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.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Inside The Box: A Prisoner Tells His Tale

Matthew Hattley is an inmate at the Eastern Correctional Facility in Napanoch, NY. He is serving a term of 25 years to life for murder, a tragedy that he admits to and fully regrets. He is a member of a community that exists within our midst the prison community that few outside of it know.

The community exists behind the walls and razor wire of New York State's vast network of prisons, within the homes of the Correction Officers who work there, and the motels, bus stops and low-rent housing that many families of inmates frequent. But to most us this community is invisible, even though its influences and effects are everywhere.

He lives in a place few get to see, and even fewer understand. We have asked him to write about what life is like in a maximum security prison what happens day to day, what inmates eat, what inmates do, how they organize themselves, what they hope for, and what they can expect. Not much different than what our reporters do in the more recognizable communities of the Hudson Valley.

We understand that giving a voice to someone who has committed a heinous crime is unsettling, and may even anger some readers. Nonetheless, he lives among us, walled off, for sure, but he is there, as are thousands like him. Does he deserve to be heard? We think that depends on what he says, not just on who he is, which is why we chose to print his writings. We expect his reports to be a regular feature in the newspaper below is Mr. Hattley's third contribution.

Alex Shiffer

Welcome back to the world inside the walls. Today we're examining another aspect of the prison experience. First and foremost, I need you to understand that "Programs" are classified as follows: School, Therapeutic/Treatment, Vocational and Work. You also need to know that each day consists of three modules: AM, PM, and Eve.

So, where were we? Just finishing up breakfast, maybe taking a shower or getting some exercise.

Now, the majority of the prison population will report to their AM program; the remainder will either go out to the yard or return to their cell. Everyone, with limited number of medical exceptions, is assigned to two modules. Roughly 85 percent have AM/PM programs, which they report to 5 days a week. Some choose to have two different programs, one module each.

Eastern Correctional Facility (Napanoch) is considered a "program facility", which means they have something to offer for everyone. Your ability to advance in any specific area is determined on your having a GED or high school diploma. We have the potential to earn between ten cents and sixty-five cents an hour. The average prisoner earns twenty cents an hour. However, without at least a GED, you will not advance beyond seventeen and a half cents an hour.

Just so you have a better idea of exactly what we do in here, I will give you a brief summary of several available programs.

Barber Shop: Licensed barbers (prisoners) cut the general population's hair approximately once ever two weeks. Your day to receive a haircut is determined by the last number on your prison ID. They are supervised by a corrections officer.

Commissary: These workers are responsible for unloading items from the delivery trucks, stocking and organizing shelves with all available products, chips, candy, cereal, cold-cuts, cups and bowls, cosmetics, etc. They also gather the items specifically selected by each prisoner to be purchased. The general population is scheduled to shop once every other week, according to their "buy letter" (i.e. A. B. C.....) They are supervised by both civilians, who actually perform the transactions, and correction officers.

Education: We currently have Pre-GED, GED and Bard College (privately funded) classes. These classes are conducted by civilian instructors in separate classrooms in the school building. Upon completion there is usually a graduation ceremony in the facility auditorium.

Facility Painter: These workers are responsible for keeping the interior of the facility presentable at all times. They basically do "touch up" work on a daily basis, Monday to Friday. There are also block painters (one per block) who are responsible for painting the cells and galleries of their respective housing units.

General Library: These workers are responsible for stocking shelves with books; assisting the general population in obtaining books (4 books and/or audio cassettes at any one time). The library offers a wide selection of materials including newspapers and magazines. Books may also be ordered from an outside library. The workers are supervised by a civilian librarian.

Hospital: Workers are responsible for responding to emergencies within the facilities, cleaning up feces and blood spills as well as keeping the hospital area sanitized. Those who work in the actual ward tend to the patients as well. They are all unofficial nurse's aides.

Industry: Set in an isolated area, there is a mattress, metal and sign shop, plus a warehouse. Workers make products which are sold to other state agencies. They are the highest paid workers in the facility at up to .65 cents an hour and their shifts run from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. The entire operation is supervised by civilian instructors and corrections officers.

Laundry: Workers are responsible for washing and drying the prison population's clothes. Each housing unit is scheduled for one day per week. They clean and distribute all state issued linen (2 sheets and 1 pillowcase) every Saturday morning. They also clean all the facility mop-heads. This operation is supervised by a civilian.

Maintenance: This area contains several shops: Carpentry, Electric, General Mechanic, Mason & Plumbing. There is also a Fire & Safety area. The workers in each shop are responsible for the repair and upkeep of the facility. Everything from changing lights bulbs, unclogging sinks and toilets, to repairing damaged concrete is their responsibility. They are supervised by civilian instructors.

Mess Hall: Workers are responsible for preparation and serving of the food for the population. They keep the mess hall and kitchen areas clean. They are the second highest paid workers in the facility, earning up to 45 cents an hour.

Porters: Responsible for cleaning the entire prison, by sweeping and mopping, etc. Each group is assigned to a specific area in the facility.

State Shop: These workers stock and distribute all the state issued clothing � pants, shirts, sweaters, underwear, winter coats, sneakers and boots. They do repairs and alterations to the same, via the tailors. A request must be filled out for clothing prior to receiving any, repairs are scheduled as needed.

Storehouse: Workers unload delivery trucks, stock all frozen and dry foods and distribute same as needed. They also deliver office supplies and specifically-ordered items throughout the facility. The daily operation is supervised by a civilian.

Yard Gang: Workers are responsible for mowing the grass and snow removal throughout the facility. They are supervised by a correctional officer.

As you can see, we have access to a variety of skills and trades. For those who are willing to apply themselves, they can actually return to society with something to offer a potential employer (anything beats a blank!). This can be the difference between becoming a productive citizen or returning to a life of crime. Most people require some positive guidance to grow and recognize their true abilities. This is another reason why there should be more certifiable programs implemented in the state prison system, to assist prisoners in finding employment upon their release. Eastern Correctional Facility would be an ideal facility for a re-entry program, something the state government should seriously consider.

Look for a different aspect of the prison experience soon.

Burress Is Still Finding His Way

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Plaxico Burress spent two hours each day he served in prison running 300-yard sprints and catching passes from inmates who regarded themselves as some of the N.F.L.’s legendary quarterbacks.

“We had a couple of guys who thought they were Sammy Baugh, scrambling Fran Tarkenton, John Elway, Dan Marino,” Burress said. “I played with them all.”

Now Burress is back to playing with a real, live N.F.L. quarterback and working to become integrated into his new offense.

Burress, who signed with the Jets this summer after serving 20 months on a gun charge at Oneida Correctional Facility in Rome, N.Y., had a strong debut and contributed to the offense in ways that transcend statistics, like drawing coverage away from his teammates. But the transition has at times been uncomfortable for the Jets, and Burress and Mark Sanchez are still in the process of developing chemistry in their connection.

“He knows we’re Week 2 of a marathon,” Sanchez said. “He’s in it for the long haul. He has a really good feel for this and the longevity of the season, so he’s not fazed about it at all.”

In the Jets’ 27-24 win over the Dallas Cowboys in their season opener, Burress had four receptions for 72 yards, all of them in the second half. He caught a 26-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter that started the Jets’ 17-point comeback.

Last Sunday, Burress did not have a reception in the Jets’ 32-3 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, the first time since January 2006 that he did not have a catch. That was because of the Jaguars’ bracketing him with cornerback-safety coverage, a show of respect that opened the field for tight end Dustin Keller, who had six catches for 101 yards and a touchdown.

Burress played only about two-thirds of the Jets’ offensive snaps, while Santonio Holmes played about three-quarters of the team’s plays. The Jets often deploy multiple tight end packages that force Burress to the sideline. But Burress, who led the Giants with 12 touchdown catches (and the one that sealed a Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots) in the 2007 season, has acknowledged that his reduced role with the Jets has been an adjustment.

“I’ve always been a guy that’s been on the field all the time,” said Burress, who is especially dangerous in the red zone. “I just take it as I’m just not in a certain package or whatever it may be. Maybe I don’t fit the scheme of whatever they’re trying to do at that particular point.”

Indeed, the Jets’ coaches appear to still be learning how to use Burress. At times, Coach Rex Ryan has tried to force him the ball. One sequence that crystallized that notion came early in the fourth quarter Sunday, when the Jets had a 29-3 lead.

Sanchez threw twice to Burress while near the Jaguars’ end zone. After overthrowing an open Burress on first down, Sanchez tried to connect with a well-covered Burress in the corner of the end zone on third-and-goal from the 5.

“We were in the red zone, and he’s obviously a red-zone target for us,” the offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said of that play. “We were still working on some things.”

The Jets may have an opportunity to get Burress more involved this weekend in Oakland because of some mismatches he presents with the Raiders’ secondary.

For years in Oakland, man-to-man coverage with a safety deep in the middle of the field has been the standard look of the defense. That means the Raiders may be relying on the 6-foot-1 cornerbacks Stanford Routt and Chris Johnson to cover the 6-5 Burress.

“If you’re a wide receiver, these are the kind of games you love to play in,” Burress said.

Sunday will be the latest step in Burress’s return to the N.F.L., and it could provide a telling indication about where he fits in the Jets’ offense. He said learning the verbiage of the playbook had been the most difficult on-field aspect of his comeback.

He has also had to build a rapport with Sanchez, the latest quarterback he has worked with over the past two years. Except the stakes, and the setting, are much different now.


Rex Ryan indicated that center Nick Mangold, who has a sprained right ankle, was unlikely to play on Sunday. Mangold did not practice for a second straight day. Colin Baxter would start if Mangold, who has started 82 straight games, cannot play. ... The Jets’ punters and kickers went to the Newark Bears’ baseball stadium to practice kicking on infield dirt. The Raiders’ Coliseum also serves as the home to the Athletics, who played the Texas Rangers on Thursday in their last game there this season.

Norfolk County Sheriff’s Office

DEDHAM — Fall is the time of year when many people shift their focus back to education. Elementary school teachers traditionally emphasize the basics: the three R’s, reading, writing and arithmetic.

In the field of corrections, when it comes to the basics, we’re concerned year-round with our own three R’s: Responsibility, Reentry and Recidivism.

At the Norfolk County Sheriff’s Office, we believe that teaching responsibility through our varied reentry programs is the key to reducing recidivism, the fancy term for inmates continuing to commit crimes after finishing their jail sentence.

We believe the philosophy of inmate reentry – a series of programs designed to challenge inmates to address their anti-social behavior and other deficiencies in order to reduce their likelihood of reoffending – is the best way to reduce crime.
At the Norfolk County Correctional Center, reentry starts the day an inmate walks in the door. Using an objective assessment tool, we immediately determine his risk of reoffending.

Next, we gather background data -- including criminal record, education and employment history, alcohol/drug problems, companions, family status and attitudes. We enter that data into a second assessment tool to find out which problems the inmate needs to confront and tackle.

Through a variety of educational programs, we emphasize that it’s time for the inmate to take responsibility for his criminal actions. If the inmate does not change his thinking, he’s not going to change his life. If he doesn’t address his behavior issues, he’s bound to return to jail.

Approximately 85 percent of our inmates come to us with drug and alcohol problems. Our substance abuse education gives them the opportunity to effectively deal with those problems. Anger management and domestic violence education points out how their failure to control their emotions leads to their criminal actions.

Courses on compulsive behavior, such as excessive gambling or reckless driving, are designed to make them understand why they act the way they do and how to change their anti-social behavior.

We also carry the more traditional educational programs such as vocational training in culinary arts, HVAC and landscaping, and fundamental classroom courses in adult basic education and GED (high school equivalency diploma) study courses.

This tends to eliminate employment barriers and inmate excuses about not being able to find work because they don’t have a high school diploma or job skills.

We believe the traditional classes are complements to our behavior education programs when it comes to stemming the tide of criminal conduct. The U.S. Department of Justice feels we’re on the right track, and made us one of 13 correctional agencies throughout the nation to receive a Second Chance Act grant to fund these behavior education classes.

In addition, we have entered into an agreement with Northeastern University to help us measure which programs work best and which need to be adjusted.

Even with a new curriculum centered around inmate behavior issues, the key to success will always be making inmates understand and accept responsibility for their actions. Otherwise, the choices are bleak: More crime. More prisons. More taxpayer dollars wasted.

Instead, just as they do in elementary school, we need to focus on the three R’s. It’s the only way we in the corrections field can reach the head of the class.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Youth and punishment: The ‘hypercriminalization’ of black and brown boys

It’s been another travel day, which means more good airplane reading.

The book that’s kept me company while in flight today is Victor M. Rios’ fascinating “Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys.” Rios is a UC Santa Barbara sociologist with unique perspective on this topic.

A former gang member from Oakland, California, he learned firsthand in his mid-teens what a small break from police and educators can mean for a kid on his way to prison.

Rios made it out of gang life through the support of interested teachers, and a lucky break from a cop who gave him a last chance. His friends weren’t so fortunate. In the book, he describes how nearly ten years ago, he took stock of what had become of his former homies, 68 boys whose names were still scrawled in marker on a dilapidated refrigerator in one old friend’s garage.

Seven had been murdered, including his best friend. Six had permanent injuries from gunshot wounds. A dozen were addicted to drugs.

Only two had finished high school, and only he’d made it to college. He also learned that 28 of his former fellow gang members were doing time. The remaining 40 had all been locked up at one point or another, including Rios, a onetime car thief with several stints in juvenile hall.

What had driven them down this road? All had been subject to the same hardscrabble life in the Oakland flatlands, but there was more to it than poverty and poor role models. Seeking an answer, Rios spent three years studying the lives of 40 black and Latino teenage boys in the Oakland area.

He concluded that in communities like the ones he and they grew up in, a general culture of punishment trickles down from schools, law enforcement, community and other institutions that deeply affects these young men’s perceptions of themselves and their world long before they get involved in crime, and ultimately helps push many of them toward it.

Rios, who describes this phenomenon as a “youth control complex,” writes:

Young people, who become pinballs within this youth control complex, experience what I refer to as hypercriminalization, the process by which an individual’s everyday behaviors and styles become ubiquitously treated as deviant, risky, threatening or criminal, across social contexts.

This hypercriminalization, in turn, has a profound impact on young people’s perceptions, worldviews, and life outcomes. The youth control complex creates an overarching system of regulating the lives of marginalized young people, what I refer to as punitive social control.

Hypercriminalization involves constant punishment. Punishment, in this study, is understood as the process by which individuals come to feel stigmatized, outcast, shamed, defeated, or hopeless as a result of negative interactions and sanctions imposed by individuals who represent institutions of social control.

Rios also gets into the U.S. black and Latino incarceration rate (Latinos now make up the majority of people being sentenced to federal prison), citing familiar but still unsettling statistics: Among men ages 20 to 34, one of every nine black men is incarcerated, one of every 25 Latino men is incarcerated, and one of every 56 white men is incarcerated.

The incarceration of male adults directly affects the boys who follow them, as Rios describes:

When the forty boys in the main group were asked to write down the names of close friends and family members who were currently incarcerated, all of them knew at least six people.

One of them, Spider, knew thirty-two. He wrote down their name and age and rated, from 1 to 5, how close he felt to them. When the boys were asked to respond to the question, “From 1 to 5, 5 being the highest and 1 being the lowest, how likely do you think you are to get incarcerated in the next few months?” all of them responded with at least a 4, meaning that they all felt that their chances of being incarcerated were high or extremely high.

He continues: The young men in this study discussed prison as a familiar place. Since many of the adults they looked up to were convicts, as opposed to college graduates, and police and school personnel often treated them like prisoners, the youths became familiar with the culture and rules of prison life and even attached a sense of glamour and admiration to it, before ever serving a day in an adult jail or prison.

Rios calls for improving non-punitive support systems for young people who are at risk, arguing that the zero-tolerance policies embraced by schools and law enforcement that are aimed at deterring juveniles from crime may in fact be having the opposite effect.

The book was published this year by New York University Press. You can purchase book @