Over 3,000 US prisoners serving life without parole for non-violent crimesACLU report chronicles thousands of lives ruined by life sentences for crimes such as shoplifting or possession of a crack pipe
At about 12.40pm on 2 January 1996, Timothy Jackson took a jacket from the Maison Blanche department store in New Orleans, draped it over his arm, and walked out of the store without paying for it. When he was accosted by a security guard, Jackson said: “I just needed another jacket, man.”
A few months later Jackson was convicted of shoplifting and sent to Angola prison in Louisiana. That was 16 years ago. Today he is still incarcerated in Angola, and will stay there for the rest of his natural life having been condemned to die in jail. All for the theft of a jacket, worth $159.
Jackson, 53, is one of 3,281 prisoners in America serving life sentences with no chance of parole for non-violent crimes. Some, like him, were given the most extreme punishment short of execution for shoplifting; one was condemned to die in prison for siphoning petrol from a truck; another for stealing tools from a tool shed; yet another for attempting to cash a stolen cheque.
Former US president Jimmy Carter has called for a new nationwide moratorium on the death penalty, arguing that it is applied so unfairly across the 32 states that still have the death sentence that it amounts to a form of cruel and unusual punishment prohibited under the US constitution.
In an interview with the Guardian, Carter calls on the US supreme court to reintroduce the ban on capital punishment that it imposed between 1972 and 1976. The death penalty today, he said, was every bit as arbitrary as it was when the nine justices suspended it on grounds of inconsistency in the case of Furman v Georgia 41 years ago.
“It’s time for the supreme court to look at the totality of the death penalty once again,” Carter said. “My preference would be for the court to rule that it is cruel and unusual punishment, which would make it prohibitive under the US constitution.”
Carter’s appeal for a new moratorium falls at a time of mounting unease about the huge disparities in the use of capital punishment in America. Recent research has shown that most of the 1,352 executions that have taken place since the supreme court allowed them to recommence in 1976 have emanated from just 2% of the counties in the nation.
Amid a critical shortage of medical drugs used in lethal injections caused by a European boycott of US corrections departments, death penalty states are also adopting increasingly desperate execution methods. The new techniques range from deploying previously untested sedatives in lethal injections, to concocting improvised batches of the chemicals through compounding pharmacies….
With so many behind bars for drug charges at a time when the legalization of marijuana spreads across the country, Americans are paying more attention to the question, “Why do we have so many prisoners?
Prison numbers in Sweden, which have been falling by around 1% a year since 2004, dropped by 6% between 2011 and 2012 and are expected to do the same again both this year and next year. Photograph: Paul Doyle/Alamy
Sweden has experienced such a sharp fall in the number of prison admissions in the past two years that it has decided to close down four prisons and a remand centre.
“We have seen an out-of-the-ordinary decline in the number of inmates,” said Nils Öberg, the head of Sweden’s prison and probation services. “Now we have the opportunity to close down a part of our infrastructure that we don’t need at this point of time.”
Prison numbers in Sweden, which have been falling by around 1% a year since 2004, dropped by 6% between 2011 and 2012 and are expected to do the same again both this year and next, Öberg said.
As a result, the prison service has this year closed down prisons in the towns of Åby, Håja, Båtshagen, and Kristianstad, two of which will probably be sold and two of which will be passed for temporary use to other government authorities.
Öberg said that while nobody knew for sure why prison numbers had dropped so steeply, he hoped that Sweden’s liberal prison approach, with its strong focus on rehabilitating prisoners, had played a part.
“We certainly hope that the efforts we invest in rehabilitation and preventing relapse of crime has had an impact, but we don’t think that this could explain the entire drop of 6%,” he said.
In the opinion piece in Sweden’s DN newspaper in which he announced the closures, Öberg said that Sweden needed to work even harder on rehabilitating prisoners, doing more to help them once they had returned to society.
One partial explanation for the sudden drop in admissions may be that Swedish courts have given more lenient sentences for drug offences following a ruling of the country’s supreme court in 2011. According to Öberg, there were about 200 fewer people serving sentences for drug offences in Sweden last March than a year previously.
Sweden’s prison services will retain the option to reopen two of the closed prisons should the number of inmates rise.
“We are not at the point of concluding that this is a long-term trend and that this is a change in paradigm,” Öberg said. “What we are certain of is that the pressure on the criminal justice system has dropped markedly in recent years.”
Hanns von Hofer, a criminology professor at Stockholm University, said that much of the fall in prison numbers could be attributed to a recent shift in policy towards probationary sanctions instead of short prison sentences for minor thefts, drugs offences and violent crimes.
Of the fall in prison population between 2004 and 2012, he pointed out, 36% related to theft, 25% to drugs offences and 12% to violent crimes.
According to official data, the Swedish prison population has dropped by nearly a sixth since it peaked at 5,722 in 2004. In 2012, there were 4,852 people in prison in Sweden, out of a population of 9.5 million.
How the rest of the world compares with Sweden
According to data collected by the International Centre for Prison Studies, the five countries with the highest prison population are the US, China, Russia, Brazil and India.
The US has a prison population of 2,239,751, equivalent to 716 people per 100,000. China ranks second with 1,640,000 people behind bars, or 121 people per 100,000, while Russia’s inmates are 681,600, amounting to 475 individuals per 100,000.
Brazilian prisons hold 548,003 citizens, 274 people per 100,000; finally, India’s prison population amounts to 385,135, with a per capita rate of just 30 inmates per 100,000 citizens.
Among the countries with the smallest prison populations are Malta, Equatorial Guinea, Luxembourg, French Guyana and Djibouti. Sweden ranked 112th for its prison population.
• This article was amended on 12/11/13 to clarify the figures regarding theft, drug offences and violent crime.
Brain-altering drugs and digital “indoctrination” pose a potential threat not only to the stability of many individuals but of society itself.
At least 10 percent of all Americans over six-years-old are on antidepressants. That’s more than 35 million people, double the number from less than two decades ago. Anti-psychotics have meanwhile eclipsed cholesterol treatments as the country’s fastest selling and most profitable drugs, even though half the prescriptions treat disorders for which they haven’t been proven effective. At least 5 million children and adolescents use them, in part because more kids are being diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
This raises some troubling issues: Are a growing number of people experiencing psychological troubles? Have we just become better at recognizing them? Or is some other dynamic at work?
Speaking of long-term impacts on the brain, we’re also heading toward a world where humans are directly linked with computers that profoundly influence their perceptions and ideas. Despite many potential benefits, there is danger here as well. Rather than simply augmenting our memories by providing neutral information, the brain-computer connection may lead people into separate realities based on their assumptions and politics.
Brain-altering drugs and digital “indoctrination” – a potent combination. Together, they pose a potential threat not only to the stability of many individuals but of society itself. Seduced by the promise that our brains can be managed and enhanced without serious side-effects, we may be creating a future where psychological dysfunction becomes a post-modern plague and powerful forces use cyberspace to reshape “reality” in their private interest.
Do prescription drugs create new mental problems? And if so, how could it be happening? For Whitaker the answer lies in the effects of drugs on neurotransmitters, a process he calls negative feedback. When a drug blocks neurotransmitters or increases the level of serotonin, for instance, neurons initially attempt to counteract the effects. When the drug is used over a long period, however, it can produce “substantial and long-lasting alterations in neural function,” claims Steven Hyman, former director of the National Institutes of Mental Health. The brain begins to function differently. Its ability to compensate starts to fail and side effects created by the drug emerge.
What comes next? More drugs and, along with them, new side effects, an evolving chemical mixture often accompanied by a revised diagnosis. According to Marcia Angell, former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, it can go this way: use of an antidepressant leads to mania, which leads to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which leads to the prescription of mood stabilizers. Through such a process people can end up taking several drugs daily for many years.
What may happen after that is deeply troubling. Researcher Nancy Andreasen claims the brain begins to shrink, an effect she links directly to dosage and duration. “The prefrontal cortex doesn’t get the input it needs and is being shut down by drugs,” she explained in The New York Times. “That reduces the psychotic symptoms.” But the pre-frontal cortex gradually atrophies.
Anyone who has been on the psychiatric drug roller coaster understands some of the ride’s risks and how hard it can be to get off. But the new implication is that we may be experiencing a medically-induced outbreak of brain dysfunction caused by the exploding use of drugs. One big unanswered question at the moment: What does Big Pharma really know, and when did they learn it?
Drug companies are not the only ones experimenting with our brains. Bold research is also being pursued to create brain-computer interfaces that can help people overcome problems like memory loss. According to writer Michael Chorost, author of World Wide Mind and interface enthusiast who benefited from ear implants after going deaf, we may soon be directly connected to the Internet through neural implants. It sounds convenient and liberating. Ask yourself a question and, presto, there’s the answer. Google co-founder Larry Page can imagine a not-too-distant future in which you simply think about something and “your cell phone whispers the answer in your ear.”
Beyond the fact that this could become irritating, there’s an unspoken assumption that the information received is basically unbiased, like consulting an excellent encyclopedia or a great library catalog. This is where the trouble starts. As Sue Halperin noted in a New York Review of Books essay, “Mind Control and the Internet,” Search engines like Google use an algorithm to show us what’s important. But even without the manipulation of marketing companies and consultants who influence some listings, each search is increasingly shaped to fit the profile of the person asking. If you think that we both get the same results from the same inquiry, guess again.
What really happens is that you get results assembled just for you. Information is prioritized in a way that reinforces one’s previous choices, influenced by suggested assumptions and preferences. As Eli Pariser argues in The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, environmental activists and energy executives get very different listings when they inquire about climate science. It looks and feels “objective” but they’re being fed data that fits with their existing view – and probably not seeing much that conflicts.
A study discussed in Sociological Quarterly looked at this development by following attitudes about climate science over a decade. Here’s a strange but significant finding: Although a consensus emerged among most scientists over the years, the number of Republicans who accepted their conclusion dropped. Why? Because the Republicans were getting different information than the Democrats and others who embraced the basic premise. In other words, their viewpoint was being reflected back at them.
Does this sound dangerous? Pariser thinks so, and suggests that the type of reinforcement made common by search engines is leading to inadvertent self-indoctrination. For democracy to function effectively, people need exposure to various viewpoints, “but instead we’re more and more enclosed in our own bubbles,” he writes. Rather than agreeing on a set of shared facts we’re being led deeper into our different worlds.
Whether this is a problem depends somewhat on your expectations. For some people it is merely a bump in the road, a faltering step in the inevitable evolution of human consciousness. Techno-shamen and other cosmic optimists see the potential of drug-induced enlightenment and an Internet-assisted “hive mind,” and believe that the long-term outcome will be less violence, more trust, and a better world. But others have doubts, questioning whether we’ll really end up with technological liberation and a psychic leap forward. It could go quite differently, they worry. We could instead see millions of brain-addled casualties and even deeper social polarization.
How will current trends influence democracy and basic human relations? Increased trust and participation don’t immediately come to mind. Rather, the result could be more suspicion, denial and paranoia, as if we don’t have enough. In fact, even the recent upsurge in anger and resentment may be drug and Internet-assisted, creating fertile ground for opportunists and demagogues.
In False Alarm: The truth about the epidemic of fear, New York internist Marc Siegel noted that when the amygdala — the Brain’s central station for processing emotions – detects a threatening situation, it pours out stress hormones. If the stress persists too long, however, it can malfunction, overwhelm the hippocampus (center of the “thinking” brain), and be difficult to turn off. In the long term, this “fear biology” can wear people down, inducing paralysis or making them susceptible to diseases and delusions that they might otherwise resist. Addressing this problem with drugs that change the brain’s neural functioning isn’t apt to help. Either will the Internet’s tendency to provide information that reinforces whatever one already thinks.
More than half a century ago, Aldous Huxley – who knew a bit about drugs – issued a dire prediction. He didn’t see the Internet coming, but other than that his vision remains relevant. “There will be within the next generation or so a pharmacological method of making people love their servitude,” he wrote in Brave New World, “and producing a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies, so that people will in fact have their liberties taken away from them but will rather enjoy it, because they will be distracted from any desire to rebel by propaganda, brainwashing or brainwashing enhanced by pharmacological methods.”
Pretty grim, but there’s no going back. Despite any dangers posed by computer algorithms and anti-psychotic drugs, they are with us for the foreseeable future. Still, what we have learned about them in recent years could help us to reduce the negatives. Not every illness listed in the DMS – that constantly growing, Big Pharma-influenced psychiatric bible – requires drug treatment. And the results of your online searches will very likely tell you what you want to know, but that does not mean you’re getting a “balanced” or comprehensive picture.
Greg Guma lives in Vermont. His new sci-fi novel, Dons of Time, was released in October.
“Unreasonable Force” In Chicago Evidently Does Not Mean A Probably Drunk Cop Killing An Unarmed Guy Lying On the Ground By Shooting Him 16 Times
by Abby Zimet
Chicago prosecutors have announced that police officer Gildardo Sierra will not face any criminal charges in the June 2011 killing of Flint Farmer – even though video footage showed Farmer, armed only with a cell phone, lying bleeding on the ground as Sierra fired 16 times, hitting Farmer seven times including three bullets in the back; this was Sierra’s third shooting (second fatal one) in six months; he later admitted to drinking “multiple” beers before going to work; police waited over five hours to give him a breath test; the city paid a $4.1 million settlement in a lawsuit brought by Farmer’s family; and the city’s police Superintendent said the shooting was a “big problem,” as was Sierra’s remaining on the job. Still, a review found Sierra acted in self-defense, and that while “Officer Sierra was mistaken in his belief that Flint Farmer had a gun, not every mistake demands the action of the criminal justice system, even when the results are tragic.” The city has already paid out about $50 million to settlelawsuits stemming from similarly outrageous cases, and many are stil rallying, protesting and fighting to break the silence on decades of police racism, brutality and torture there. Oh, Chicago. Oh, America.
By Alex Hannaford Photos by Adam Voohres 07 November 13
Solitary confinement is an American human-rights scandal, recently prompting hunger strikes across Californian jails in protest. Think you could survive being isolated in a tiny, windowless, concrete cell, 23 hours a day? GQ prepares to experience lockdown…
On 8 July 2013, 30,000 inmates throughout California’s prison system refused to eat. Many of the men were incarcerated at the state’s notorious Pelican Bay State Prison – an enormous grey fortress built on a 275-acre clearing in a pine forest near the coast, six hours north of San Francisco. Charles Manson was once locked up there, as was notorious Cripps gang member “Monster” Kody.
There, 1,500 of its 3,000 prisoners were in cells within an X-shaped cluster of white buildings known as the Secure Housing Unit. It depends what state you’re in, but secure housing, special housing, administrative segregation – all are solitary confinement by another name. In an extraordinary show of solidarity, inmates across the state joined the Pelican Bay protestors in their hunger strike to demonstrate against California’s practice of locking up its inmates for 22 out of 24 hours in isolated, windowless, concrete cells that measure about 11ft by 7ft (3.35m by 2.13m), often for years at a time. By the time August had rolled around, the California Department Of Corrections And Rehabilitation had won the legal right to force-feed around 70 of the remaining hunger strikers. By then, however, the world was watching.
Solitary confinement has become the United States’ next great human-rights scandal. Inmates can be put in solitary for a number of reasons, including violating prison rules, if they’re deemed an escape risk, because they’re a danger to other inmates, or for their own protection. And it’s not just California that excels at the practice. According to Solitary Watch, an independent body that collects information about solitary confinement, at least 44 states within the US federal system now have “supermax prisons”, most of which almost entirely comprise solitary confinement cells. Although Solitary Watch says it’s difficult to determine just how many people are currently held in solitary in the US due to a lack of reliable state-by-state information, a 2005 census of state and federal prisoners conducted by the Bureau Of Justice Statistics – considered the most accurate – found more than 81,622 inmates were held in “restricted housing”.
As far as Britain is concerned, a spokeswoman for the UK’s Ministry Of Justice told GQ the government didn’t have details of the number of people in solitary, but a report for Solitary Watch said even though Britain had the highest per-capita incarceration rate in Europe (153 out every 100,000 people), it “pales in comparison to the US”. By some estimates, about 500 people are housed in solitary in the UK at any one time, but even then it’s not for extensive periods. The Solitary Watch report noted that “overcrowding, brutal use of segregation and general mismanagement sparked extreme violence in British prisons throughout the Seventies and Eighties … [and] by 1998 solitary confinement was reduced in favour of Close Supervision Centres … designed to combine isolation with engagement … education programmes, libraries and daily exercise.” Compared to the US, then, our own prison system seems somehow progressive.
The 2013 California prison protests – which ended on 5 September – and the media coverage they attracted shone a light on an otherwise covert, unregulated corner of the US justice system: that placing prisoners in solitary is often an arbitrary arrangement, conducted at the discretion, some would say whim, of the individual prison warden. According to James Ridgeway, co-director and editor-in-chief of Solitary Watch, there’s rarely, if any, judicial oversight on imposing solitary confinement. “Placing an inmate in solitary is not determined in court – it’s determined by wardens and a self-serving committee of guards,” he says. “Unfortunately the American public has an appetite for retribution and that’s not going to change overnight.”
The unpalatable truth is that solitary confinement is tantamount to torture. Studies have proved that the practice of isolating prisoners for extensive periods of time can precipitate a descent into madness. Devoid of human contact for so long, often with just a handful of books and possibly a radio for company, many inmates in isolation scream out in the night; some lie naked in their recreation yards, urinating on themselves; smearing excrement over their bodies; indulging in often gruesome bouts of self-mutilation with razor blades or shanks fashioned from items in their cell.
In June 2012, Dick Durbin, a Democratic senator for Illinois, chaired the first ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement. “America has led the way with human rights around the world,” Durbin said in his introductory remarks. “But what do our prisons say about our American values?”
The US has five per cent of the world’s population, but a shocking 25 per cent of the world’s prison population. That’s 2.3 million inmates. And the US leads the world in incarcerating some of those prisoners in isolated boxes, often for decades. As David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) National Prison Project told me, the US is a “global outlier” in that respect, and no other democratic country comes close.
During the senate hearing, Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University Of California, Santa Cruz, told the room that solitary confinement could lead to psychosis, mutilation, and suicide. As one of the country’s leading experts on inmate mental health, Haney wrote in a paper he published on the psychological impact of prison that it was in the mid-Seventies that the US moved from a society that saw incarceration as a means of facilitating “productive re-entry into the free world” to one that “used imprisonment merely to inflict pain on wrongdoers”. Studies have found those in solitary confinement develop psychopathologies at higher rates (28 per cent to 15 per cent) than those in the general population and are much more likely to engage in self-mutilation. Solitary Watch says suicide, too, is a consistent trend among inmates in isolation.
Wherever American penal law is applied, of course, solitary confinement – the practice, plus the scandal – travels. In February this year, 100 detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, embarked on a hunger strike for several months, protesting their continued incarceration without trial. They were force-fed by the US Military. I visited Guantánamo in July 2010 and was shown how detainees are fed Ensure, a powdered nutritional supplement, using a tube inserted into their nostril and down their oesophagus. I was also shown the tiny solitary cells, with beds formed from concrete. Approximately 70 per cent of the men detained there are still in solitary confinement. One described his cell as his “tomb”.
Juan Méndez, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture, has called on all countries to ban the solitary confinement of prisoners except in exceptional circumstances, and even then for 15 days at most. He also called for an outright ban in the case of juveniles and the mentally ill. The United States has yet to take Méndez up on his suggestion.
Nov 07, 2013 — This year, North Country Public Radio has been looking in-depth at the growth of the prison industry here in our region, across New York and around the country. Over the last four decades, we’ve seen the number of men and women behind bars soar–many serving long mandatory sentences for low-level crimes. And one side-effect of those tough-on-crime policies today is that the number of elderly inmates is surging–growing by almost eighty percent from 2000 through 2009. Prison officials across the US are struggling to sort out what that means, how we think about and care for inmates who grow old and die in our prisons. In part one of our investigative report, Natasha Haverty found that despite recent reforms to the system, many terminally ill inmates are forced to remain behind bars even when they no longer appear to be a threat to society. Even some prison officials think the process for allowing inmates to die at home needs fixing.
When I met Daryl Bidding in his room, the first thing I noticed was how small he looked, lying there in his bed.
“I’m a pretty strong willed person. You know, I don’t want to believe I’m going to die. I don’t want to believe I’m going to pass away. I want to be strong.”
Earlier this year, Daryl turned 58. He was sent to Coxsackie, one of New York’s maximum-security prisons, on a drug possession charge.
Eleven days after he arrived, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
“I feel like my insides are going to burst,” he said. “I feel like this thing’s gonna bust. It feels like the size of a grapefruit or something. It’s hot. It gets hot. And it’s agonizing because it’s not going away.”
From the moment doctors told Daryl there was nothing they could do for the tumor on his liver, his family starting working to get him out of prison and back home…..
Nov 08, 2013 — Yesterday as part our Prison Time Media Project we heard the story of an inmate at Coxsackie prison, who fought to get home after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It’s a growing issue for America‘s huge prison system, as more inmates than ever are aging and dying behind bars. Here in New York, hundreds of sick and dying inmates navigate the compassionate release system every year, but very few actually make it out of prison. And for those inmates who die behind bars, prison officials offer them hospice care. As Natasha Haverty reports, those men and women are supported and comforted in their final days by fellow inmates.
Thomas Woodbury was in the cafeteria at Coxsackie Prison one day when an inmate pulled him aside and told him about hospice.
“It’s shocking man, because you don’t think that people are over here in the prison system on their deathbed.“
Woodbury says the inmate told him he had the right personality to be a hospice aide. Woodbury is 23, from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and is here for drug and weapons possession. He says where he came from going to prison seemed normal but at first the idea of sitting with people on their deathbeds sounded crazy “But, now,” he says, “I appreciate every day that I get. I appreciate it to the fullest. Because I see these guys, some of these guys dying in their thirties, forties. And I really would not want it to be me.”
This is Coxsackie’s medical unit. The walls are cinderblock; there’s a strong smell of ammonia.
When inmates get sick at Coxsackie, this is where they’re sent. When they find out they’re dying, prison officials offer them the option of hospice care.
“The most part is you try to comfort him,” Woodbury says. “You might rub his back, hold his hand, read to him. Just things like that. “
Woodbury, and every man who applies to become a hospice aide, has to go through a rigorous interview process, and then train for six weeks with a prison chaplain and nurses on the ward. They learn about the medical realities of death. And inmate aides like Patrick Ayrey learn their place in the dying process:
“First and foremost we gotta show compassion, we’re just there to be their friend. We write letters for them if they need that, if they want us to cook for em we cook for him, if they want to play cards we play cards, if they just want to sit there we shut our mouths and sit there. I’ve held a man’s hand for 7 hours while cried in pain. That’s what he needed and that’s what I did for him.”
Ayrey doesn’t look like a hand holder. He says he’s been in and out of prison most of his life—this time on a burglary conviction.
In there you’re not the one that’s vulnerable, they are.
As he talks about his work as a hospice aide he furrows his red eyebrows sits low in his chair. He says it’s not always easy to square who he is in the prison’s general population with who he is here in the sick room.
“I don’t know, in the yard you gotta put up a mask, you gotta put up a persona, you’re a tough guy you don’t want nobody messing with you,” Ayrey says. “It’s just different. In there you’re not the one that’s vulnerable, they are.”
Ayrey comes from Rome, New York. He first went to prison when he was 17. Like Woodbury, he says sitting with men through their last days, helping them die in peace, has changed the way he thinks about his own life.
“I’ve never done anything like this in my life; I’ve never put anything ahead of me before. It’s always been me first, and everything will fall into place. And that type of attitude is what let me to do fifteen years in prison and I don’t want to do it anymore. I want to spend as much time as I can with my family and I knew if I didn’t start doing something positive I’d spend the rest of my life in here. And I don’t want to do that.”
The truth is, hospice isn’t the first choice for a lot of dying inmates. A lot of these men just want to go home and spend their last days with their family.
The U.S. criminal justice population is aging at a significantly more rapid rate than the overall U.S. population. Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau.
But for the vast majority of inmates—even those with weeks or months to live, the prison’s strict rules for compassionate release make that impossible.
And some dying inmates have lost contact with their wives or parents; just getting a visit can mean a long struggle with the prison administration.
Aldo Diaz, another inmate hospice aide, says his crew becomes the next best thing to family. “You just want to be there for them,” Diaz says. “They are expecting you to be there.”
Diaz is 34, originally from Puerto Rico. He’s a compact guy, and looks young for his age.
“In 2009 my father passed away. So I was not able to be there for my father when he was in the hospital and he needed my help. So I was like, this is something I have to do because I’m gonna give back; what I didn’t do for my father, I could do for somebody else that’s here. “
A lot of the men working here in hospice tell the same story, of not being able to be there for a dying father or mother, and then having to keep their grief to themselves.
Coxsackie is a harsh place; it’s one of New York’s maximum-security prisons. Here, compassion and warmth aren’t high on the list of necessary survival skills.
Like the other hospice aides, Diaz says his work here turns a lot of the unspoken social rules of prison on their head.
“You know, I feel like the hand touch is so much important. You don’t get that. You’re in prison nobody likes to be touched. If I’m standing in the line, somebody touch me I’ll be like, you know what I’m saying, dude why did you just touch me, you know? But here in a hospice environment these guys trust you. Like I remember this one guy he was a real thugged out really bad dude. He was so sick he couldn’t tie his shoes. So, I used to like, put lotions in his legs. Put lotions in his feet. Combing his hair.”
Moments like that are exactly what these guys say they’re here for. Moments of human contact, companionship, making them feel as comfortable as possible. Victor Turturro is serving time for a second-degree murder charge.
“There’s a lot of appreciation with a prisoner sits with another prisoner, you know,” Turturro says. “You try to encourage them to try and put on a pair of tight socks for their circulation and stuff like that. And when they see that you actually care, it makes ‘em feel good.”
Some of the fellow hospice aides at Coxsackie are here for lower level crimes, with sentences that will have them back on the street while they’re still in their thirties or forties. But Turturro is here on a murder charge. He’s one of the men facing the very real possibility that he could live out the rest of his life right here.
“I hope if I’m ever in that situation somebody’s there for me. And that I’m not alone. I came in with twenty to life, and there’s that possibility that I won’t go home, but you know if not? I’m hoping this program’s around for me.”