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Prison Addresses: The (Few) Strange & Offensive

Since July of 2010 I’ve been a regular volunteer in the Prison Law Project of the National Lawyers Guild. We meet once a week to read letters from incarcerated brothers and sisters who often request legal assistance, tell us about their experiences and the abuse they face behind the walls, and/or simply requesting the Jailhouse Lawyers Handbook that we provide free of charge. A “jailhouse lawyer”  refers to one who is incarcerated who assists their fellow inmates with legal issues related to their sentence or also represents themselves  with issues related to their own sentence.  The handbook is a resource for prisoners who want to learn more about their rights or who want to file lawsuits in prison for abuse and poor conditions within the facility.  We send handbooks to any prisoner that requests it, regardless of their charges or sentence. Some letters are short with the prisoner simply requesting the handbook and others can be more lengthy, detailing the abuse they have been dealing with. The longer ones can often be harder to read because of their content and the feeling one may get from reading, empathizing, and maybe even visualizing…not to mention the feeling of wanting to do more to help.

Over the past year I’ve come across a few strange prison addresses through volunteering at PLP or at home on the web. One could definitely call some of them offensive. Most prison addresses I’ve seen have been P.O. boxes or non-questionable, but below I list a few that have caused me to raise an eyebrow or think of the irony behind them.

Jefferson City Correctional Facility
8200 No More Victims Rd 
Jefferson City, MO 65101

Downstate Correctional Facility
122 Red Schoolhouse Rd/ Box F
Fishkill, NY 12524

Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex
200 Road to Justice 
West Liberty, KY 41472

Lakes Region Facility
1 Right Way Path
Laconia, NH 03246

Intensive Confinement Center (ICC)
4000 Victory Rd. 
Lompoc, CA 93436

Florence McClure Womens C.C.
4370 Smiley Road 
Las Vegas, NV  89115

Pocahontas Correctional Unit
6900 Courthouse Road
Chesterfield, VA 23832

When I’ve seen these addresses, I just think of how strange it must be to write to someone who’s held there, or to have that as your mailing address for God knows how many years. I think the worst one on this list would have to be “No More Victims Road.”  What do you all think?

P.S. If you’re interested in volunteering with the Prison Law Project of the National Lawyers Guild, check out the idealist ad and shoot an email to plp@nlg.org (and feel  free to let me know if/when you do ^_^)

 
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Posted by on November 24, 2011 in Prisons, Volunteering

 

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Bumpy Last Day at Rikers

Today was the last day of the Fall session of Fordham Law Scool’s Rikers Youth Education Program. This morning I woke up excited about seeing the guys do the guys shine during their mock trials. By this this morning, they would have gotten familiar with the facts of the case, developed their testimonies for their time on the witness stand, and developed strong argument against the opposing side.  There would be several mock trials happening at once since we had such a large group. The roles the guys took in the mock trials were defendant, plaintiff, defense attorneys, prosecutors, witnesses, and jury members. We had outside attorneys come in to act as the judges.

But things didn’t go as smoothly as we’d hoped this morning. When we got to Rikers going through security and waiting for an escort took much longer than expected and unfortunately it really cut the time for the mock trials short.  The mock trials were supposed to be held in the gymnasium, but because the religious services were being held there at the same time that wasn’t possible. The religious services are normally held in a separate chapel area, but because it’s under construction services must be held in the gym on Sunday mornings. That’s alright but there was a lack of communication sucked. So we had to have the mock trials take place in their living areas, where we have been conducting the sessions all semester.  Today we brought 8 dozen boxes of donuts for the guys as a treat but we had issues getting that through since the Captain on shift this weekend would not allow it. He protested because apparently the donuts are considered contraband and he wouldn’t allow them to pass through since he was not aware of any clearance for them. Although we had clearance through the “higher-ups,” this seemed not to have been communicated to the appropriate people. So at first they confiscated the donuts which was so frustrating BUT we ended up getting them back. Only problem was, 2 dozen of the 8 dozen were not given back to us (ridiculous but unsurprising). And on top of that, the certificates for the guys were not printed out as they should have been (another lack of/miscommunication I guess). They’ll have to receive them another time. Long sigh.

As we walked through the hall to get to their living area, I saw something I hadn’t seen in the weeks we’d been going to Rikers.  There were lines of some of the young men posted up on the walls in a frisk position, hands up high on the walls with their backs facing us as we walked by.  Correctional officers standing right by them. And honestly, this sight brought instant tears. When I say instant, I really do mean instant. It’s not like I haven’t seen people in frisk positions before, but just seeing all these youth lined up like that just hit me hard. Real hard. I tried to keep the tears from falling and it worked pretty well except the tear or two that betrayed me and fought hard to be free from my eyes. I tried to sort of turn my face so no one else in my group could see the pain on my face. But I met eyes with someone in my group and for a moment I wondered if she could read my thoughts. I wondered if anyone else in my group was as bothered as I was as the sight of seeing these young men posted up on the walls like this.

But moving back to the mock trials… they all went pretty well. We coached them a bit before they the trial began to ensure that they had a good idea of what they wanted to say. In brief, the trial was about a 6’5″ tall 16 year old male who was stopped and arrested by police officers after the robbery of a bodega in the “high crime” area where he was found passing through. The 16 year old allegedly stole $50 and a pack of Marlboro reds from the store with the owner at gunpoint. The defendant had two defense attorneys and his witness was his friend who initially refused to testify but ended up being subpoenaed so he had to come and sit on the stand. On the opposing side the store owner testified as well as one of the police officers who stopped and arrested the 16 year old. In the different mock trial groups, some juries found him guilty while the others found him not guilty. Overall, it was pretty fun and the guys seem to enjoy themselves. At the end of the session, they all ate the donuts we got back (we had to split them in halves since we were short boxes) and thanked us for the experience.

Although today went a little less smoothly than other days, I was happy to see the mock trials go so well and happy to have had this opportunity to volunteer with some of the youth at Rikers. Looking forward to doing this again next semester….

 
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Posted by on November 6, 2011 in Prisons, Volunteering

 

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Sunday Mornings with the Youth at Rikers Island

Sunday mornings I wake up bright and early to head to Rikers Island with a group of Fordham Law School students. We volunteer with the 16-18 year old male youth that are housed in the Robert N. Davoren Complex (RNDC) at Rikers. Based on the curriculum developed by some of the law students in the Prisoners Rights Advocates group, we teach the young men about their rights with respect to the 4th, 5th, and 6th amendments. Unfortunately true to what we know and what we have been told, most of the men we’ve seen there are Black and Latino.

Since we get to RNDC around 9am, the guys are usually being awoken upon our arrival (which can probably suck on a Sunday morning). The workshop literally takes place in their living area, so while most of us sit in a big circle, some of the guys choose to sit on their beds to listen and participate. As with any regular class setting, we have a few guys that are always participating, the guys somewhere in the middle, and those who don’t say anything at all. But ultimately, the hope is that each and every one of them is getting something useful out of each lesson.

We’re there to inform them of what their rights are, what the law is, engage discussion with them and ultimately learn from them. And they’re there to learn a bit about the law, tell us how the law actually is applied through their own experiences, and engage in discussion with us and each other.  For me, one of the the most difficult but important parts of going there every Sunday is hearing the (pre-incarceration) experiences of the young men there and their thoughts on the law and how it is applied.

When we talked about Terry Stops, or what many know as “stop-and-frisks,” they spoke of their frustration with the unfair and biased nature that “stop-and-frisks” are often carried out by the NYPD.  The Center for Constitutional Rights actually has an active federal class action lawsuit,  Floyd, et al. v. City of New York, et al., against the NYPD’s unconstitutional stop-and-frisks and their use of racial profiling. CCR has been instrumental in raising awareness and gathering statistics on NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program, as well as the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Some of the guys also expressed frustration with their public defenders.  Some complained of lack of communication, annoyance with being asked to take a plea, and others thought that their attorneys were working against them hand-in-hand with the prosecutors on the opposing side.  We tried to assure them that many public defenders are well-meaning but are burdened with huge caseloads of 100+, limited time to really talk extensively with their clients before seeing the judge,  and the smaller salaries as a result of the lack of funding public defender offices receive from the government. But then I thought to myself, how much does that really matter to someone who is incarcerated or to someone when they’re about to see a judge? How does that help their present situation? Should they really care? These thoughts came to mind because while I felt it was necessary for them to know a bit about being a PD, I didn’t want to come across as trying to convince them that they must feel sympathetic and just accept it…for lack of a better way to put it.

Although the Supreme Court said that juveniles in juvenile court, are not entitled to a jury trial in federal court ,we did take some time to discuss rights to an impartial jury in a trial. Today there are 20 states that allow for a trial by jury for certain crimes if a jury is requested. However, New York does not allow juries in any kind of juvenile court case. This can only happen in New York if the juvenile is being tried as an adult. During this workshop, the sentencing issues in cases like Sean Bell and Oscar Grant came up in discussion. This was probably the most difficult class for me. One guy asked how is it that a police officer could get off for murdering someone like Sean Bell but if the situation is flipped and the officer is the one murdered by a regular person, it could mean life imprisonment.  I could feel my heart breaking and small tears forming just at hearing that question. While one of my co-instructors gave their response to the question (which I can’t remember), I sat there for a moment thinking. I thought of the heartbreaking moment when I learned that Oscar Grant‘s killer and former police officer, Johannes Mehserle, only got sentenced to 2 years in prison. He ended up serving less than a year which was even more enraging. In response to the young man’s question, I could only say that there are real problems with our justice system and that sentencing is unfairly less harsh for law enforcement and often non-existent but that it’s all of our jobs to do something about it if we want it to change. We spoke a bit more about it after class and also talked about the latest news coverage on the NYPD planting drugs on people in order to arrest them and meet their quotas.

Tomorrow morning is the mock trial the guys participate in at the close of the program. We’ll have them playing different roles: defense attorneys, prosecutors, jury, witnesses, defendant, and so on.  We have outside attorneys come in to act as the judges. The guys were really excited about it and apparently this is the most fun part of the program so I’m really looking forward to seeing how the guys do.

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Have you been stopped by the NYPD? Tell us your story.

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) is collecting testimonies from New Yorkers who have been stopped by the NYPD. This collection of stories will appear in an upcoming report that documents the impact of stop-and-frisk on peoples’ lives, highlights data regularly provided by the NYPD (CCR receives this data regularly as part of our legal action against the NYPD) and discusses relevant human rights standards.

Tell us your story. Contact us to set up an interview:

347.574.7723 (call or text)

stopandfrisk@ccrjustice.org

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Have an opinion about the NYPD’s practices in your neighborhood or an experience you would like to share? Take our survey and contribute to our campaign research.

The NYCLU is building evidence that the NYPD’s over-reliance on broken windows policing not only places far too many New Yorkers into the criminal justice system but also has negative effects on public safety. We are currently surveying thousands of New Yorkers to find out what effects broken windows policing has on their lives.

For more information about this survey, email PoliceSurvey@nyclu.org. For more information about the NYCLU’s campaign against bias-based policing, emailctolliver@nyclu.org or call 212-607-3361.

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Four Your Reference: Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendment Text

4th Amendement

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

5th Amendment

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.

6th Amendment

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

 
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Posted by on November 5, 2011 in Know Your Rights, Prisons

 

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