hospital ward. It’s manned by a corrections officer who matches the steely gray surroundings. It creeks to the jail hospital floor as my moment-in-the-sun swiftly pass. Without a word exchanged, the corrections officer brings the boxy elevator even with the floor where I will meet John Lennon’s killer. As the door slides open, there’s nothing to be heard at all. There’s no clanking din of gates, no undercurrent of men’s voices as is heard in ‘real’ jails. There is only a sense of tension in the void shared by officers flanking the hall to the left and to the right, book-ending the CO sitting behind a sign-in desk I’m instructed to begin my slow walk down the hall. My pace is timed with the opening and closing of the barred gates I pass through. We come from opposite ends of the cement glazed hall, going through four separate iron gates to meet in the middle. From each of our vantage points, we are both striped by light reflected through the barred windows from the individual cells lining both sides of the corridor. Two men walking together approach a card table set up for this meeting. The silhouettes show one tall and straight, and one short and rounder. Our gate keepers time our passage to arrive at the table simultaneously. The taller man is from Corrections, already a trusted confident of the prisoner and has told Mark that I am there to explain his rights to him. We introduce ourselves, shake hands, and sit down. We sit facing one another while he tells me in the friendliest of ways, how well he is being cared for and acknowledges that it’s probably more than deserved considering his crime. I liken the staff to being his canaries in this Bellevue mine. Even without formal psychiatric training, it’s no reach for me to conclude that he’s mentally ill and has been for a while. His manner is meek, respectful, and vulnerable. He tells me that his voices had been plotting this for a long time. He’s been fixated on Lennon’s celebrity and his own inadequacies, he’s had suicidal ideations and other classic symptoms of mental illness As he talks, he seems to fold into himself. He says with frustration that he and Lennon are so alike that he had to get one of them out of the way to exist and begins again to mention the ‘voices’. I interrupt and am careful not to discuss the reason he’s here and remind him why I’m here. My intention is not to become witness for the prosecution and I fear he’s telling me far more than I need to know. As a human being, I can’t help but feel pity for this so obviously disturbed man. Certainly he’ll be separated from the public for a long long time and due to the victim, perhaps forever. In this testosterone filled prison psyche ward of Bellevue Hospital, I don’t want to display publicly any compassionate attitude but Chapman could use a few kind words and remarkably he’s the one giving it out…to his jailers. I focus on discussing how he’s being treated and give him my card should he need to be in touch with my office. I’ve told him about his rights here and I’ve looked and listened for over an hour. I’ve done my job as required but wish I could also do what I did in my last job when I was a prison social worker. Then I would have done a full psycho-social intake so I could understand this guy better. It’s time to go.”

Friday, August 8, 2014

Rikers Island Expose

Each day more news of the brutality at Rikers Island comes to the attention of the public. It has been easy to escape such horrendous goings on in our backyard until the current investigative series by the The New York Times calls it to our attention. Although we are all informed through popular culture that jails are violent, this exposes the violence against inmates as sport by the corrections officers. Jails are strange lockups. You might say they’re the original in mixed housing. They house people who have been convicted of a crime and are awaiting transfer to state prisons, they house people who are held without bail or people who can’t make bail awaiting trial, they house people who have been convicted of crimes that carry only jail time of up to one year and they house people who have never even jay-walked in their lives. Unless you have a personal stake in the matter, it’s always a place where others are. The new Commissioner Joseph Ponte, a reformer, may be able to make inroads in changing the culture on this isolated island a hair away from flight paths to everywhere (LaGuardia Airport). One of the ways could be to begin with changing the long established language used; meals are called ‘the feed’, backgrounds of inmates are called ‘pedigrees’, lockups are called ‘pens’. Is it any wonder that if humans are referred to with animal references, we will be perceived as such. Please show your concern by writing to the Department of Correction. As a society it’s incumbent on us to be perpetuating civilities. And please read my book Geranium Justice, where I detail the broken system through my lens.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Life (?) on Rikers Island

For all of you who haven’t seen the expose by the Times of what really goes on at Rikers Island, please read Monday, July 14th paper and weep. And here is my response. “Hooray for the publication of the in-depth investigation of Rikers Island in The Times of July 14th, by Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz. The vast majority of the public has long ignored those behind bars considering any treatment as legitimate punishment. Pope John Paul II is attributed as saying “A society will be judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members”. I was a Board of Correction standards specialist staffer at Rikers Island for years until becoming a New York State Parole Commissioner. It is correction’s mandate to be responsible for the ‘care and custody’ of inmates housed on the island. Rikers is a temporary facility for most; housing people who have been convicted of a crime and are awaiting transfer to state prisons, people who are held without bail or people who can’t make bail awaiting trial, people who have been convicted of crimes that carry only jail time of up to one year and people who have never even jay-walked in their lives and will be found not guilty of any crime. It may even house our brothers, our sisters, our neighbors our relatives! We all hear the sensationalized versions of crimes and criminals but as in life there is a more ordinary picture of those jailed; the addict, the bungler, the guy who has nothing to lose, the homeless and in most cases the mentally ill (with women cornering the numbers on this). The distance between the jailed and the jailer is miniscule in most cases coming from the same neighborhoods. I applaud Commissioner Ponte’s effort to reform a system that has for too long protected itself. in uniforms.”

Monday, July 7, 2014

Court Trumps Parole Recision

Court Trumps Parole Recision An amazing and unusual thing happened…the New York State Court of Appeals found in favor of reinstating the parole date of an inmate and against the Parole Board’s decision to rescind it! This appeal win signals to the Board that their decisions based on undermining media and public reaction rather than following legal standards will not go unchallenged! Queries from the Daily News to the parole board after a release decision had been granted to Pablo Costello on his fourth visit to the parole board, instigated a recision hearing citing the continuing grief of the family as reason to never release Mr. Costello.The headlines that blared the following in the Daily News in 2009 in its refined journalistic style, cued the questionable integrity on the part of the parole board and read, “Cop killer will continue to rot as parole denied for man who murdered NYPD officer in 1978” . The response to political pressure through reversing parole decisions is nothing new but perhaps this case can diminish its frequency. Pablo Costello’s crime occurred in 1978 when at the age of 22 , acting as a lookout, he and his crime partner intended to rob an auto supply store but were interrupted by a police officer inquiring about a car double parked. As Costello fled to move the car, his codefendant shot and killed the officer. Being convicted of felony murder, he was offered 5-15 years years but took the case to trial instead.getting 25 years to life. And finally after reaching the 25 year minimum making him parole eligible, he was refused on each of the three subsequent appearances making him serve six more years. When finally granted release in 2009 the board, after media frenzy, took his date away. Since then the appeals have woven their circuitous way through court. The Board is appointed to confine people if they are a risk to community safety at the court sanctioned minimum of their already considered sentence…they are not required to act as unlegislated public avengers. Pablo Costello was just released after serving 35 years.