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Experience is the answer

Addict, convict, lawyer.  Those three words define who I have been, in that order.

My addiction began with cigarettes at the age of 7 and ended with shooting cocaine and morphine at the age of 20. In between, I abused cough medicine, gasoline, chemicals, pills and marijuana.  And,  of course, alcohol. Lots of alcohol, including what we called electrified wine. By the end of my drug run the veins in my arms and feet had collapsed. I was a world-class junkie, and had hepatitis from a dirty needle to prove it.

My first documented encounter with the police was at the age of 7. Malicious destruction of property is how it is listed in my juvenile record. It took the police 5 more years before I was rearrested. I was 12 years old. My police run-ins continued until I went to prison, St. Cloud Reformatory for Men.  Before finishing out at St. Cloud, I had passed through Woodview Detention Home numerous times, Boys Totem Town twice, Lino Lakes Diagnostic and Reception Center, Red Wing State Training School for Boys and the St. Paul City Jail. By the time I went to St. Cloud to serve 5 years for burglary of a nightclub, it felt like old-home week. Of the five cell halls at St. Cloud, there wasn’t a cell hall in which I didn’t know a few inmates, including the segregation and isolation units. And it wasn’t long before I was able to track down some shoot-dope and an outfit. But it was in a prison cell-a taste of cold steel- where I finally found redemption, and the ability to conquer the demons that had nearly consumed and destroyed me.

During the past 35 years I have been a criminal defense attorney. However, before I became a member of the bar, I obtained an undergraduate degree in political science  and a law degree. I processed an application for, and obtained, a pardon.  I also completed group therapy and became a counselor and then group leader at Project Newgate.

My approach to addressing clients’ problems, whether as a counselor, group leader or attorney, has been to draw on personal experiences and insight earned the hard way, not from a book. This is also reflected in the posts on my blog.

Simply put, experience is the answer.

 

Teenagers in Criminal Justice System’s Solitary Confinement not a Secret, Dark or Otherwise

Brian Williams of NBC’s Rock Center featured a disturbing “expose’ ” on Friday, Mar. 22, 2013,  regarding teenagers being isolated from adult inmates while in custody by placing them in solitary confinement.  This occurs when a juvenile is certified to stand trial as an adult. If the juvenile is unable to post bond,  (s)he remains in custody.  As such, (s)he must be kept from adult inmates. Consequently, solitary confinement.

The problem  juveniles pose in pretrial detention is not new. It is endemic when you mix juvenile and adult inmates. This  ”problem”  is becoming more prevalent due to the proliferation of certifying juveniles to stand trial as adults. But isolating juveniles, even in juvenile institutions, has been commonplace for those who work in these facilities or had the misfortune of doing time as an inmate.

This is not simply my opinion; it is my experience as a juvenile who bounced from institution  to institution and as a criminal defense attorney for the past thirty-five  years.

From  13 years old  until  20, I was in and out of  lock-up facilities. Beginning in Woodview Detention Home, I was confined a week or more during each stay. Each confinement was in a small room  with a bed and toilet. The rooms were not cells; rather, they had metal doors. Interaction with others was severely limited. If I was not having a meal, I was confined to my room. The lack of interaction with others was stressful; it was meant to be.

I progressed to Boys Totem Town, confined a minimum of  seven  months each of the  three times I was there.  Although BTT did not have isolation rooms during my first two stays, if a juvenile was out of control he was returned to Woodview Detention Home and placed in a secure room, isolated from all  inmates.  During my last trip to BTT the institution had created an isolation room  segregated from the main part of the facility, two floors above where most inmates congregated.  After BTT I was next confined at  Lino Lakes Diagnostic and Reception Center for two months.  If you could not function in the main population, you were placed in isolation in B Building. Once I was ”diagnosed” at Lino, I was transferred to Red Wing State Training School for Boys where I spent the next eight months,  the first forty-five  days in Brown lock-up cottage. My room only had a bed. No sink or toilet; no magazines or books. No conversation, no television.   It became a daily struggle to cope with the isolation. I was deteriorating emotionally, psychologically. Two years later I was sentenced to St. Cloud Reformatory for Men for five years. Upon admission  I was placed in B Hall,  a segregated unit where I could see inmates at the far end of the cell block as I peered out through the bars. There was no contact with inmates for the first six weeks.  Out of segregation for approximately thirty  days, I got  drugs, a needle and a fight with a couple of guards. I was confined in segregation for thirty days. The well-used isolation unit was on the top floor of the segregation unit in D Hall.

My experiences as a juvenile and adult inmate  occurred over forty  years ago.  Everybody in the juvenile  and  adult systems knew of the isolation units. There were inmates at Woodview and Red Wing that  I spent time with in isolation  who could not cope with the debilitating, psychological effects  of  confinement. They came out of isolation worse off, more unstable than they were before  isolation.

Segregation,  particularly for high-strung inmates,  is bad. It is one step removed from inmate contact. Isolation is two steps removed from inmate contact. That is, the inmate is segregated from other inmates in isolation.  No conversations.  You can’t even see other inmates.  The atmosphere is subdued; eerily quiet. You feel buried alive.

As an attorney for the past thirty-five  years, I have been aware of isolation units in different facilities. Minnesota’s  Oak Park Heights Prison comes to mind.  Before I became an attorney I was a paralegal representing inmates at disciplinary hearings at Stillwater Prison.  This program, the Legal Advocacy Project, grew out of a consent decree entered into by the Minnesota Department of Corrections after  United States District Court Judge Edward Devitt issued an order condemning the isolation unit in the back-end of C Hall as  cruel and inhumane.

Isolation is draconian when applied to  inmates; it is devastatingly cruel when applied to juveniles, regardless of the reason. There is no justification for it. And it is the height of ignorance to respond to arguments against isolation with the pithy cliche’ “Can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”

These “corrections”   institutions correct virtually nothing. Isolation corrects nothing.  It is the inmate- not the institution- that corrects the  problem, be it chemical dependency,  lack of  job skills or education.   Teenagers in the criminal justice system’s solitary confinement is a deliberate, calculated  policy decision based on efficiency and indifference. It’s that simple.

Little Wails Lost in a Sea of Rage: Why Can't We Protect Our Children?

On July 13, 2011, young Leiby Kletzky was returning from day camp, walking through Borough Park in Brooklyn, one of the safest neighborhoods in New York. The eight- year old was navigating through the streets, having been given permission by his parents to return to the comfort of his home unescorted.

This young man,  maybe a little uncertain in his location, was clearly brimming with excitement  and knowledge that his parents recognized in him a maturity that reinforced their decision to let him walk the few blocks to his waiting mother.

In the time it would take for Leiby Kletzky to walk that short distance, the Kleitzky family’s life would be horribly altered forever. A monster would reach out to a little boy lost, a little boy searching for a friendly face to put him on the right path to his anxious mother. That was not to be.

Mr. Levi Aron, wearing a cellophane smile, stopped to give young Leiby directions. What followed is every parent’s nightmare. A missing child, a frantic search and a dispicable crime that would freeze a seasoned investigator in his tracks.

Leiby Kletzky’s dismembered body was found, parts in Aron’s home and parts in a trash bin. The reason Aron killed Leiby? He “panicked.”

On July 17, 2011, six-year old Max Shacknai died approximately one week after falling down the carpeted stairs of his father’s seaside suburban mansion in Coronado, California. How often do youngsters fall down carpeted stairs without sustaining critical or life-threatening injuries?

Yet Maxie- as he was affectionately known- succumbed to the injuries his twisted and damaged body absorbed as he tumbled to his death. And the person charged with watching Maxie while his father was away? She died four days before Maxie, having been found hanging naked, with hands and legs bound.

Only through extensive examinations, including an autopsy that may detect injuries consistent with rolling injuries, will homicide detectives be able to piece together how Maxie died.

On July 22,2011, Anders Breivik set off an explosion in Oslo, Norway, and then went to Utoya Island and let loose with an automatic weapon, killing many young people attending a political youth camp. The death toll exceeds 70 people dead.

The reason for this sudden burst of homicidal rage? To combat the onslaught of multiculturalism that is transforming Norway through an influx of muslim immigrants, so says Mr. Breivik.

And he says he is not done. He’ll reach out from behind the prison walls to continue his crime spree.

How do we, as a people, protect children from the devastating effects of rage? Or indifference that can lead to death?

Don’t think that child abuse occurs only when there is affirmative, active physical contact. As the professionals who deal with child abuse on a daily basis know, indifference or neglect can, and has, lead to the death of children.

Why is it so difficult to protect children from abuse, ranging from emotional and physical trauma to sexual exploitation? Two words: Human nature! What do I mean by this? I mean those characteristics that distinguish us from other species in how we think, act and feel.

Any student of philosophy, particularly greek philosophy, will concede that no matter how civilized we become as a society, at our core we are brutal and barbaric toward each other. In other words, savages. Each of us, presumably, embody a human soul. Some philosophers believe that the human soul has one part that is human, rational. However, another part has desires and passions that are found in animals.

Many philosophers believe that we are born with a brain that has a “clean slate.” As we mature we learn, remember and incorporate our experiences. Some of us don’t do so well at incorporating the typical, “normal” responses to daily interactions within our world. We don’t follow the normal conventions of what society expects in a given situation.

We rebel. We chafe against the constraints placed on us by society’s expectations. For many, social mores appear to be a constant state of turbulence swirling around us. Be kind. Be accomodating. Be forgiving. Be responsible. Be protective. Whew!

If there are among us those who can’t, or simply refuse to, abide by what is expected of them, how do we protect the children? I don’t have the answer, but I have a suggestion.

As a free society, people are going to exploit others. Manipulate others. Kill others. Some die in the name of war, religion, politics. Others die because some of us choose to act on our hedonistic, brutish ways.

So, how do we protect our children, acknowledging that some of us cannot be trusted to cherish our most precious resource? Fortunately, there many people who, given the chance, will be vigilant protecting children.

We send smart people all the time to Washington, D.C.  They implement laws to regulate commerce and our social interaction with each other. Why can’t someone devise a uniform Safe Zone that could be visible throughout the communities in our country?

A nice, highly visible, maybe bright toxic green banner or flag or signage that would be prominently displayed in store windows, neighborhoods and buildings that all children would be taught to recognize as a “safe zone”-time out if you will-until danger passes.

There is no panacea to this problem. However, we can-and must-affirmatively act to protect our children who are so easily exploited. If we fail to do this, aren’t we partly responsible? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do you wanna buy meth, crack along with a slurpee at 7-11?

You may be able to purchase meth, marijuana and cocaine along with your favorite beverage at 7-11, if the Global Commission on Drug Policy has its way. The Commission’s report, recently  released,  advocates ending the “criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but do no harm to others.”

I applaud the Commission’s stance on grappling with a world-wide problem, but I believe legalizing these drugs is misguided. This high-profile panel includes luminaries from politics and renowned organizations, but not anyone who has had personal experience with the ravaging effects of street drugs.

Equally important is one of  the Commission’s  stated purposes in addressing this problem: Encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.

The Commission appears to engage in a trade-off. That is, to curtail the drug cartels’ vise-grip on drug distribution, the Commission would encourage countries to regulate distribution of street drugs. As a former drug user and now as a criminal defense attorney, I know some things about drugs and their unintended effects.

I know that methadone is used for “maintenance.” How else can I explain why persons I grew up with and who were addicted to drugs switched  to methadone and now, 40 years later, are still getting their juice every week?

I know that persons I have represented who have abused drugs, particularly meth and crack, have destroyed their physical and mental health. And I know that most of these drugs have far reaching effects on the user’s family. From decimating the family unit-absentee parent, termination of parental rights, chemically dependent children-to stunting the deveopment of the family, nothing good comes from legalizing street drugs.

Except maybe curtailing the drug organizations’ cash cow.

As a nation we need to address how we work with chemically dependent people. Even the Obama administration recognizes the futility  in legalizing street drugs as reflected in the June 9, 2011, LA Times article regarding this country’s counter-narcotics policy. But we cannot forsake those addicted at the price of trying to eradicate drugs from our communities.

If we are more vigilant in combating the prevalence of street drugs, along with a responsible,  committed approach to drug treatment, then we will also recognize what anyone who has gone through treatment recognizes:  treatment does work.

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