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The community and care that people in prison offer one another


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Community behind the prison walls

  • At Angola Prison, ‘People are suffering. People are dying’

  • Cash bail yields a new casualty

  • Nearly 3,000 people were evacuated from Florida prisons

  • Dangerous and illegal drug raids by Little Rock, Arkansas, police

  • Canadian pension fund’s investment in US private prison companies keeps growing

  • Autopsy of man killed by Nashville police shows shots to back and back of head

In the Spotlight

The community and care that people in prison offer one another

Before a temporary reprieve postponed his execution date by a few weeks, Ed Zagorski was scheduled to be put to death in Tennessee last Thursday. In the days leading up to that original execution date, before the reprieve was issued, Zagorski had busied himself sending messages to people who had helped him over the years. Because he cannot write, he dictated notes. He also, through a minister, conveyed a message for his fellow residents of death row. He had decided not to request the customary final meal. The reason, the Nashville Scene reported, was that the weekend before Zagorski was moved to death watch,  “more than a dozen of the men on death row pulled together whatever ingredients they could get their hands on and made pizzas to share in a last supper of sorts with [him].” The minister told the Scene: “That meant the world to him. He said, ‘that was my last meal.’” [Steven Hale / Nashville Scene]

Those of us who live outside prison walls are, almost by definition and certainly by design, cut off from what goes on inside them. Our system of mass arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment depends on the dehumanization of the people subjected to it. Yet this story about Zagorski, about the generosity and fellowship of men who live with death hanging over them, reminds us that death row and prison are, in this respect, like everywhere else—full of people creating community, offering care, and finding meaning under the most difficult of circumstances.

Anthony Graves, who spent 12 years on Texas’s death row, wrote of the fellowship that welcomed him when he got there. “[D]eath row inmates were a hospitable sort, I’d come to find,” he wrote. “They had exclusive knowledge of the terror I’d be facing in those first few weeks [and] would often send bags to newcomers, a collective housewarming gift.” Because they knew that a new arrival would have no money in their commissary account for a while, people would pool their money to buy “pens, paper, soap, stamps, and those damn shower shoes” for someone who had just arrived. In Graves’s case, the brown paper bag he received from the man locked in the cell below his actually contained a book—the autobiography of Angela Davis.  [Anthony Graves / Literary Hub]

On Alabama’s death row, Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 28 years there, eventually started a book club. As he and six others sat together in a locked room for their first meeting, he wrote, “[w]e weren’t the scum of the earth, the lowest of the low, the forgotten and abandoned men who were sitting in a dark corner of hell waiting for their turn to walk to the electric chair.” A discussion of James Baldwin led to talk of the sins of their fathers and then led to “five black men in the South trying to comfort the white man who would forever be known for doing the last lynching of a black boy.”

Hinton makes a promise to the others that day: “Someday, when I get out of here, you know what I’m going to do?”

“What you going to do, Ray?”

“I’m going to tell the world about how there was men in here that mattered. That cared about each other and the world. That were learning how to look at things differently.”

[Anthony Ray Hinton / Longreads]

In the 1980’s and 90’s, as the AIDS-related death toll mounted, people incarcerated in New York prisons created educational programs to combat the fear and stigma around them. Donna Hylton, who was incarcerated at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in those years, told Victoria Law: “We let people know that it was okay to take care of a person with AIDS.” Mujahid Farid and David Gilbert received permission from prison officials to visit people who were in solitary confinement because of their HIV status. They “walked the track with others in the prison’s yard, sending the message that these men were protected.”  [The Body / Victoria Law]

Incarcerated people are on staff at the California Medical Unit, the state’s only licensed hospice inside a prison. As the casualties of the mass incarceration epidemic age, the hospice serves an increasingly elderly population. It is, in one patient’s language, another “death row.” The staff earns 15 to 32 cents an hour. Yet one hospice worker “keeps looking for small ways to make patients smile and … spends his wages on ice-cream cones and vending-machine snacks to pass around.” Workers “brush patients’ teeth, massage sore limbs, read books out loud, strip soiled mattresses and assist the medical staff.” And: “When patients are in their final hours, it is the workers who sit bedside, holding round-the-clock vigils. They pride themselves on their policy: No prisoner here dies alone.” [Suleika Jaouad / New York Times Magazine]

This month, Darnell Epps, a student at Cornell University, wrote of the guidance and support he received when he was in prison. He says that he and his brother, who is part of a program at Columbia University, are often treated as exceptional, emerging from prison unscathed. The truth, he writes, is that “[i]n prison, we shined because of, not despite, our circumstances, especially the presence of the ‘old-timers’ who helped guide us to our coming-of-age. We owe them tremendous credit.” But the “50-, 75- and 100-year minimum sentences” many of these men are serving mean that their contributions are confined within the prison walls. “When I hear of all the gun violence on Chicago’s South Side, for instance,” Epps writes, “I can’t help wondering what would happen if Illinois’s many reformed old-timers, who hail from those neighborhoods, were granted parole with a mission of working to reduce the violence.” People in prison who have so much to offer should be out instead, so that “there can be more stories like mine and Darryl’s, and fewer young people making the mistakes that get them sent to prison in the first place.” [Darnell Epps / New York Times]

Stories From The Appeal

msppmoore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At Angola Prison, ‘People Are Suffering. People Are Dying.’ Trial begins in class action suit alleging medical neglect by Louisiana State Penitentiary. [Jessica Pishko]

Cash Bail Yields a New Casualty. A Texas jail suicide involving a woman who couldn’t make bail in a shoplifting case highlights of the plight of pretrial detainees with mental illness. [Lauren Gill]

Stories From Around the Country

Nearly 3,000 people were evacuated from Florida prisons: The Florida Department of Corrections confirmed Sunday that it evacuated nearly 3,000 incarcerated people from Panhandle prisons that suffered damage from Hurricane Michael. In the days before the hurricane hit, the department responded to calls for evacuations by saying that prisons were prepared to weather the storm. But in yesterday’s update it reported that one facility—Gulf Correctional—”sustained a direct hit from the storm,” according to the Miami Herald, and four prisons in total are closed “until further damage assessment can be completed.” The corrections department insists that “all inmates … had access to food and drinking water through the duration of the storm” but families of people in prisons affected by the storm report that the message at those facilities was quite different: Anyone drinking the tap water did so “at their own risk.” [Ben Conarck / Miami Herald]

Dangerous and illegal drug raids by Little Rock, Arkansas, police: One day last summer, 11 heavily armed police officers used explosives to blow off Roderick Talley’s door just before 6:30 a.m. in Little Rock, Arkansas. The officers were executing a warrant based on an informant’s statements that he had bought cocaine from Talley but a search of Talley’s apartment turned up no cocaine, only a small amount of marijuana. Radley Balko of the Washington Post interviewed Talley and nine other people who were the subjects of raids and reviewed 109 search warrants. Balko describes Talley’s case in detail and also concludes that Little Rock Police Department “narcotics cops and SWAT teams are routinely violating the Fourth Amendment rights of Little Rock residents.” The three main areas of concern are that police are requesting, and judges are signing, no-knock warrants without demonstrating the need for no-knock entry; the LRPD is serving warrants by using inappropriate and dangerous explosives on doors, including in two cases when children were reportedly in the home; and there is clear evidence that one informant has lied to police about his drug buys. [Radley Balko / Washington Post]

Canadian pension fund’s investment in US private prison companies keeps growing:  Between August 2017 and August 2018, a Canadian investment fund that manages the pension funds for roughly 20 million Canadian retirees grew its holdings in the two biggest U.S. private prison companies. Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) increased its investment in GEO Group almost thirteen-fold, according to the latest Securities and Exchange Commission filings. The increased investment was despite criticisms from Canadian politicians about the Trump administration’s immigration detention policies. CPPIB has said that the investments in the private prison companies represent only a tiny proportion of their fund and were not direct investments. However, some Canadian lawmakers have expressed concerns since the report came out. One told The Guardian: “Canadian taxpayers should not be inadvertently complicit in feeding the development of privatized for-profit prisons.” CPPIB is state-owned and ultimately answerable to the Canadian parliament. [Max Siegelbaum / Documented and Guardian US]

Autopsy of man killed by Nashville police shows shots to back and back of head: A medical examiner’s autopsy report shows that Daniel Hambrick died from “multiple gunshot wounds to his back and the back of his head,” according to The Tennessean. Metro Nashville Police Officer Andrew Delke shot Hambrick as Hambrick was running away from him. Delke was charged with criminal homicide last month, “an almost unprecedented move in Nashville’s history,” and one that went forward only after a judge reversed a magistrate’s unusual decision not to charge. The police department is now reviewing its foot pursuit policy, and the Nov. 6 ballot includes a referendum on the creation of a community oversight board for the department. [Mariah Timms / The Tennessean]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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