Just to Be Fair

The video below is going viral, you’ve probably already seen it several times – a guy in New York took up the Ellen Dance Challenge and decided that, as a black man, it’d be great to do it behind a bunch of really, really white cops.

The results were predictable. As you can see. Invective raining down upon the NYPD was also predictable … and continues. 

Look, this blog is not all that kind to the authority figures of the criminal justice system. And, it’s only going to get worse as I move forward with a narrative non-fiction account of prison and the system.

But, this is not the place for me to pile on. For the simple reason this is not what it seems, though, unsurprisingly, it has not been reported by the media.

itsshowtime-bobfosseWhat really went down is this: these particular cops – as the NYPD Union was quick to point out – are avid followers of the theatrical jazz dance school as epitomized by Bob Fosse. They felt, to a man, that this guy’s dancing was simplistic and had no recognizable thematic point.

Sgt. Franz Siegel of the NYPD’s Street Dance Special Branch pointed out that the ‘dancer in question’ was not, in fact, thrown to the ground out of indefensible anger at not being able to arrest him but as a ‘perfectly natural reaction to bad art – “Hey, man,” Siegel said with a shrug, “you gonna’ dance in New York, you gotta make it count, no hard feelings, but ….”Pippin004

One of the officers involved, Charles V. Ogletree, also added, ” You goin’ to do that dancin’ shit behind us, fine, but you better throw in some Pippin, you know? It’s jazz hands or taste pavement, motherfucker, you knowwhattimean?”

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Because They Can . . .

tammanyhallwiki2The New York Times published a, well, amazing piece yesterday: At Rikers Island, Union Chief’s Clout Is a Roadblock to ReformIt’s ostensibly about the head of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, a political bully right out of Tammany Hall –  except he’s black and it’s 2014.

The article fits snugly into everything published over the past months about our judicial system, ‘prison industrial complex’, and militarization of police, from Ferguson to Staten Island to the Economist’s recent cover story, What Has Gone Wrong with Policing in America.

Actually, it may be the most important thing written because as it concerns a black man with unseemly power in New York City, representing an overwhelmingly black union (with all black officials) it takes race out of the equation and focuses on a root – the root for anyone ever incarcerated – issue in all this: power.

Power. Specifically, the power to make people do 67400_no_reg_lgwhat you want them to, when you want them to because you can. No one has this kind of power, unfettered, on a daily basis, than a Correctional Officer, aka prison guard, for the fairly simple reason that what they do is hidden away from polite society and almost anyone not related to an inmate could care less what happens to them.

From the moment they come on duty COs have hundreds of inmates entirely at their mercy. Inmates have no rights, regardless of what the little orientation books say. COs can brace; pat down; toss cells; confiscate property; verbally abuse; strip search; keep from showers/commissary/rec/church/library/class; berate; humiliate inmates on a whim without the slightest fear of rebuke or punishment.

They do this at a whim for the simple, yet overpowering reason, they can.

imagesSuch day to day power without oversight breeds contempt. Contempt for individuals, contempt for rules, contempt for oversight of any degree including the courts. It is no wonder to me – nor, I imagine, anyone I met on my 4 1/2 year sojourn – that the union chief of the Riker’s Island COs has taken this to the next logical conclusion – ‘it’s our fiefdom, fuck off.’

He stymies reforms, stops efforts to stop his officers from engaging in the very lucrative contraband trade, shuts down the entire criminal court system of New York for a day to stop an inmate from testifying against a pair of COs, yells at mayors, gets investigators appointed by city government officials fired, replaces them with his friends, it goes on and on.

Because he can. Like all bullies, he can and he will until a major consequence is meted out on his thick, bully skull. Of course, as he probably could have been cited for contempt at least 750 times the day he shut down the courts and nothing happened, I’m sure he’s sure he can do anything. At this point I am not inclined to disagree with him.

If CO’s have the most freedom to abuse their power, other groups in the criminal justice system are not far behind, and seem to be gaining everyday. What the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association is doing to the inmates of Riker’s Island (the vast majority of whom, by the way, have not been convicted of anything) and New York is an example of what is coming our way without proper restraints on those we have chosen to give power to.

As we now engage in heated, nasty, rhetoric over indictments or lack thereof of police officers while losing sight that indictments of non-police officers (i.e., the rest of us) by grand juries runs at over 99% we are probably well on the way of further eroding restraint and empowering the already empowered.

Of such stuff are bullies enabled.

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Of Grand Juries and Justice and The Great Santini

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Which of the people and things above have the best (only?) chance of not being convicted by a grand jury?

I’m exhausted – mentally and physically – by the endless jabbering about the recent grand jury decisions in Ferguson and Staten Island.  “The grand jury was flawed”; “the grand jury was wrong”; “the grand jury did a great job,”; yada, yada, yada.

The public’s general complete and utter misunderstanding of what a grand jury does is just downright scary. It is not, for instance, to use I term I despise, ‘fair and balanced.’ Grand juries are not called to determine guilt or innocence. They are called to indict. They are called to hear the prosecutor’s evidence to decide if probable cause exists.

They are the prosecutor’s playground. Their sole playground. gal-greatsantini-jpgA prosecutor failing to get an indictment is equivalent to Lebron James losing one-on-one to his six year old. What’s that? Aside from the Great Santini, every parent, even Lebron, let’s his kid win every once in a while?

Exactly. The only way for a prosecutor to lose in a grand jury is to throw the game. Period. And, because so many members of the public are ignorant of the grand jury process beyond Law & Order, they don’t have to be all that more subtle than a parent who trips over the foul line and dribbles off his knees a few dozen times in a row.

boardwalk-empire-nucky-thompson-lucky-luciano-arnold-rothsteinjpg-d50201dca8e950ac_largeI’m not going to go into detail of where and how the prosecutors in Missouri and New York faked turnovers, that would not only be boring but in this environment those who think this was all on the up and up and  proof ‘the system’ works, wouldn’t be dissuaded if I posted a video from McCullough going all Arnold Rothstein and bragging how he fixed the series.

However – ah, c’mon, you knew a however was implicit – tuck this little factoid away. In 2010 – the most recent year for data on this – U.S. Attorneys brought 160,000 cases to federal grand juries. They came away with 159,989 indictments.

I did not type – and you did not read – that wrong. The indictment rate for federal grand juries was 99.993728%.

We should all be concerned – very concerned – when a tool that has consistently been used to pound the living hell out of everyone from every walk of life (okay, except bankers, sorry) in a thousand, thousand different circumstances is muted when it comes to one particular group.

You know, if you let your six year old consistently win, the six year old will start believing – right up until the moment they meet an 8 year old Larry Bird on the playground and he takes your kid for his next five years lunch money.

In a democracy, it’s not all that smart to let one group – one well armed, well unioned, already empowered group – believe they are immune to something that 99.993728% of the rest of us are very much not.

Happy Birthday Johnathan Swift

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It’s Jonathan Swift’s birthday …. We could use a crazy Irish writer like him right now to offer A Modest Proposal on everything from Ferguson to, well, everything.

“It is a maxim among these lawyers, that whatever hath been done before may legally be done again: and therefore they take special care to record all the decisions formerly made against common justice and the general reason of mankind. These, under the name of precedents, they produce as authorities, to justify the most iniquitous opinions; and the judges never fail of decreeing accordingly.

Herzog, Hamilton Burger’s Revenge, and My 2 Soups

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Hamilton Burger can finally rest in peace

I just spent ten days putting together a nonfiction book proposal for 2 Soups & a Fish, my narrative of prison, the criminal justice system and, the ultimate target – sports talk radio and NFL pre-game shows (how I get there is a real hoot).

Those ten days really brought me back as I flipped through my journals, notes scribbled over other notes, letters, court papers, and googled some of the people I ran across through 853 miles of Northeastern US prisons.

Depressing enough. Then, while compiling the marketing section of the proposal, I ran across Why Innocent People Plead Guilty. It’s one of the lead articles in tomorrow’s  The New York Review of Books, written by Jed S. Rakoff. Rakoff is a Federal Judge, his premise revolves around the oft commented fact that prosecutors have too much power in our courts.

Actually, he strongly intimates that they have all the power.

Rakoff’s article set off a pinball-like din of connecting synapses that ended only a few hours ago with the not so epiphanous epiphany that the system is seriously titled.

Then I thought of the tools prosecutors have at their disposal, some only hinted at by Judge Rakoff. Then I remembered Herzog.unnamed (3)

I called him Herzog – an insult to both the director and Saul Bellow – because he was just too soul wrenchingly depressing to address as Werner. Some people have a prison affirming name, he had two of them. Hence, Herzog.

I met him in a holding tank waiting for transfer from the spirit eroding filth of Bridgeport County Correctional to the spirit eroding cleanliness of MacDougall in Suffield.

He was that most scary of all pre-trial detention inmates, the really, really, really friendly guy. So friendly he tells you his life story through the first hour of the wait …. Then asks his new, bestest friends about their cases.

Herzog was that guy so obviously looking for a edge for his case you knew within minutes of meeting him he would not only do anything to secure it, he was working it out as they closed the cuffs on his wrists.

Consequently, Herzog is everything that is wrong with the system in one 5’7″ 170 pound package.

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Artist conception of Herzog moments after I transferred out of our cell before he could finish reading my paperwork.

Herzog spent a chunk of the Nineties in Federal prison camps in California. Ninety-six months for a creative combination of wire, bank, and computer fraud. He’s mentioned more than a few times in the 2011 true crime book Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground

I met him because he was arrested in Greenwich, CT days after me. He had spent a few afternoons wandering up and down Greenwich Avenue buying watches at every jewelry store with fake credit cards until someone finally caught on. The cops found over a quarter million dollars worth of watches, dozens of fake credit cards, fake driver’s licenses, and a credit card making machine in the trunk of his car.

A search of his home dug up additional jewelry, computers, blank credit cards, everything needed to steal identities and start really, really nice watch collections They also found a pistol. His wife’s, he claimed, but a prior felony and a weapon do not mix.

Oh, and he had skipped out from parole in California.

Herzog was facing state and federal charges. The FBI and Secret Service were ‘continuing’ their investigations. I was his cellmate for a short time – another story – I saw his court documents, knew with absolute, complete, total, can’t miss, lawyer spidey sense, certainty that his very active plea negotiations were starting at 150 months. Minimum. lets-make-a-deal-300x180

He was sentenced in July, 2006. To twenty-seven MONTHS. On the sole count of felon in possession of a firearm. Everything else vanished. He was home in sixteen months.

And somewhere along the line, over the next year or so, the local US Attorney’s Office percentage of cases closed via plea crept a little closer to 100%.

A Litigator, A Psychotic Kitchen Supervisor, and A Memoir

Why now? Why this moment to pull the trigger on a memoir that ostensibly could have been written four years ago? Why so damn resistant to the advice of award-winning, best-selling authors? Why so resistant, period?

Questions I’ve been asked repeatedly over the last month or so. My standard reply is “Hey, it feels right, won’t get in the way of the novels, might even help,” and a host of canned responses each as overflowing with utter bullshit as the others.

The reason it’s now is this – I had a bad experience a few months ago that whipped up an earlier, much worse experience and the two combined and lingered and festered long enough and strong enough for me to settle on exorcism as the only viable cure. Continue reading

Santa’s Prison Poem

30280600-1259504658Santa was about 5’3″, round, jolly in the ‘the-nicer-I-am-the easier-they-fall’ professional conman sense, perfectly bearded with a prodigious mustache that twirled up in perfect Snidely Whiplash fashion, and smart enough to turn any circumstance into a profitable venture. Any.

He graduated from Providence College about fifteen years before me, was a practicing Catholic who fully agreed with Tom Waits that “God’s away on business.”

I met him in FCI FT. Dix where he and his constant companion, ‘The Count’, were serving time together for a series of adventures that rivaled their equally famous/infamous Providence contemporary Buddy Cianci. Fifteen minutes after I met Santa I was reasonably sure it was no coincidence he was with us on the east side of Dix while Buddy was regaling inmates (and, apparently, formulating the strategy for his next political comeback) on the west side.

Santa, The Count, and I ended up teaching together at Dix where some 600-800 or so men were enrolled in ESL, GED, and Adult Ed classes. Santa and The Count merit a chapter (at least) in my prison memoir, most of it revolving around ‘The Great Honeybun Caper’ but, for now, I thought I’d share something I ran across in my notebooks while compiling the outline for 2 Soups and a Fish, or This Book Ain’t for Reading or Whatever the Hell I’m Calling the Memoir.

So, one cold, clear, New Jersey morning in February Santa regaled our morning classes with a poem he had crafted during a midnight dreary. He presented it as a paeon to the great camaraderie he found on campus, how wherever he went, he heard inmates asking each other ‘how ya’ doin’?” As a matter of fact, I think the title of said poem was “How Ya’ Doin’?

It was maudlin (to be kind) and received with a good deal of eye-rolling and not so good natured smirks – of the ‘he’ll never see it coming” type.

Aside the fact I love good poetry, I was disturbed on two fronts. First, I had been having my classes read Yeats, Frost, Keats, and Bob Dylan for a few weeks (the GED is mostly reading comprehension, so . . .) and Santa’s poem was going to put that plan and the idea poetry was manly back weeks; Second, I recognized the poem for what it was, letting everyone know he was their friend, and they his. This was confirmed the following week with the onset of The Great Honeybun Caper and a naked attempt to take over the education department. (You had to admire Santa’s ambition).

Santa needed to be headed off at the pass. So, after a little thought, I took Santa’s rhyme scheme – such as it was – and wrote my own ‘campus’ poem on the dry board opposite Santa’s. The result:

As the rosy fingers of dawn

Poke through the iron shutters

An’ the camp prepares to meet the day,

A sayin’ carries into

My head before the day’s din begins;

I hear it first as I rummage thro’ my locker,

“Yo! Morning Mudder’fucka!”