Prison Talk

We firmly believe that even though a prisoner's body is locked up, their mind can always be free to travel the world and learn about anything they are interested through the magic or books.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

More Black men in jail than college

THE U.S. would rather fill a jail than a school. That was the conclusion of a study released last month by the Washington-based research and advocacy group Justice Policy Institute (JPI). By the end of last year, one out of every 32 adults in the U.S.--or 6.6 million people--was behind bars, on probation or on parole.

The JPI report compared two decades of data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Center for Education Statistics--and found that while states had plenty to spend on prisons, they had much less to devote to education.

Between 1985 and 2005, the increase in state spending on corrections was nearly double the increase for higher education. "This report underlines the sad reality that the nation's colleges and universities have lost budget battles to the growing prison system," said Vincent Schiraldi, JPI's president and co-author of the study.

Meanwhile, states have shifted the financial burden onto students. Between 1980 and 1998, the cost of paying for tuition at a four-year college rose from 13 percent of a poor family's income to 25 percent.

These statistics are grim, but for Black men, they get even grimmer. African American men are more likely to go to jail than go to college, according to the JPI study. From 1980 to 2008, the number of African American men in jail or prison grew three times as fast as the number in colleges and universities.

Lamont and Lawrence Garrison are two examples. The twins, who are Black, were just a month away from finishing college at Howard University when they were arrested on drug charges in April 1998. They were found guilty based on the unsubstantiated testimony of a confessed drug dealer who was hoping to lower his sentence. Lamont was sentenced to 19 years; Lawrence got 15 years.

This is the price being paid for two decades of the politicians' tough-on-crime policies that have filled prisons, even as violent crime arrests have dropped.

And George W. Bush's law-and-order home state of Texas is the worst. Texas had more adults under correctional supervision than any other state--755,100--last year. From 1986 to 2008, the amount that Texas spent on higher education grew by 47 percent--while its corrections budget jumped by 346 percent!

Both mainstream political parties are to blame for this travesty. Bill Clinton matched the Republicans in punitive crime policies, with truth-in-sentencing and minimum-sentencing laws. "This is because policies that are 'tough on crime' are politically risk free," said Todd Clear, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "They're made by politicians seeking election on the basis of what sounds good at the time, and paid for by people not yet voting. Their effects on the prison population don't come into play until 10 or 15 years down the line."

In some states, the obvious failure of tough sentencing laws has led some legislatures to propose laws to end mandatory minimum sentencing, reform the nation's drug laws and de-fund new prison construction and expansion.

But it's time to look at the whole criminal justice system. There's something wrong with a system that would rather lock away young people than teach them. Education, not incarceration!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Robert King: 'I'll fight until the day I die'

Robert King spent decades battling for his release from the 'hell-hole' of America's notorious Angola Prison. Now free, he's still crusading for its inmates.

Working conditions at Angola Prison in Louisiana were so harsh that, in 1952, three dozen inmates hacked through their own Achilles tendons with razor blades in protest.

They became known as the Heel String Gang. By the time Robert King first arrived at the former slave plantation, 10 years later, armed convicts were working as guards. Incoming prisoners, or "fresh fish", were being sold as sex slaves. Some were raped so violently they died of their injuries. But these horrors formed only part of King's nightmare. For every day of the 29 years he spent in solitary confinement, inside a prison described as the "bloodiest in America", he knew he was innocent.

"It's hard to get dipped in shit and not come out stinking," says King, who walked free in 2001. "But I don't have time to be angry." Two men, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, who were sent down for murder at the same time, still languish in Angola Prison, properly known as the Louisiana State Penitentiary, after 37 years in solitary confinement, the longest period in US history. King, who is now 67, will not rest until they are released: "Will I fight till the day I die? Perhaps I will."

For decades, the men known as the Angola Three have protested their innocence. Their supporters say the case represents one of the greatest miscarriages of justice of our times – one that still shames America. When they fought for the rights of black inmates at the height of the civil rights movement, they were framed for murder, thrown in cells smaller than most bathrooms, and forgotten.

The plight of King and his comrades is the subject of In the Land of the Free, a documentary narrated by Samuel L Jackson and out in cinemas on Friday. King hopes the film, which premieres in London tomorrow, will help his fight for justice. "You throw pebbles in a pond and you get ripples," he says. "I see this as a huge rock."

King has devoted his life to throwing pebbles. He spends two weeks of every month travelling the world, meeting activists, world leaders – anyone who will listen. I first meet him in London in 2008 at an exhibition put on by an artist and supporter. It includes a whitewashed, wooden replica of King's cell. Standing behind its bars, he is taken back to a space from which he never expected to emerge. "I had life and 43 years, and in Angola life is life," he says. "I had hope, but I had to reserve my feelings because I knew I would probably die in prison."

King wears a pair of khakis, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Kangol flat cap turned backwards. A crude, faded tattoo of a spider peers out from under his right sleeve. It's a souvenir from King's first stint in prison, while he was still in his teens. His route to Angola started in Algiers, a poor ward of New Orleans. Raised by his grandmother (his parents were "off the set"), King's upbringing was marked by poverty and discrimination. "There were laws in place that upgraded some citizens and downgraded others," he says. "I happened to be on the down side – as was my father, and his father before him."

Drawn on to an escalator of petty crime, King was soon doing time in juvenile facilities for robberies he says he wasn't involved in. "Back then, police said, well, you might not be guilty but you was probably there, so ... " Between sentences, a young King found work digging graves and collecting litter to recycle for cash. In 1970, while serving a sentence for another robbery of which he claims innocence, King cracked. He escaped from the Orleans Parish Prison in a bust involving 25 inmates. It did not endear him to the authorities, who recaptured him after two weeks, and threw him into solitary. "I decided I couldn't have any more obligations to a system that had dealt me like that," he says. "I had hoped that the system would be fair but I lost that hope."

Meanwhile, at Angola, Wallace and Woodfox were serving sentences for unconnected robberies. The world's largest maximum security prison, and a working farm to this day, Angola was built in the late 19th century on the site of a plantation, and named after the African country from which many of its slaves were shipped. Guards who worked there in the Seventies have admitted that the trade in sex slaves was allowed to flourish. Between 1972 and 1975, the practice of arming inmates as guards resulted in the deaths of 40 prisoners. Partly reformed today, Angola has 5,000 inmates, more than three-quarters of whom are black. Eight out of 10 of its convicts die behind bars.

Sickened by racial hatred in and out of Angola, Wallace and Woodfox formed a prison chapter of the Black Panther Party, the revolutionary group that rocked America in the Sixties and Seventies. It made them public enemies. When no inmates spoke up after the 1972 murder of a 23-year-old prison guard called Brent Miller, authorities terrorised Angola's black population, and singled out Black Panthers. A prisoner who at first said he had not seen the murder emerged suddenly as a key witness. He fingered Wallace and Woodfox, who were found guilty by an all-white jury and sent to solitary, where they remain. Prints collected at the scene, which belong to neither man, were never tested. Even Miller's widow, Leontine Verrett, is said to be convinced of the pair's innocence.

King, who by now had also joined the Panthers, was moved to Angola soon after Miller's murder. He could expect an earlier release but later learned he was under investigation for the slaying, despite not having been there. The authorities found a better reason to keep him locked up in 1973, when King was charged for the murder of August Kelly, a prisoner who was stabbed to death. King stood trial alongside Kelly's assailant, who claimed sole responsibility for the murder. But witnesses, who would later admit to having given false testimony, put King at the scene. He was found guilty, only to be re-tried in 1975 after it emerged his mouth had been taped shut during the first trial. Despite a mountain of evidence in King's favour, he was found guilty by an all-white jury drawn from the prison community. And so began three decades in solitary.

"You can't get used to anything like that but you have to think about it as part of the territory if you're gonna survive," says King, who shared Angola's Closed Cell Restricted area with Woodfox and Wallace. Talking was forbidden and rule-breakers were thrown in "the dungeon". "They didn't even have a mattress in there or no blankets," King recalls. "Food you got was sometimes just two slices of bread, and you wouldn't get a shower for days. You could get 10 days in there, sometimes 20, sometimes 30, but we were willing to sacrifice a bit just to talk."

Like his comrades, King became schooled in the law and found "escape in sleep", but a sweeter diversion came from an unlikely source. By stacking empty drinks cans to create a stove fired by burning tissues, King used butter packs and sugar sachets, as well as smuggled pecans, to make pralines. Risking stints in the dungeon, he sold his candy to other inmates and made donations to the men on death row. He says: "It was something I could do, and something different I could give people who might never see daylight again – myself included."

King says it required a "change in psychology" to stay sane: "I began to see America as one big prison – that I was in maximum security and that the people outside were in minimum custody." As years turned into decades, the Angola Three risked being forgotten in the hellhole that was the prison. But as word of their plight spread, the scales of justice started to creak. After a complex process of plea bargaining, during which King says the state went to great lengths to avoid a costly and embarrassing lawsuit, he reluctantly accepted a charge of conspiracy to commit murder. On 8 February 2001 he walked free. "I was elated – never scared," he recalls, "but it felt so strange and surreal."

King returned to New Orleans, where he continued to make his pralines (he rebranded them "King's Freelines" and still sells them to raise money for the campaign). Driven out by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he moved to Austin, Texas, where he still lives with his dog, Kenya.

All possible legal strings within reach have been pulled to ensure that Woodfox and Wallace remain no closer to freedom. When King isn't campaigning or "you know, coolin' out, dilly-dallyin' around", he reflects on what the case of the Angola Three says about race relations in modern America.

At our first meeting, Obama's inauguration was still six months away and King doubted even a black president could bring change. "The politics are too entrenched," he said. "Kennedy tried to change them and was assassinated. Malcolm X was assassinated. If Obama gets elected and isn't assassinated, he might give people the idea America has changed but it won't be true."

And now? King thinks for a moment. "I believe Obama has become a catalyst for change," he says. "The election showed the ideology and mindset of the young people in this country has made a big leap. We saw it in Katrina and we're beginning to see it elsewhere. They're saying, you're not gonna do this in our name no more. We gonna go on our own. Whether or not that will impact Herman and Albert immediately, I don't know. Until it does, the struggle goes on. I may be free of Angola. But Angola will never be free of me."

Prison guard to do time

Published March 27, 2010 05:49 pm - Sentencing has been set for Gary L. Sheesley, the senior corrections officer at the Federal Penitentiary at Lewisburg who, with his loaded .45-caliber Derringer last July, mistook a convenience store along Route 45 for the O.K. Corral.


Sentencing has been set for Gary L. Sheesley, the senior corrections officer at the Federal Penitentiary at Lewisburg who, with his loaded .45-caliber Derringer last July, mistook a convenience store along Route 45 for the O.K. Corral.

Sheesley, police said, was drunk when he smacked a passing car with his hand in downtown Lewisburg, and invited the driver to a fight. They met at a convenience store in East Buffalo Township and engaged in a tussle. Sheesley, 49, of Mifflinburg, drew the gun on Jerry Zimmerman, of Sunbury, who knocked it out of Sheesley’s hand.

The two-shot pistol skidded across the parking lot. Zimmerman grabbed it, went inside the convenience store and asked the clerk to call police.

Sheesley has pleaded guilty to recklessly endangering another person, and to his third driving under the influence, with a high blood-alcohol level. His blood-alcohol content was 0.125 percent. The legal limit for drivers in Pennsylvania is 0.08 percent.

Six charges were dropped against Sheesley: Driving under the influence while generally impaired, his third offense; making terroristic threats; a second count of recklessly endangering another person; two counts of simple assault; and disorderly conduct by engaging in fighting.

Sheesley was suspended from his job at the prison. His current employment status is unknown.

East Buffalo Township Detective Darryl Fisher arrested Sheesley at the convenience store after the 7 p.m. incident July 25. Fisher reported that Sheesley and Zimmerman both had signs of injury to their faces. Zimmerman stayed inside the store and Sheesley waited for police to arrive outside, seated on his motorcycle. Fisher reported that Sheesley’s eyes were glassy and he had an odor of alcoholic beverage on his breath.

Sentencing is scheduled for early June in Union County Court with Judge Harold F. Woelfel Jr. presiding.

Friday, March 26, 2010

T.I. Completes Prison Sentence But Still Has Curfew

Rapper will reportedly be placed under 23 days of supervised release.

T.I. is officially a free man. Mostly. On Friday (March 26), the rapper completed his prison sentence, stemming from a 2007 arrest for attempting to illegally purchase firearms.

Originally given 366 days in prison, T.I. was released to a halfway house in December and earlier this month, he was allowed to return home to finish the remainder of his sentence, which ended today, according to Federal Bureau of Prisons records.

But T.I. isn't exactly out of the woods just yet. While his home confinement may have ended, his lawyer reportedly told TMZ that T.I. will now be placed under 23 days of "supervised release," meaning he'll have to be home by 11 p.m. unless he's performing, in which case his curfew is extended until 1 a.m.

The Web site also reported that the rapper still needs to complete some 400 hours of community service and will remain on probation for three years. Before his prison stint began, T.I. made an arrangement with prosecutors, in which he would complete 1,500 hours of community service, 1,000 of which needed to be completed before he would be formally sentenced. In exchange, he was given the 366-day jail sentence, which allowed him the opportunity for early release. T.I. officially began serving his time in May, meaning he ended up doing 10 months of the year-and-a-day bid.

Since being moved to the halfway house in December, T.I. has been recording the follow-up to his 2008 album, Paper Trail, and earlier this month, he announced plans for a brand-new single, "I'm Back."

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Nicki Minaj Calls Lil Wayne's Jail Time 'An Emotional Roller Coaster'

We wouldn't wish it on any crew in the game,' she says at mtvU Spring Break.

It's been a trying time for the Young Money camp since Lil Wayne began his yearlong prison bid. The rapper's sentencing and subsequent jail stint were delayed numerous times before he finally entered New York's Rikers Island. Nicki Minaj called the experience "confusing."

"His actual time to go in had been changing, up and down," she said during mtvU Spring Break. "So it's been an emotional roller coaster for all of us involved because we never knew when the last text message or that last hug was the actual last text message or hug. It was very, very strange. We wouldn't wish it on any crew in the game."

Lil Wayne took advantage of the additional time he was afforded to shoot more videos — he shot nearly 20 clips leading up to his imprisonment — and to make a guest appearance during Young Jeezy's set on Jay-Z's Blueprint 3 Tour stop in New York. While Wayne is away, his team has pledged to keep the YM torch scorching hot.

Drake vowed to take the lead in Wayne's absence. "I'm gonna do everything I told him I would do, what I said in the song ['Over']: keep us afloat till he gets back," he told MTV News. "You won't even notice he's gone. Promise."

Minaj described the unusual circumstances that led to her, Drake and the rest of the Young Money crew appearing at mtvU Spring Break without Lil Wayne. Last year, Wayne was a part of the festivities, which also included performances by Jim Jones, Asher Roth and Kid Cudi. He brought Drake and Nicki along as guests during his set.

Now, it's their turn to apply the lessons Wayne taught them, Nicki said. "We remember last year being at MTV Spring Break, and Wayne was obviously the headliner," she recalled. "He's so much more than a headliner, he's a person that I look at, and I can't believe this guy is still going, after 20 to 30 minutes in the hot sun. To not have him here, it's like a life lesson for all of us — always work as if we have no one else to depend on — and that's what he teaches us. He did, like, 1,000 videos before he went in, knowing that he had to go to jail. A lot of us wouldn't do that. A lot of us would be curled up on a ball like, 'Oh my God, my life is about to be over.' So shout-out to Lil Wayne. We're honored that he chose each and every one of us, handpicked us. And we love him."