Health and Wellness

Self-care: crucial for those with loved ones in prison

If you have never had a loved one in prison, it is almost impossible to imagine how, over time, the experience negatively affects physical and emotional health.

No matter their crime or the time, inmates are our children, spouses, or relatives. We know their personal histories, problems, and weaknesses. We acknowledge their wrongdoings (as well as any victims of their crimes).

We also know the complex factors and circumstances that can underlie criminal behaviors, including mental illness, substance or alcohol abuse, family disruption or dysfunction, and psychological or emotional issues.

Because society often deems inmates as irredeemable, we take on the roles of supporter and/or advocate.

Unfortunately, departments of corrections frequently transfer inmates to facilities miles away from their families and communities; hence, visits are less frequent and long-distance travel is more expensive and burdensome.

Both inmates and family members cope with the pain of separation and isolation .

Mostly, however, we struggle with competing emotions: guilt, sadness, anxiety, helplessness, even anger. They can cloud our judgement and squeeze the enjoyment out of our work lives, family lives, and personal lives.

One Mother’s Voice (podcast) offers these tips for self-care:

  1. Acknowledge and respect your emotions—sadness, fear, anger, or helplessness. These feelings are inevitable, however, do not let them dominate your life.
  2. Find a group—online or in your city that provides support or assistance to families of inmates.
  3. Do fun things without feeling guilty or regretting that your loved one cannot be with you.
  4. Spend only as much as you can afford on clothes or other items for an inmate. Don’t saddle yourself with debt OR regret that you can’t do as much as you’d like.
  5. Give up the notion that you can make incarceration easier for your loved one. Your job is to provide support and empathy.
  6. Share responsibility with others for visiting, sending packages, and accepting collect calls or buying private provider phone services.
  7. When you cannot visit, write as often as possible. Inmates who have regular contact with families, spouses, or friends are less likely to have problems with prison authorities or to suffer from depression or anger.
  8. Know the rules of a facility so you don’t waste money sending packages or other items that might be restricted. Visit your state’s department of corrections’ website to see what items are allowed.

Inmates depend on family members or spouses to keep them connected to the outside world and to relieve the monotony, boredom, and harshness of prison life.

On the other hand, it is easy to let worry or anxiety overtake our lives.

The remedy? Seek enjoyment in the small pleasures of life–a walk in the park, a relaxing bath or dinner with friends–to promote mental and physical well-being.


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Police Shootings

16 Dead: Who’s accountable?

The names of black men and boys killed during encounters with, or in the custody of, police–Earl Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and Tamir Rice–are permanently enshrined on tee-shirts, posters, and book covers, but seldom do we remember the names of officers responsible for their deaths.

What happens to these officers, I wondered, once the public outcry and media attention has died down?Do they return to their normal lives? Do their careers survive the glare of public scrutiny? Do they face legal consequences?

To answer these questions, I reviewed media accounts of 16 officer-involved deaths** of black men and boys (and one woman) during the period April 2014 to April 2015 to determine what consequences, if any, police officers faced.

The outcomes are as follows:

  • 37.5 percent (6) faced no charges
  • 25 percent (4) not indicted by a grand jury
  • 12.5 percent (2) are awaiting the outcome of a judicial review or an “ongoing investigation”
  • 18.75 percent (3) were convicted after a jury trial
  • 6.25 percent (1) were acquitted after a jury trial

The 16:

Dontre D. Hamilton, 31, (4/30/14, WI) Shot 14 times by Officer Christopher Mann after he found Hamilton, who had a history of mental illness, sleeping on a park bench and a scuffle ensued/ Result: No charges, but fired.

Eric Garner, 43 (7/14/14, NY) Died as result of chokehold by Officer Daniel Pantaleo while being arrested for selling loose cigarettes outside a Staten Island convenience store/ Result: an administrative judge recommended his dismissal; NYPD commissioner’s decision about his job is pending. Update: On of August 19, the NYPD Police Commissioner James O’Neill fired Officer Pantaleo.

John Crawford III, 22 (8/5/14, OH) Shot by Officer Sean Williams for holding a BB air rifle in a Walmart store while talking on his girlfriend on his cell phone; Crawford had not pointed the rifle at anyone/ Result: No charges

Ezell Ford, 25, (8/11/14, CA) Shot three times by Officers Sharlton Wamper and Antonio Villegas after “an investigative stop” at 8:20 PM/ Result: No charges

Dante Parker, 36 (8/12/14, CA) Died after being tased 27 times by Sheriff John McMahon and Deputy Sheriff Kristen Irwin who suspected him of breaking into a home; autopsy stated he died of acute PCP intoxication./Results: “Ongoing investigation”

Tanisha Anderson, 37 (11/13/14, OH) Family members say Officers Scott Aldridge and Bryan Myers slammed Anderson, who had mental illness, onto the pavement, left her on the ground in handcuffs for 21 minutes; she was taken to a medical center, and pronounced dead at 12:30 AM/Result: Cleared by grand jury; Aldridge suspended for 10 days without pay, and Myers received a written warning.

Akai Gurley, 28 (11/20/14, NY) Shot in NYC public housing stairwell by Officer Peter Liang who said his gun “just went off.”/Result: Found guilty of criminally negligent homicide; received 5 years probation; 800 hours of community service

Tamir Rice, 12 (11/24/14, OH) Shot by Officers Timothy Loehman and Frank Garmback, within seconds of their patrol car pulling up, for brandishing a toy gun in a park /Result: No charges

Rumain Brisbon, 34 (12/2/14, AZ) Shot in the back 3 times by Officer Mark Rine, who says he thought Brisbon reached for a weapon, that turned out to be a bottle of pills, when told to put his hands on his head/Result: No charges

Jerame Reid, 36 (12/30/14, NJ) Shot 8 times after a traffic stop by Officers Braheme Days and Roger Worley who say they feared he had a handgun/Result: Grand jury did not indict; both officers resigned.

Michael Brown, 18 (8/9/14, MO) Shot by Officer Darren Wilson, who said the teenager the teenager attacked him in his patrol car and tried to take his gun; Dorian Johnson, Brown’s friend counters the officers story, and says the officer reached out of the car and grabbed Brown by the neck and threatened him/Result: Grand jury did not indict; Wilson lives in seclusion Note:

Phillip White, 32 (3/31/15, NJ) Died in custody after a scuffle with Officers Louis Plantania and Richard Janasiak who punched White while a police dog bites down on his arm. 911 caller had said White was acting “strange.” Rushed to the hospital, White later died./Result: Grand did not indict

Tony Terrell Robinson, 19 (3/6/15, WI) Shot 6 times by Officer Matt Kenny when the officer responded to a 911 by Robinson’s friend who said the biracial teenager was behaving “erratically” in the home they shared./Result: No charges

Eric Harris, 43 (4/2/15, OK) Shot by Deputy Robert Bates during an undercover sting; Bates said he mistook his S&W .375 for his taser when he shot Harris, who had been subdued and lay face down on the ground./Result: Convicted of 2nd degree manslaughter; served 16 months of a 4-year sentence

Walter Scott, 50 (4/4/15, SC) Officer Michael Slager shot Scott, who was fleeing after a traffic stop for a broken taillight/Result: Convicted on federal charge of 2nd degree murder; sentenced to 20 years

According to a recent U.S. News article on police violence, “The issue of police-related fatalities overall is so acute…that such encounters (are) a “leading cause of death” among all young men ages 25 to 29…”

” Young men of color face an ‘exceptionally high risk of being killed by police,’ and that risk continues to be greater for black men as they age compared with whites…” according to researchers at Rutgers University, Washington University in St. Louis, and the University of Michigan who conducted the study.

The report validates the belief of African American families that encounters with police (or an armed citizen) can lead to the death of a son or daughter, parent or sibling, friend or relative.

Many of the 16 killed had histories of mental illness, criminal offenses, and/or substance use and lived in low-income neighborhoods. Most of police officers expressed the belief that these factors justified their reactions. On the other hand, community activists and family members say that these same factors call for less aggressive responses and more training for police officers to de-escalate situations when dealing with unarmed or mentally ill individuals.

When a police shooting occurs many complex factors are at play: officers’ fear and distrust of the communities they serve, community mistrust of police, pervasive stereotypes of black males, institutional racism, economic stagnation in low-income communities, and limited services for those with mental illness or substance abuse problems.

Until these issues are seriously addressed by local, state and federal governments, the list of black men, women, and boys killed by police will continue to grow.

**The16 cases reviewed are but a fraction of police shootings that have occurred across the nation through 2019, and they were randomly selected and organized by date of the event..

Criminal Justice

Providing services and goods for jails and prisons: a boon for private companies, not for inmates and their families

Nationally, there is increased interest in criminal justice reform, however, little has changed in families’ daily interactions with jails and prisons.

The emotional, financial, and psychological costs are high when someone you love is in custody of the criminal justice system.

Like thousands of other mothers of inmates, my niece, Ann Williams,* regularly sends her son, Derek,* money for food, personal items, and telephone access.

Her sole source of income: a monthly disability check for $1153.

Derek,* 24, is serving a maximum two-year sentence at High Desert State Prison (HDP) in Indian Springs, Nevada, yet Ann cannot have face-to-face contact with him.

It seems that her application for visitation triggered a review by the prison for any criminal history. 

After two months with no response to her application, Ann, 53, contacted prison officials who told her that she would be barred from visiting her son.

“They told me that I needed proof that charges (for an old felony case) had been dismissed. (She wonders why the county’s records did not include the disposition of her case.)

“I decided that I didn’t want to follow-up,” says Ann.

Hence, her only contact with Derek is via mail or telephone since HDP does not offer videoconferencing.

What HDP does offer are these services–telephone access, food packages, and money deposits–provided by the Keefe Group.

Keefe Group

According to its website,

Since 1975, Keefe has serviced the correctional market exclusively and pioneered the evolution of products, packaging and technology services to fit the needs of facilities nationwide.”

Ann relies on phone calls for sharing family happenings with Derek.

She uses prepaid Advance Connect, another Keefe affiliate, that allows deposits of up to a $50.00 for 15-minute calls. (She preferred a previous provider because the calls were 30 minutes, but her only option is Advance Connect.)

Depending on the prison facility, there is a one-time processing fee of up to $3.00 for online payments. (Payment through MoneyGram is $10.99 or Western Union, $11.95.)

Derek complaint is that oftentimes calls don’t go through, or he gets a busy signal even when his mother’s line is not in use.

Through Access Corrections, Ann deposits money for Derek’s commissary; for a recent $60.00 deposit, she paid a fee of $6.95.

 Ann once overpaid by $275.00 because she didn’t think that her first online attempt to deposit funds had gone through. Consequently, she re-submitted the money and found out that, in fact, her card was debited twice for a total of $550.

When Ann contacted Access Corrections, the company said that she could not get a refund. To do so, the account would to be deemed “fraudulent,” and her debit card blocked. She did not get an explanation for why she should be penalized for a simple error.

Access Secure, also a affiliate of Keefe, sells pre-packaged, processed foods (e.g. chips, candy, soda, canned meats, dried noodles, and cheese) high in sodium, calories, and saturated fat to a inmate population considered at risk for developing chronic diseases, including diabetes and hypertension.

As with other pre-packaged food plans, an inmate cannot specify food preferences, nor can his family send special or culturally-specific foods (for birthdays or holidays).

In “The Big Business of Prisoner Care Packages” written by Taylor Elizabet Eldridge for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit that publishes articles on criminal justice :

The privatization of services at correctional facilities generally leaves prisoners and families with fewer choices, forcing them to do business with certain vendors or do without,” says Wanda Bertram, for the Prison Policy Initiative, that advocate for incarcerated and their families and has conducted research on predatory practices in the jail and prison communication industry.”

In  May 2019, a Crime Report article, “How Private Prison Services Control a ‘Captive’ Market” reported on a new study published in Criminology and Public Policy by Alexes Harris, professor of sociology at the University of Washington and her team of researchers.

“As justice systems across the U.S. cope with strained budges, private companies have stepped in to offer services ranging from prisoner communications and banking to supervising probation, with the argument that they can serve the taxpayers money and do a more efficient job…

“(T)he monopoly power such firms have over a “captive market” of inmates and defendants who are required by authorities to use their services potentially adds ‘another layer of punishment’ to the poor people who make up the bulk of those involve in the U.S. justice system.'”

Ann and Derek Williams represent the face of this “captive” market.

*Their names have changed to protect their privacy.