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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.

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.

Mn. Legislature's Proposed Dept. of Corrections' Budget Cut Delivers One-Two Punch To Chemically Dependent Inmates

Minnesota prisons are not Party City, nor should they be. Instead, inmates are-first and foremost-imprisoned for retribution, then rehabilitation. Unfortunately, the education emphasized is the prison-style Three R’s(Respect, Reputation and Revenge).

So, when an authentic, effective drug treatment program is operating within the prison walls with documented success, it is in every one’s interest to maintain the program. You would think.

The Minnesota Legislature feels differently. As reported in the May 26, 2011, StarTribune, the legislure proposes a 25 percent cut in treatment funds. This, from a program that reduces the recidivism rate by 25 percent!

How important is this program? It serves up to 1,200 inmates per year in a state with 85-90 percent of its inmates chemically dependent. The degree of dependency does not surprise me. As someone who was nurtured on a wide array of drugs in my teen years, from alcohol to hallucinogens to shoot-dope, and then spent 7-8 years in and out of juvenile and adult “corrections” facilities, followed by the last 32 years as a criminal defense attorney, it was common knowledge among inmates the extent to which inmates were addicted.

In fact, it was the inmate who never drank or did drugs that stood out as the exception to the population. Interestingly, I found as I progressed through the county and then state institutions a marked increase in drug abuse. Many times the addiction would overlay and cloud numerous personal issues, including illiteracy and abandonment, as a child and as an adult. 

As Sen.Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, chair of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, stated in justifying the budget cut proposal,  the priority is having task forces knocking down doors to drug houses to make the communities safer. But who do the drug houses serve? As a criminal defense attorney who handles a large number of drug cases in both state and federal courts, it is extremely rare to find a drug seller or a patron of a drug house who is not chemically dependent.

Focusing on eliminating drug houses while deemphasizing treatment is a disaster in the making. People go to prison because we-the community-want them in prison. And people will receive treatment when we-the community- decide we want them to have treatment. As Dianne Seger, director of chemical dependency services at the Dept. of Corrections, stated, “They’re going to be your neighbor. Do you want them sober, or do you want them doing what they were doing?”

Surely, not all inmates in the program are genuinely interested in treatment. Undoubtedly, some are gaming the system. But at least they positioned themselves to become exposed to a healthy lifestyle alternative. With them, it might work.

But if we support a reduction in funds, we consciously reduce bed space and counselors dedicated to protecting society through drug rehabilitation, one inmate at a time.

Sen. Limmer, is that not an immediate priority?

Draconian Prison Sentences Smack Up Against Economic Reality

The announcement of the May 24, 2011, 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating that  the California Dept. of Corrections  reduce its bloated inmate population by 33,000 from approximately 144,000 is a long time coming, and directly results from the state’s short-sighted, “law and order” campaign carried out by politicians who had effectively  highjacked the prison reform discussion years ago so as to derail meaningful reform policies.

Apparently, California believed in a corrections model premised on the adage “out of sight, out of mind.” Well, now that the consequences- or downside- of this overarching, myopic view  is in California’s face, the state must grapple with what it has created for its people, inside and out of prison. That is, the disgorgement of 33,000 inmates who will be ill-prepared for life on the streets.

This conundrum was a long time coming. Prisoners, on the whole, are politically impotent. That is, those advocating for prisoner’s rights may as well spit into the wind. For most states, it is easier to implement “get tough” legislation than to provide the necessary funds to carry out these legislative mandates.

California is a case study for the devastating effects of implementing harsh sentencing practices without recognizing that non-violent offenders outnumber violent offenders and that most non-violent offenders will return to society. A quick read of Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion underscores the prison conditions and practices that gave rise to the lawsuit alleging cruel and unusual punishment violative of the U.S. Constitution’s  Eighth Amendment.

References to suicides, inmate deaths from non-existent or substandard medical care and overcrowded conditions are peppered throughout J. Kennedy’s opinion. Too bad California could not have foreseen this burgeoning crisis in the early 90’s when this lawsuit began. Yet, since the begining of this litigation California has failed miserably in addressing their problem.

Most states, I suspect, are facing this looming debacle. Why? Because most states were swept up in this “law and order” publicity campaign throughout the country in the mid-70’s and up to a year or two ago. With the economy tanking and a lack of resources to  remedy inmate overpopulation, states will have to resolve their “prison problem” or risk having the courts intervene and dictate how the states will address this crisis.

It is not enough to turn a blind eye to the problem,  hoping the it will correct itself. I don’t know how deep and pervasive this attitude of denial runs, but I’m reminded of a criminal defendant I represented in Sacramento, Ca., federal court. During the proceeding my client, similar to many of the other defendants in this narcotics conspiracy case, was detained. He spent an inordinate amount of time in the jail.

After negotiating a settlement and during sentencing, I explained to the judge the horrific conditions I had been told existed in the Sacramento County Jail. Requesting jail credit for the time my client spent in custody, I asked the Court to consider granting my client twice as much jail credit based on the deplorable conditions my client endured on a daily basis.

The judge quickly rejected my request, noting that if the defendant didn’t want to endure such conditions, then he should stay out of Sacramento. Apparently, it was lost on the judge that my client had never stepped foot in California; he was indicted in the Northern District-Eastern Division while residing in Minnesota.

Hopefully, my knowledge of the conditions at that jail is not typical of the community at large. Unfortunately, the jail’s conditions were well known by the criminal defense bar as well as the law enforcement community in Sacramento.

Maybe the U.S. Supreme Court’s mandate will be the impetus for true, genuine prison reform. If not, then we must wait for the next court to intervene. Until then, “out of sight, out of mind.”

Post Script to Apr.13, 2011, Post regarding Mn. Gov. Dayton's selection for Commissioner of Corrections

Yesterday,  I posted my opinion as to why I believe rehabilitation is not more successful in Minnesota. Although anecdotal and limited to Minnesota, one can extrapolate the consequences of poorly conceived and executed rehabilitation policies nationwide and witness the results.

Today,  I became aware of the Pew Center’s most recent study detailing recidivism rates state-by-state. Guess what? Minnesota has the highest recidivism rate (61%) of all states! And the national rate? 40% of felons return to prison within three years of being released to the streets. These are not statistics to be proud of, especially since so much money has been thrown at the problem.

These numbers are bothersome. But what is really disturbing is a quote from Mr. Jim Reams, a New Hampshire prosecutor, who apparently spoke on behalf of the National District Attorneys Assoc. regarding this study. His remark, partly  paraphrased, allegedly reflects a  common perception that people in prison are choir boys and if they were let out of prison, “all will be well.”

That opinion reflects a naivete certainly not shared by those working in the criminal justice system, or by the population as a whole.

  As a criminal defense attorney in Minnesota for the past 32 years, I have not known the National District Attorneys Assoc. to aggressively support any treatment-based alternatives to incarceration. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that the prosecutor’s association listens intently to the law enforcement community, and that community strongly supports prison, not probation, for the majority of felons. And to take this a step further, I believe the association supported the implementation of sentencing guidelines that ushered in determinate sentencing. Why would they support determinate sentencing?  To limit the sentencing discretion of judges. What has been the effect of the guidelines in state and federal courts? To shift the power to prosecutors who, based on which crime is charged, can increase or decrease the severity level of the crime and, consequently, the sentence to be imposed.

It is a well-known fact that most of the money pouring into the prison system is for security, not rehabilitation. And the emphasis on most treatment programs is at the front end.  That is, while incarcerated. Relatively speaking, most of the  money is not allocated toward the transitional phase from these programs and back to the community when felons are most vulnerable. Felons need assistance in finding jobs, places to live just like the rest of us.

Until the criminal justice system- as a whole- takes a more realistic approach to grappling with the recurring problems felons encounter upon release from prison, the states’ recidivism rates will continue to remain inexcusably  high.

Treatment-based alternatives to prison and continuity of treatment through the transitional phase from prison to streetside for the majority of felons is sorely lacking. Why is this so difficult to see?

Mn. Governor Dayton steps into the sunlight of rehabilitation with his selection for Commissioner of Corrections

Mn. Gov. Dayton has selected Mr.Tom Roy, a veteran probation and parole officer to head the Mn. Dept. of Corrections. Wow! Finally, someone to lead state corrections who sees beyond retribution and confinement!

Let me share  Minnesota’s flirtation with prisoner rehabilitation. It’s a short chapter in “prison reform.”

In 1970 I sat in the auditorium at Red Wing State Training School for Boys in Red Wing, Mn., listening to Harry Vorath speak glowingly of the salient aspects of positive peer culture (“ppc”) introduced at the instituion. For the next 8-9 months I took part in the group therapy program. Obviously, it didn”t work for me as I was sitting in a prison cell a couple of years later, having been convicted of a commercial burglary.

Did it not work because there was no follow-up once I hit the streets? Once I was released from Red Wing I was on my own, save for periodic contact with a parole officer. However, when I entered St.Cloud Reformatory for Men in St.Cloud, Mn., it was a different story.

At St.Cloud I again took part in a ppc program. This time it was Project Newgate, a college-level program with its initial phase at St.Cloud and subsequent transition to the University of Minnesota Mpls. campus. After nine months in the prison program I was released to campus where I eventually completed my B.A. in political science and then a J.D. from Hamline University School of Law.

While in undergraduate school I participated in the Legal Advocacy Project representing inmates before disciplinary (“due process”) hearings in Stillwater Prison and St.Cloud Reformatory. I also filled the “ex-offender” slot for the Ramsey County (St.Paul, Mn.) Corrections Advisory Board.

It was during this period of time that I became aware of a disturbing trend: the inevitable rollback of funding for community corrections, which directly impacted such programs as Project Newgate that was essential to my surviving after being released from prison and going on to become an attorney.

I watched with increasing frustration as effective community programs appeared before the advisory board pleading for the ever shrinking dollar. From my perspective, the process was complete when the Minnesota legislature encted the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines that restricted the sentencing judge’s discretion and required application of a presumptive sentence based on severity level of the offense and the defendant’s criminal history score.

Many states, including the federal government, followed suit with their version of “equitable” sentencing policies. With determinate sentences,  there is little an inmate can do to secure an early release from prison. Sure, there has been a tweeking of the system to alleviate overcrowding in our prisons.

Maybe Gov. Dayton, through his commissioner- designate, can undue some of  the damage to our communities heaped upon us by having embraced this myopic and draconian view of “corrections.” If not, then we-as a nation- can continue to enjoy our well-deserved status as the country to lock up more people than any country in the world.

Jobs for Ex-Offenders

There has been much discussion recently about Chicago Mayor Daley aggressively reaching out to unemployed felons. Wow!

It is indisbutable that most felons return to prison due to an inability to find stable, respectable work. This problem is only compounded by the irrefutable studies confirming what most reasonably intelligent people know: the vast majority of felons return to society.

It is not that Mayor Daley was the most enlightened public servant to recognize this phenomenon. Rather, he simply acknowledged the obvious. Felons, as all of us, are part of the essential fabric of society and recognize their concomitant responsibility to family and community.

And many of them, when given the opportunity, have become rehabilitated and are successful, contributing citizens.  They inspire the rest of us.

Charlie Sheen: Zone defense

As Charlie Sheen’s awkward and bizarre rantings are in full bloom-courtesy of the ever accommodating media-I’m left with the nagging issue of whether he is or is not in the midst of a psychotic breakdown fueled by drug abuse.

I don’t know if he is abusing drugs, but I recognize his behavior. No, I’m not a psychiatrist or a drug abuse interventionist. I am a criminal defense attorney who, as a teenager, wasted my years abusing most drugs-from herbs to chemicals and shoot -dope-punctuated by stints in juvenile and adult “correctional” facilities.

As I struggled to free myself from the shackles of chemical dependency, eventually completing a prison sentence followed by a govenor’s pardon and law school, I remember three incidents that I cannot forget. The first occurred while in prison at St.Cloud Reformatory for Men in St.Cloud, Mn. A person I’ll call Lenny approached my cell one day.  I’d known Lenny on the streets and we’d gotten high a few times together.

I’d noticed in the joint that Lenny was starting to act bizarre so I avoided him. One day I could not. As he approached my cell,  he looked up and down the galley and then said, “Hey, you got any speed?” I told him I didn’t do drugs anymore. He then said, “You ain’t got to do any or have any. Jus’ lemme touch your hand. I can get high from that!”

I simply dismissed Lenny as crazy and let it go.  Until it happened again. This time it occurred while I was attending the University of Minnesota working on my B.A. in political science. I had come out of prison through a community-based therapy program to attend college. While there I ran into an old partner who I had run with in the streets and had been locked down with  in the joint. Larry was going to the U of M as well, but now when I saw him his personality had changed dramatically. It was a warm summer day and Larry stood off the sidewalk, on the grass. He was wearing a judo uniform and his hair and beard were flowing down his shoulders.

When he saw me looking at him,  he asked how I was doing. “Fine,” I replied. He then asked if I wanted some energy to help me study.  I said no, believing he was referring to dope. He wasn’t. Instead, when I rejected the offer, he stated that he wanted me to reach to the sky with him and we could absorb the sun’s energy together.

The last encounter occurred when I bumped  into an old friend.  Michael had moved out of state, but now he was back. When I saw him, and after superficial talk,  he said to me, “Barry, you ever feel like you’re standing over there when you’re really standing over here?” He then  accused me of standing on his feet.  I abruptly ended the conversation and left Michael standing by himself.

All three persons  shared two traits. They all had been long-term drug abusers.  And  they tenaciously clung to their Zone where they had developed and nutured their alter ego-the hip, slick-talking , easy-go-lucky player living on the edge, while their loved ones died a little each day as they watched  him/her descend  into chaos and personal torment.

Intervention may or may not work. Charlie Sheen needs to get out of this Zone to survive. Hopefully, someone other than the media can reach him and he can wake up from what appears to be a drug-induced state.

Until someone connects  with Charlie Sheen, all one can do is wish him and his family well.


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