Yesterday in Georgia, Women in Prison Regained Some of Their Dignity
The Root by Angela Helm
Oct 2, 2019
On Tuesday, the Georgia Dignity Act (House Bill 345) went into effect in all women’s prison facilities in Georgia, giving more than 3,800 women locked up in the state access to basic necessities like sanitary napkins, as well as affording them the decency of not being chained while pregnant or giving birth.
The bipartisan bill, written and by Georgia State Reps. Sharon Cooper, a Republican who represents Marietta, and Democrat David Dryer of Atlanta, was signed by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp in May (this, the same man who signed the so-called “fetal heartbeat” bill, which certainly doesn’t afford women who are pregnant the dignity of autonomy over their own reproductive healthcare choices, but I digress.)
Life Inside: I Host a Popular Podcast. I'm Also in Prison
The Marshall Project by Rahsaan Thomas
The sun shines brightly through the gated windows so I grab a pair of Sony headphones and the Tascam (a portable audio recorder) and leave the office with my co-worker, John “Yahya” Johnson, an intellectual Muslim brother out of Oakland. Curious as to how many people behind bars have seen the romance movie “The Notebook,” we venture outside to the yard to find out. I walk up to the first guy I see, someone waiting on the sidelines to play basketball.
“Hey man, can I interview you about the classic romance movie called 'The Notebook?'”
“I've never seen 'The Notebook.'”
“So what’s the best romance movie you have seen?”
I laugh because Baby Boy, an urban tale about a childish young man who needs to grow up in order to raise his son alongside the mother, is not what I would consider a classic romance movie.
Then I remove a release form (to have the man I’d just interviewed sign) from a green binder with an Ear Hustle logo stuck on the cover.
Ear Hustle is the award-winning podcast about life inside prison—specifically my prison, San Quentin—that has around 30 million downloads in total. It's the brainchild of Nigel Poor, a professor who taught for years at San Quentin, Earlonne Woods, a man who was serving a life sentence for attempted robbery under California’s three-strikes law, and Antwan “Banks” Williams. The original plan was to circulate the show only inside the prison, but then they got permission to enter a Radiotopia “Podquest” contest.
No one at San Quentin knew how to do a podcast, but they entered anyway—and won. In 2017, Ear Hustle launched to critical acclaim with “Cellies,” featured on the Today Show, tallying nearly 2 million downloads.
As a reporter for the San Quentin News, I covered the rapid rise of the podcast as it defied the gravity of being produced inside a prison. From right next door, I cheered at the accomplishment of something that no incarcerated people had ever been able to do so effectively: reach millions of people.
But in 2018, Gov. Jerry Brown commuted Earlonne’s sentence, and he became a free man; his job as co-producer and co-host was suddenly available. Eager to learn how to tell more effective stories, I jumped at the chance to apply. That meant getting grilled by Nigel, while Earlonne warned me that I probably should just settle for being a producer. It would be hard to follow a guy with a perfect radio voice, I knew.
But Earlonne surprised me a few weeks later, saying, “It’s you, dog. You gonna be the new co-host.”
I felt proud to be chosen, of course, but even more scared about following his act. Earlonne’s charisma and rapport with Nigel are a huge part of the podcast’s success. Plus he’s a three-striker, which gets him a measure of sympathy, whereas I’m convicted of murder. Would the world accept me becoming the voice of Ear Hustle?
A few nervous month later, it was decided that Earlonne would actually continue with the show by producing and co-hosting certain stories that covered the other side of incarceration: what it’s like to be on parole. I felt relieved from the pressure to single-handedly maintain the show’s success.
On the yard, Yahya and I continued to ask people about "The Notebook" for an episode about “dating while on parole” called, “I Want the Fairy Tale.” We interviewed about eight more guys at random. A few declined to speak on the record, but most hold Ear Hustle in high regard and were eager for a chance to shine. After finding out that the majority of men at San Quentin won’t admit to being chick-flick fans, we headed back to the media center.
There, Nigel sat at an iMac computer editing audio using ProTools software. Across the small space, Antwan worked with Pat Mesiti-Miller, an audio engineer, on sound-designing.
Nigel and Pat are our supervisors, but it feels like the only difference between us is that they get to leave the prison and go home at the end of the workday. Otherwise we are colleagues. I weigh in on stories and how far we can go without losing the respect of the incarcerated people who trust us. (We often have to advise the men not to give us too much information about themselves, for their own privacy and security in here, no matter how many downloads they think their most dramatic story will get.)
I’ve heard it said that there can be no communication until we sit together as equals. Working for Ear Hustle feels like that. In most prisons I’ve been to, it didn’t feel like I could work with society to accomplish anything. Like so many in lockup, I felt alienated from you. But now I feel like a productive member of both the inside and outside community.
Besides working with my colleagues, I also interact with Lieutenant Robinson, the public information officer here. He’s the type of prison official who supports positive endeavors and empowers us to carry them out. It’s his signature on a memo of permission that allows me to walk the yard conducting interviews. For the first time in my life, I enjoy talking with a correctional officer—it’s actually fun to hear him clown around when he records the approvals that we play during each episode.
Today the Lt. came to weigh in on our “Inside Music” episode. A microphone attached to what looks like a robotic arm extends to each side of a small table. ProTools is set to record.
“I went back and forth” on approving this one, the Lt. said into the mic, “because I know there’s a genre you guys missed. There is no country music in this episode. [But], begrudgingly, I am Lt. Sam Robinson at San Quentin State Prison, the public information officer who approves this episode.”
Producing a podcast from prison isn’t all green lights, though. The “Inside Music” episode went up behind schedule because it had to be further cleared by the administration before it could be released, and that happened a day late. They check for “security and safety” concerns.
It can be frustrating, but then I remember: There’s probably no other prison in the world where a man convicted of murder would be allowed to use his time so productively doing something he loves—bringing joy, understanding, and entertainment to the public about the human nature of people behind bars. Because of how much harm I caused many families, it doesn’t feel like I deserve to be co-host of anything. At the same time, I’m hungry to make meaning out of destruction.
With each episode, I wonder if some listener will object to me co-hosting.
At the end of the day, I return to a cell that I share with another incarcerated person. I grab my shower stuff and troop back down five flights of stairs to the shower that’s down there. It’s full. A line of 12 men stand under a small pipe with nozzles streaming water, each just two feet apart.
I wait on the side until a shower becomes available and wash myself there, in front of everyone.
About 20 minutes later, I’m back in my cell as a correctional officer locks the door for the night. I’m in prison.
But before walking away, he hesitates, shuffles through some envelopes and says, “Thomas.”
“95,” I answer, indicating the last two numbers of my prison identification number.
“You got some letters.”
He hands three through the side of the gate. I quickly scan the return addresses. One is from someone I don’t recognize.
I open it and commence reading. It starts with, “I heard you on Ear Hustle.”
Rahsaan Thomas, 49, a New York native, is a contributing writer for The Marshall Project and a co-producer and co-host of Ear Hustle. He is incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison, where he’s the chairman of the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists - San Quentin Satellite Chapter and a contributing writer for the San Quentin News and Wall City magazine. He is serving a 55-to-life sentence for second-degree murder, with a 35-year enhancement for using a firearm. He shot and killed two armed men who he says were stealing property from him.
Where Art and Rural Incarceration Meet
Marshall Project by Celina Fano
In 1851, the rolling green hills of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, were the scene of the Christiana Riot, an armed uprising against the Fugitive Slave Act, which required the capture and return of enslaved people who had escaped. The revolt took place nine miles from the site of a new art installation exploring rural incarceration—a fact that was not lost on the artist, Jesse Krimes.
“It was important for me to trace the history of slavery into Jim Crow into convict leasing, into segregation and all of those things into mass incarceration,” said Krimes, a formerly-incarcerated artist whose latest work combines a series of quilts and an interactive corn maze.
The scale of the installation, called “Voices from the Heartland: Safety, Justice, and Community in Small and Rural America,” is ambitious and its components intricately detailed. But perhaps most striking is Krimes’s use of artwork and stories from incarcerated people themselves.
Justice for All: What life is like inside a maximum security prison.
Sept 5, 2019
NBC News’ series taking an eye-opening look at the nation’s criminal justice system, Lester Holt spent two nights at Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, the largest maximum security prison in the U.S., to explore the mass incarceration crisis.
Grateful for the signing the Children's Best Interest Act, and to Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton for her support. IF this is fully implemented, with resources for family-based treatment and training for all stakeholders, it could be one a huge factor in reducing incarceration in Illinois.
Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work
The New York Times By Melanie Deziel
As the number of women inmates soars, so does the need for policies and programs that meet their needs.
Over the past three decades, the number of women serving time in American prisons has increased more than eightfold.
Today, some 15,000 are held in federal custody and an additional 100,000 are behind bars in local jails. That sustained growth has researchers, former inmates and prison reform advocates calling for women’s facilities that do more than replicate a system designed for men.
“These are invisible women,” says Dr. Stephanie Covington, a psychologist and co-director of the Center For Gender and Justice, an advocacy group based in La Jolla, Calif. “Every piece of the experience of being in the criminal justice system differs between men and women.”
At the most basic level, women often must make do with jumpsuits that are made from men’s designs rather than being cut for female bodies. And standard personal-care items often don’t account for different skin tones or hair types.
It’s not just vanity: What drives some prisoners to mix their own makeup or tailor their uniforms is the need to maintain their dignity in a situation that does little to protect it.
Prisoners Unlearn The Toxic Masculinity That Led To Their Incarceration
Huffington Post by Anna Lucente Sterling
July 31, 2019
In prisons across California, inmates are unlearning toxic masculinity. It might be the answer to the state’s recidivism problem.
It’s been 10 years since George Luna was behind bars, but he still goes back to correctional facilities on a regular basis. He has spent most of his life cycling in and out of the justice system in Northern California. Now, he says he’s out for good and he’s looking to help other inmates do the same.
The former inmate is a facilitator of a prison rehabilitation program that teaches men about gender roles and how ingrained ideas of masculinity have contributed to their violent crimes. GRIP, or Guiding Rage into Power, started at San Quentin State Prison in 2013 and has expanded to five state prisons across California.
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SPOTLIGHT: SUPPORTING SOLITARY FOR MANAFORT MEANS SUPPORTING IT FOR EVERYONE
The Appeal: Vaidya Gullapalli
June 05, 2019
Yesterday the news broke that Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign head who was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison on federal charges, will now face criminal charges in state court in Manhattan. The New York Times reports that Manafort will most likely be held at Rikers Island, segregated from the general population. Though it is not clear that Manafort would be confined to his cell even if he is isolated, many reports have said he will be in “solitary confinement.”
Tens of thousands of people, by conservative estimates, spend their days in solitary confinement cells in jails and prisons across the United States. (An oft-cited estimate of 61,000 people in isolation nationwide is understood, including by those who arrived at it, to be a substantial undercount.) But it made news that Manafort was expected to be sent to Rikers and isolated.
Some responded with satisfaction to the report that a previously powerful rich white man, closely associated with the president, would be subjected to the same abuse as masses of poor Black and brown people. But that response is an example of how ending injustice can seem so impossible that our hopes warp into a desire to expand injustice.
The problem is not that the Manaforts of the world don’t usually spend time in solitary, or in prison. The problem is that tens of thousands of people around the country sit in what are, effectively, torture chambers.
New York City’s Bail Success Story
The Marshall Project By ELI HAGER
March 14, 2019
Judges have drastically cut back on bail and jail in criminal cases, a new study shows. And defendants are still showing up in court.
Like many states, New York has a bail law that is half a century old. The legal rules that in 2010 made it possible for 16-year-old Kalief Browder to be jailed on Rikers Island for three years for allegedly stealing a backpack—just because his family couldn’t pay $3,000 in bail to get him out—all remain on the books.
Criminal justice reformers around the country are admonishing the Empire State to change its system, arguing that having to pay money to get out of jail unfairly targets the poor. And a newly elected Democratic majority in Albany is eager to heed those calls, as lawmakers this month pore over the final details of a bill that would make New York the third state to virtually abolish money bail.
The Feminist in Cellblock Y
Richard Edmond Vargas, also known as "Richie Reseda" is a convicted felon who has been serving time in an all-male prison in Soledad, California, for armed robbery since he was a teen. "The Feminist on Cellblock Y," a documentary produced by filmmaker Contessa Gayles, follows the now 25-year-old Reseda and his fellow prison mates as they participate in an inmate rehabilitation program centered around feminist literature.
It's said in the documentary, "a lot of them come out even worse than they were before," referring to the inmates. In order to counter that particular manifestation, these men spend their days learning about the patriarchy, discovering the power of vulnerability, and personally combating toxic masculinity. Additionally, the program encourages the men to confront all of the areas where these toxic ideals of masculinity have prevailed in their lives. "We cannot challenge our harmful behavior without challenging patriarchy," Reseda says in the film.
What this is about
Learning asks us to change – so that the world might be a place for all are free to thrive