Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: An Excerpt About the Education Inmates Aren’t Getting

MSGPJeff Smith was a state senator representing St. Louis until he was sentenced to prison for obstruction of justice in a campaign malfeasance case. His recently published memoir about his experiences in prison, Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America’s Prison Crisis, offers a glimpse into the dismal state of rehabilitative education–and a good example of why getting books into the hands of people in prison is so important:

Many prisoners were anxious to learn how to operate, program, and fix computers, and dozens of prisoners had been requesting computer courses for years. So I was heartened to learn that the warden was requiring a new computer skills class for all prisoners nearing release. One day I was called to the admin building along with other prisoners in their final six months for the start of what I assumed would be a multiweek course of instruction. Two COs herded us into a computer room; one checked us off, and then we waited at the terminals for thirty minutes under his watchful eye. Shortly thereafter, the CO called roll and looked us over. “All right, it’s been about forty-five minutes, so you can leave if you want.” And thus ended our computer skills class. Nutrition class was similar: a CO handed out a brochure with information about the caloric content of food at McDonald’s, Bojangles, and Wendy’s and released us after five minutes.

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Giving Back

The Arizona Daily Star did a wonderful article on volunteering in the Tucson community, featuring one of our core members! Why does Nikki volunteer with multiple organizations in Tucson, and include her family in the process?

RBTB nikki and morgan

 

“It is important to help those in need, whether it is to help out stray or abandoned animals, give water to homeless people around town or provide some education and entertainment for incarcerated adults…We have tried to raise our daughters to become strong, caring, empathetic young women who recognize that they have had opportunities and advantages that many people have not.”  Read the entire article here.

 

Packing parties are a great way to relax and do some great work.  Come on your own, with friends, or family!  Packing parties occur on the second Wednesday of each month, and the last Sunday.  Like our Facebook page for event updates and reminders.

501(c)(3)

Read Between the Bars has received the paperwork that officially labels us as a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization! Donations will now be tax deductible, and allow us to continue to grow as an organization.  We are excited with this change for the organization and the people we serve.

If you’re able, please consider donating now.  Your newly tax deductible donation will help us pay for the postage required to ship books to incarcerated individuals throughout Arizona.  Donations can be easily made via PayPal, or by sending a check to our PO Box.

 

Community Thanks

quote-Cesar-Chavez-we-cannot-seek-achievement-for-ourselves-and-70866Did you know that Read Between the Bars is completely run by volunteers and donations? That is why we are so appreciative of the local businesses and community groups that allow us to share our mission to help gather donations.  We have had a few places help us out over the last year, and just want to thank them for helping the Arizona community!

A big thank you to…fst

To find out more about any of these organizations, click on literacy_connectsthe links above.

 

A Books Worth

At our twice a month Book-Packing Parties, we open a lot of letters from incarcerated individuals requesting books. We always receive intense gratitude and kind words from people who have acquired books from our program.  Sometimes, these letters are so eloquent and gracious that we just have to share.  From a recent letter, an incarcerated individual wrote:


To Whom it May Concern,RBTB website letter

Hello, I hope you are all doing well.  It is a great thing you guys do for us and I’d like to
thank you for that. It’s really hard to understand a books worth until you’ve been in a small cell for months at a time with nothing but your mind to keep you company. Then, out of nowhere, you receive a book or two and your able to travel and meet different characters
who become friends, and yes, even enemies…

Anyways, I’d like to request a couple of books please. Thank you for your time.  

[Name and personal information redacted]


 

Packages to send Our Book-Packing Parties are on the second Wednesday of the month from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. and the last Sunday of the month from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m.
To find out more, you can join our email list by emailing us your information at readbetweenthebars@gmail.com, or like our Facebook page and join the packing events.

March 31st: Tuesdays for Tucson to Benefit Read Between the Bars!

Join Read Between the Bars on Tuesday, March 31st from 5pm to 10pm at La Cocina Restaula-cocina-tucsonrant and Bar for their weekly benefit!  Come and enjoy any food or drink that evening, and 10% of the sales will go to support Read Between the Bars’ mission of sending books to people incarcerated in Arizona.

While there, you’ll get to enjoy live music by Mik and Scott and Billy Sedlmayr. Mik and Scott, who are regular performers at La Cocina, use looping bass, sax, drums, and other instruments to create a unique, experimental funk sound. Billy Sedlmayr h

14370_10153522921613222_147247902024654458_nas been a contributor to Tucson’s music scene since his teenage years, when he was involved in local punk bands like The Pedestrians. Over the years, while sharing the stage and studio with the likes of Howe Gelb and Dave Seeger, his sound took a turn toward Americana.

Let us know you’re coming by RSVPing on the Facebook event.  Feel free to bring your gently used paperback books to donate at that time. Hope to see you there!

For questions, please email us at readbetweenthebars@gmail.com.

 

What’s New at Read Between the Bars? Find out on February 13!

Greek BookWith the incoming book requests we are constantly receiving–and everything that has to happen upstream and downstream from filling those requests, like collecting book donations, raising funds for postage, and making trips to the post office–it’s not often that we can take a breath and regroup. This month, though, we’re enjoying one of those rare moments, and we would be remiss if we didn’t tell our volunteers that in lieu of our next Book-Packing Party, we’ll be having a planning meeting.

Our Book-Packing Parties are currently scheduled for the second Wednesday and last Sunday of every month (the former in the evening, from 6:30 to 9:00 p.m., and the latter in the afternoon, from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m.). However, this month we’ll be devoting the second Wednesday of the month to a planning meeting. If you’d like to join us to help us with the brainstorming and planning, we’ll be meeting at Fronimo’s Greek Café (3242 E. Speedway Blvd.) at 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday, February 13.

We have a lot planned for the early months of 2013, including a table at the Peace Fair on February 23, another documentary screening, and a new book donation location. If you’ve ever wondered if you’d like to become more involved with Read Between the Bars, this is a great opportunity to interact with us during a meeting and take on any project or any part of a project that interests you–or just help by sharing your ideas and giving feedback to others’ ideas.

Finally, if Book-Packing Parties are what interest you, we’ll return to our normal schedule on February 24, from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m.

Please e-mail us at readbetweenthebars@gmail.com if you have any questions about volunteering.

Democracy & Dissent Book Club to Discuss The New Jim Crow

One of the most talked about books on the prison-industrial complex recently has been Michelle Alexander‘s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.  If you’ve read it, are reading it now, or plan to read it, you can join a discussion about it at the Democracy & Dissent Book Club at Antigone Books next month.  They’ll be discussing it at 2:00 p.m. on April 1 at Antigone Books, 411 N. 4th Ave. in Tucson.

Accounting for the Innocent but Imprisoned

While Arizona has only seen three exonerations from post-conviction DNA testing, one of those exonerated, Ray Krone, holds the distinction of being the 100th person exonerated from death row since 1976. Krone was sentenced to death row for the 1991 murder of Kim Ancona, an acquaintance who worked at a Phoenix bar that Krone frequented. Ancona was raped and murdered shortly after the bar closed on December 29, 1991, and circumstantial evidence, in tandem with an expert witness who had supposedly matched a sample of Krone’s teeth marks to the teeth marks found on Ancona’s body, resulted in Krone’s conviction.

A 1994 retrial convicted Krone again on the same evidence, but Krone was given a lighter sentence: 46 years in prison. The appeals continued until 2002, when Krone’s attorney was able to use DNA evidence to convince an appeals court that Krone was innocent. It’s hard to call someone who spent a decade of his life fighting a wrongful conviction lucky, but in some ways he was. Witness to Innocence, an organization that empowers ex-death row prisoners in the movement to abolish the death penalty, summarizes the unusual circumstances that enabled Krone’s exoneration: “Unlike nearly every other prisoner on death row, he had financial support from his second cousin, Jim Rix. Jim personally spent more than $100,000 to pay Ray’s legal fees. Ray also had the benefit of DNA evidence, which is available in only about 15 percent of cases.” Krone’s story provides one example of how unusual it is for wrongful convictions to be reversed–and why.

In Mother Jones last December, an article asked rhetorically in its title, “How Many Innocent People Are in Prison?” The answer is that no one is really sure. According to the Innocence Project, “the few studies that have been done estimate that between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent.” In a nation that imprisons people at a rate four times the global average, that amounts to 46,000 to 100,000 people. But as Mother Jones explains, that number is likely too small to reflect the reality of the wrongfully incarcerated. Most of the wrongfully incarcerated don’t have the resources–or even the willingness–to appeal. “Because the average time from conviction to exoneration is about 13 years, only those sentenced to serious crimes with decades-long prison terms are likely to even bother undertaking the long, arduous, and resource-intensive process of clearing their names.”

Ray Krone’s case has often been cited as an example of the eagerness on the part of law enforcement to see someone convicted, especially in the case of capital crimes, even if the evidence against that person is weak. Capital crimes are often the focus of studies that look at the number of wrongfully convicted people in U.S. prisons, but a broader view is needed–though equally elusive. As a writer for Reason magazine argued, “The Innocence Project cites a study by Seton Hall’s D. Michael Risinger that puts the percentage of innocents in prison at 3 to 5 percent. But that study looked only at capital crimes, and there’s yet more debate over whether data gleaned from those accused of crimes that are eligible for the death penalty would translate into higher or lower wrongful conviction rates for those accused of lesser crimes.”

Looking at lesser crimes, especially drug crimes, we find more reason for alarm. Last year a New York court heard testimony from Stephen Anderson, a former narcotics detective who admitted, “As a detective, you…have a number to reach while you are in the narcotics division,” a number reached by “taking someone who was seemingly not guilty of a crime and laying the drugs on them.” Anderson added, “It was something I was seeing a lot of, whether it was from supervisors or undercovers and even investigators.”

Downstream from law-enforcement officers, many of whom are pressured to meet arrest quotas, is what one legal blog dubbed the Plea Bargain Assembly Line. Public defenders are commonly overworked, handling hundreds of cases annually. The result, according to Mother Jones, is that “Nineteen out of twenty, or 95 percent, of convictions in the US are by plea bargain.” The number of innocents in that 95 percent can’t be ascertained, since no evidence is brought to trial.

As if that weren’t enough, those behind bars might see their incarceration extended as a consequence of fabricated or exaggerated charges. In “Bring Us Your Chained and Huddled Masses,” a chapter in the edited volume Boob Jubilee: The Cultural Politics of the New Economy, journalist Christian Parenti looked at Crescent City, California, and the surrounding county of Del Norte, where corrections is the biggest industry, thanks to “the sprawling $277 million Pelican Bay State Prison,” which puts “more than $90 million a year into the local economy.” “According to research by California Prison Focus (CPF),” writes Parenti, “even minor disciplinary infractions at Pelican Bay, such as spitting on guards or refusing to return a meal tray, are routinely embellished and prosecuted as felony assault.” Those charged often face citizen jurors who are related to people employed by, or profiting from, the corrections industry. Furthermore, local defense attorneys shared stories of how prison officials and beneficiaries of the prison industry used their leverage to prevent effective legal defense of inmates. Defense attorneys with a record of too many wins saw their appointments disappear. Authorities instead sought what one attorney called “guaranteed loser lawyers.”

Searching for the answer to how many innocent people are imprisoned, we run into a lot of dead ends where evidence can’t be found. But along the way it’s easy to come to the conclusion that what can’t be quantified is still cause for considerable concern. At every step, from arrest to conviction to appeal, tens of thousands–at the very least–are caught in a system that is too zealously punitive and insufficiently judicious.

Friday News Roundup for February 27 through March 2, 2012

Here’s a quick wrap-up of some news items that were noteworthy but not covered in our blog this week.

  • From the Arizona Prison Watch blog, Tuesday, February 28, 2012: “[T]he ACLU National Prison Project and the Prison Law Office are about to file a class action lawsuit against the state of Arizona for their horrid treatment of prisoners when it comes to health and mental health care.” Additionally, Arizona Prison Watch announced that it will be co-sponsoring a forum on March 22 called “Fair Treatment for All: Ensuring Humane Medical Care for Arizona Prisoners” at the Maryvale Community Center Auditorium at 4420 N. 51st Ave. in Phoenix. The Arizona ACLU is an additional co-sponsor of the event.
  • From the Real Cost of Prisons Weblog, Thursday, March 1, 2012: In an egregious example of racial disparities in drug arrests, “93 percent of all marijuana possession arrests in the city of Atlanta [in 2011] were African-Americans, and 7 percent were white. The city’s population is 54 percent African-American and 38 percent white.”
  • From the Newport News (Virginia) Daily Press, via SentenceSpeak blog, Thursday, March 1, 2012: “A 2010 report released by the Congressional Research Service revealed the [corrections] industry employs about 770,000 workers….By way of perspective: The U.S. auto industry employs about 880,000 people.”
  • From the National Immigrant Justice Center, via the Dignity Not Detention blog, Friday, March 2, 2012: “Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) welcomes the announcement that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has released a long-awaited set of new immigration detention standards intended to address critical human rights concerns in the system. Unfortunately, the new standards do not go far enough to protect the rights of all ICE detainees, and ICE has yet to commit to a timeline for implementation that will ensure immigrants are protected from abuse, neglect, and inhumane conditions.” Among other shortcomings, it won’t apply the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 to immigrant detention facilities.
  • Also released this week was a new study by The Sentencing Project, The Lives of Juvenile Lifers: Findings from a National Survey (PDF). Among the 1,579 individuals surveyed, the study found “high rates of socioeconomic disadvantage, extreme racial disparities in the imposition of [sentences], sentences frequently imposed without judicial discretion, and counterproductive corrections policies that thwart efforts at rehabilitation.”