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Failures of the criminal punishment system from a prisoner’s perspective


An incarcerated, transgender member of our Prisoner Advisory Committee thoroughly explains how the criminal punishment system – and other such institutions – fail to provide a fair and healthy environment for people to live in.

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Warning: The following letter mentions topics such as physical, verbal and emotional abuse, and has not been edited in any way. Proceed with caution if you may be triggered by these topics.


“The goals of Criminal Punishment in effect and how it affects: A young prisoner’s perspective,”

by N. W. Vellon.

The philosophy of criminal punishment is that an individual, who has committed a crime, being subjected to the deprivations of physical freedom, extreme economic and social limitations and the un-comfortableness associated with prison life (e.g. limited recreational activity, limited access to social norm’s – including career opportunities, financial opportunities, community activities, events, associations and relationships, etc.) would, with the instilment of contempt for living in prison and the usage of available educational and vocational activities, leave prison with the want to live within the bounds of the law as a productive citizen.

The elements of criminal punishment include ‘Retribution, -causing one to suffer for a wrong one committed, – Deterrence, in the incapacitation of a wrongdoer as a preventative measure against crime, and Rehabilitation, the process of seeking to improve a wrongdoers character and outlook so as to enable a wrongdoer to function in society in a lawful and productive manner.

These three elements of criminal punishment when combined are thought of as a positive process and system of correcting a wrongdoer’s conscience, actions and way of acting.

I was arrested in two thousand and seven committed to state custody in two thousand and eight and have been imprisoned since. My experience and observance of the state prison system in relation to the goals of criminal punishment is this:

An individual who commits a crime should face consequence for his/her conduct but an actual understanding of the individual needs to be pursued in order for the theory or goals of criminal punishment to be actual as currently what is applied is various and inconsistent practices geared towards merely housing the prisoners and providing some activities to pass the time. It is not taken into account a prisoners emotional state, upbringing, culture, self-perceived potential, aptitude, intellectual potential, creative potential and identity personality wise all of which, depending on the availability of programs, activities, access to information, familial relationship/situation and the prison’s particular environment, can work for or against a prisoner’s surviving prison emotionally, mentally, physically and socially whole, as well as with added and may be needed skills and coping methods. It is also not taken into account the fragility of an individual mentally and emotionally prior to imprisonment and how he/she may be affected by the prison environment and what behaviors may be a result of further deterioration of a pre-existing mental illness and/or emotional disturbance which have contributed to one’s criminal behavior. There exist procedures to safe-guard the criminal punishments theory when it is practiced, but unfortunately those procedures are more often than not circumvented for the least laborious approach, which normally fails to produce positive results.

A great example of this is N.Y.S Corr law sections 133, 136 and 137. Section 133 of the N.Y.S Corr. Law details the obligations of a facility superintendent and the department’s commissioner in informing the governor about an inmate they believe was mentally ill at the time the inmate committed the crime for which he is incarcerated for and gives the governor the recommendation of the commissioner. The recommendation – common sense would lead me to believe – is normally made after consult with those persons who are qualified to interpret the information that led the facility superintendent and the department’s commissioner to believe the inmate was mentally ill at the time he committed the crime of which he is incarcerated for. This is to ensure the prevention of further deterioration and provide for action in the cases where the courts failed to regard mitigating and/or contributing factors. In order for Section 133 to be adhered to, Section 137 paragraph one of the corr. Law states in part:

“The commissioner shall establish program and classification procedures designed to assure the complete study of the background and condition of each inmate in the care and custody of the department and the assignment of such inmate to a program that is most likely to be useful in assisting him to refrain from future violations of the law.”

This I believe, would involve the procurement of any all records available on the inmate for psychiatric and medical care, education, foster care and other social services records and written understanding of the emotional state and family situation of the inmate. This law expressly emphasizes individual inmate needs.

Section 136 of the N.Y.S corr. law provides for the socialization of prisoners through varied impressionable and expressional activities. The goal being to help a prisoner’s individual need. Corr. law Section 136 cannot be applied unless corr. law Section 137 is here’d to. Since these laws, and the day to day procedures relating to them, are routinely misapplied and/or disregarded, dysfunction in the system and harm to prisoners betterment results.

This is harmful as it is fundamentally necessary to procure a background study on an individual to find the best avenue for the individual’s physical, mental and emotional health in therapeutic, education and vocational needs. These are obligations of the department, as explained in corr. law and disregard the obligations is to be grossly negligent to the basis of rehabilitation and an absolute violation of an inmate’s right to better him/her self.

In addition it is a violation of law and of the publics, or people’s right to have the government adhere to the laws that were enacted for the nation’s safety and security and societal furtherance.

The provisions under these corr. law sections were amended into law because it became understood that preventative measures and treatment/therapy/activities are needed to help one learn the root cause of criminal behavior and the negative effects it has on one’s life, to bring opportunities to individuals to make and be able to make conscious positive choices and learn coping methods and to try to interrupt and end the negative cycle in corrections that more fostered criminality than stopped it or reduced it. Administrative and Judicial disregard has so far greatly contributed to that failing.

N.Y.S. Corr. law section 137 was also enacted and amended to statutorily prohibit certain forms of conduct from being performed and to mandate certain actions to ensure the well being of prisoners and department employees and provide for the discipline of both prisoners and department employees for prohibited conduct.

Unfortunately departmental employees who perform volatile behavior are rarely disciplined for it and if they are the consequence is routinely nominal and fails to prevent future violations. Those employees who are disciplined either retaliate by performing future violations, usually on the complaining prisoner and hide it by claiming the enforcement of a lawful action, in which more often than not their fellow employees assist in or stops the volatile behavior and instead assumes an attitude of indifference and/or becomes willfully ignorant to the mandate of providing statutorily entitled items and/or privileges like hygiene products writing materials general and law library materials, incoming and outgoing mail, food, etc. The lack of supervisory and administrative enforcement of staff conduct and discipline for volatile conduct and the inability of prisoners, most times, to prove a complaint’s truthfulness is among the major factors contributing to the dysfunction in prison.

Another unfortunate issue is the lack of care or regard many prisoners have for another prisoners rights and want for peaceful, relaxed, positive and productive environment. It seems to have become forgotten, in many prisoners that all prisoners are having problems with dealing with the inconsistency, dejection and oppressive feelings in this environment called prison. Many prisoners do not care about anyone but themselves and that is present in their actions and speech and so choose to cause more chaos, misery and frustration in other prisoners and the security and civilian staff in the facilities. Many more who inadvertently cause more suffering by trying to help without knowing how to help. Staff antagonizing staff, staff antagonizing prisoners, prisoners antagonizing staff – it is a cycle of disregard.

Another factor that is not normal in the application of criminal punishment is the systems not considering many prisoners institutional upbringing. Myself, I was raised in the states foster care systems residential treatment centers and facilities, psychiatric hospitals and group homes. Physical abuse, medical and nutritional neglect, emotional instability which led to behavior problems and mental illness and no home to go to – these were what kept me in the foster system from age six to eighteen. Assaults by staff, over medication and threats of psychiatric confinement and rejection – these are what drove me to run away from the foster system. The similarities between the foster system and the prison system are so many and so frightening that when I was committed to the state of D.O.C.S I could not distinguish the difference between the two which is that in the foster system I could run away or get away whereas in prison I cannot.

An institutional society within a national society is what the foster care and prison systems are in which the social structure, the socialization availabilities and levels and effect of emotional, mental, social and intellectual opportunities are different and mutable at the sole discretion of the government.

What is not understood is that enforcement of constitutional provisions, statutes, policy, procedures, rules and regulations often, too often, stops at the level which negates the very effectiveness of same, in institutional environments.

N.Y.S. D.O.C.C.S has a disciplinary system that is supposed to provide an impartial, reasonable and meditative due-process system for the just application of prison discipline. A prisoner can be found guilty, says the state civil judicial arbiter, based solely upon an accusation by employees of the state of misbehavior by an inmate. Is that due-process? Keep in mind that the penalties that can be imposed are normally constitutionally protected; the penalty takes away from prisoners what is normally constitutionally protected. The persons assigned to be hearing officers are normally apart of the system in which there is an unwritten rule to uphold the employees statements over and against a prisoners statements. Information, evidence, testimony and recordings requested by the prisoners are routinely denied regardless of whether or not the requested item and/or witness could prove to be a relevant refutation of the written accusation and accompanying accusatory witness testimony. Findings of guilt and sanctions are also often given by the hearing officer because to do the opposite is looked at by D.O.C.C.S employees, as a disloyal act. Sometimes any finding in a prisoners favor, no matter how right, is seen as a threat to D.O.C.C.S. employees movable.

The grievance system is also chocked with disparate and disparaging results. As with the disciplinary system, prisoners are usually denied equitable decisions in resolving distressing conflicts. Most times complaints are willfully misunderstood by the grievance program and an investigation of the complain is normally handled by persons partial to, again, D.O.C.C.S. employees position and/or word.

The anger, frustration, resentment and hate, generated by this exact disregard in prisoners contributes to many prisoners willfully disregarding the rules. You also have many prisoners like me who have learned the laws and rules of society when they were incarcerated, besides learning of the rights citizens have under the constitution and the universal declaration of human rights and find that not only were those rights and laws diluted in enforcement by those with authority over them prior to arrest and conviction but that they are even more diluted in enforcement in prison and that prisoners are often prohibited effective remedies to have them enforced besides being barred from using the political and media process to asset prisoners human rights. What is needed is an organized peaceful protest in prison to force this issue into reform, but if prisoners do that we are administratively discipline for it and can be criminally prosecuted for it. This type of treatment and worse is what is given prisoners who fight for a better life and because the right to protest self-defend and peacefully organize is refused to prisoners by the government and listed as crimes.

Envision in your mind a man in prison garb, but shirtless, his back is arched, his face is turned up, a cry of pain and hopelessness escaping his mouth, he is standing. His right arm and hand is out stretched towards his family and a free life trying to grasp and hold love and peace and his family’s calming, assuring embrace he cannot reach it. In his left hand held to his heart is a book titled “Rehabilitation”, its pages blank. He cries in pain again as behind him uniformed people, their faces are veiled, wield and apply the whips named retribution, to the prison garbed shirtless man, one time, two times, as many as they decide to choose, whenever they decide to choose it. This man in pain cries and pleas for help in rain, a reprieve from torture prohibited. His legs are chained to the floor, the chains etched with the word deterrence.

Five feet above him hangs the keys to the chain, ten feet to his left lies a four foot ladder, guarded by snarling wolf-like canines and more uniformed veiled people tense, their index finger ready to squeeze the trigger to the submachine guns who’s pointed at the chained, in pain, hopeless and whipped prison garbed imprisoned person. As deeply as deterrence is etched in the fetters around the man’s ankles, so too is despair and loss etched into the face, spirit and bearing of the broken hopeless prisoner.

This is what imprisonment feels like to me. This is what criminal punishment and its elements are to me. Retribution confuses and prevents the educational aspects of deterrence which in turn replaces rehabilitation with institutional conformity. To conform to the prison system is to lose your individuality. Everyone performing a routine enmasse by government dictate, no variation, week-by-week, month-by-month, year-by-year while being subject to the stressors unique to the prison environment.

Prison administration, civilian and security employees work on, and base their decisions on the presumption that prisoners act and will act in a manipulative, deceitful and dishonest manner and when a prisoner pleas for help or requests permission to do something the requests, statements or complaints are read or heard and regarded with the thought that they need to be interpreted to find possible manipulation, deceit and dishonesty. It is the expectations, that D.O.C.C.S employees have, that a prisoner will act in a certain negative manner and when a prisoner does not act in that manner, but instead chooses to act positively and by the rules, it is seen as abnormal and as deceit. That expectation blinds D.O.C.C.S. employees and lawmakers from seeing what needs to be seen, from making the decisions that need to be made and from allowing things that need to be allowed.

The power that the government wields over a prisoners life is reminiscent of the authority held voraciously by a despot and, as all despots do, in a conflict of interests, proofs and truths of human, civil, administrative and penal law violations on prisoners are hidden, suppressed and continuing, in severe proportions with impunity.

The prison system is a high profit industry, tens of billions of dollars made yearly, and so government, rich private citizens and society itself does not want prisons to be rehabilitative nor for crime to stop. Why? Because jobs and money are more important to, the majority than a more civilly mannered society.

I am an institutionally raised person who has spent less than two years of my intellectually–able, though heavily medicated, years in what is normal society so maybe my way of looking at it is too heavily laced with resentment and/or ignorance about how U.S. society works. Maybe what it is that I miss what little I had, of which I now know I loved, and so dramatize the negative. I do not know. What I do know is that the prison system is in need of change. Immediate change. Starting with society acknowledging that prisoners in the U.S. are citizens as defined in the U.S. constitution and are entitled to constitutional guarantees equal to that of free citizens.

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The Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP) works to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence.

This blog, which features letters from our Prisoner Advisory Committee (PAC) members, is just one way we overcome the enormous state-created barriers to communication and political participation for the people who are most affected by the prison system.



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