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Indybay FeatureRelated Categories: California | Police State and Prisons
The harassment of prisoners who have served their time
After surviving an attack from a fellow prisoner which left him with a broken jaw and eye socket, and permanent stitches inside his mouth, and mistreatment by guards and prison authorities, a gay Latino prisoner is now routinely stopped, handcuffed, searched, interrogated: prison after prison
I am an activist. I work on issues of immigration, peace and social justice, Palestinian rights and prison reform, gentrification and displacement, among others, and have done so most of my life. I am one of the earliest participants in the monthly immigration vigils at the West County Detention Center, and someone who practices civil disobedience when necessary.
I am also a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Cuba and was one of many attorneys across the nation who defended Haitians arriving in our shores when the Tonton Macoutes as the paramilitary arm of the Duvalier dictatorships were torturing and murdering Haitians. I belong to a prisoner justice group called Human Rights Pen Pals and write to prisoners in solitary on a regular basis. As a former criminal and immigration attorney in New Jersey, I have seen both sides of our broken criminal and immigration system.
None of this prepared me for my youngest son's arrest on drug charges. After he plead guilty, there began a gruesome ordeal of abuse at several of her Imperial Majesty's state prisons. As a gay Latino, he was deliberately placed by prison authorities with homophobic gang members. Released on bail before his final plea, he was not given medication for more than a week, causing him to become suicidal. The medication included medication for HIV, which must be taken every day to maintain your status.
My son completed his period of incarceration and post-release conditions. Now he is again imprisoned in the sense that he is routinely stopped by police, handcuffed, tested for drugs. The latest incident happened a couple of days ago. I have a car I am trying to sell, a Nissan pickup, listed on Craig's list, but it was parked at a friend's because my street has parking issues. I picked up the key and we went to pick up the car, parked near my friend's brother. It was after midnight and there was a red Nissan pickup, but it was raining hard and I couldn't be sure that this was the right auto. When my son used the key and opened the door, turned the car on and drove away, I came home. About a half hour later he called me from Santa Rita Jail; there had been a gun in the car and they had arrested him. The officer who handled the arrest said they had found a gun "in plain sight" and that my son had failed a drug test. The next morning my red Nissan pickup was driven to my house with a duplicate key. My son called from prison angrily and said he had been given the wrong key. I explained to him that in fact, I was using the duplicate key with the second Nissan.
When I came home last night there was a red Nissan next to my red Nissan, in front of my house. My son was on my couch, in a very dark mood, having been bailed out by a friend (the bail company had refused to accept money from me unless I came up with a co-signer). He had driven the Nissan with the duplicate of the key I was using in the second Nissan. I now have both cars parked in front of my house, and both keys fit both cars. Should I sue Nissan? The gun which he explains was not "in plain view" has been appropriated by police, and he is due in Court on Monday. I will write to the owner of the Nissan in order to release the car to him, and I may sue Nissan.
But in the meantime, once again, for the umpteenth time in the last couple of weeks, my son has been continuously harassed, "detained" and drug-tested by various local police officers. He is a convicted felon, but he served his time, did service at the prison, and is ready for that rehabilitation that we talk about so much but don't perform in any way. How does a prisoner re-enter society when they are constantly punished by the very authorities that should protect them? The National Employment Law Project published a report in 2011 entitled 65 Million "Need not apply." In California we have a recidivism rate of 70% because most places won't hire a former convict. That lovely sentiment about having paid "your debt to society" is an empty one. It seems that you never pay your debt "to society." Never mind that many of our offenders have grown up in a society that preys on the poor, on the marginalized, on people of color and indigenous populations. And being a part of the LGBTQ community is not going to earn you any points in this "society." In Spanish, I could make a play on words: society is sociedad, but we could also call it the "suciedad," or dirt.
Clearly, the presumption of innocence until proven guilty is a figment of our imagination. In our system, one is guilty until proven innocent. The rash of people killed in jail, abused in jail or in prison, tells a different story. If one is Latino and gay, the chances of abuse increase geometrically.
I teach Know Your Rights Workshops for free whenever I have the opportunity. I talk about imperial abuses and was ordained a priest in April of this year with the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests. I shelter the homeless, speak out for the voiceless. Who will raise their voices to help those who have completed their prison sentences, and are seeking to reintegrate themselves?
As for me, I have to make arrangements to return the second Nissan to its rightful owner and to explain to him that his gun has been taken. I have sent him a letter and will follow it up with a certified letter tomorrow. Should I sue Nissan? Should we sue the many police departments who hassle and harass former offenders?