Monday, March 2, 2015

Our Young Gay Prisoners

Statistically, it’s not a problem that I probably need to think about, since do they go after white guys in their fifties who are still clinging somehow to the middle class? Of course not, which is why I’m worrying about Montalvo, a 22-year old self-proclaimed nigger, who developed, while in a profoundly chemical state, a mystic attraction to a blue macaw. The attraction grew and grew until it took flight—no, not the macaw’s flight, but human flight, with the police in hot pursuit of a purloined parrot.

The whole thing was stupid. Yes, Montalvo was stoned; yes, Montalvo had walked off with the bird; yes, he had even taken selfies with the bird, thus providing nice evidence for the entire world to see that he was utterly and jubilantly guilty. So what would a sensible judge have done?

I don’t know, and it may not be the point, because we went wackoo back there in the 80’s and set up mandatory sentencing, which seemed like a good idea at the time. So that meant that Montalvo was not a stupid, stoned 20-year old kid but an adult felon, since the value of blue macaws is over 500$ or 1000$ or whatever it was. Which meant that we all sat around in the café, one day last year, scratching our heads about the monetary value of a used macaw. Presumably, the bird was not in the springtime of its life—so that was one strike against it. Still, it was a working bird—as anybody could see from the constant and blinding flashes produced for the pleasure of grinning tourists, since who could resist being photographed with five parrots / macaws resting on your shoulders and head? And each flash was twenty dollars, and that all added up.

So Montalvo was—in the eyes of the criminal justice system—a felon: What to do with him? The answer was to convict him, put him on probation, and make him go to a drug rehabilitation program.

Was it the right thing? Does Montalvo need a drub rehabilitation program? From my point of view, the drugs aren’t the problem—the problem is that we have a stupid kid with too much time on his hands and too ready access to a drug that has been manipulated to twice its natural potency. So what would I do with Montalvo? Send him up to the mountains and make him pick coffee for a couple of years, or have him repair all the basket ball courts that are in ruinous condition, or clean up the schools, which are rat infested. In short, put him to work, tire him out, and get some use out of him.

Well, I thought of Montalvo because of T. J. Parsell, a gay ex-con who got raped in the first 24 hours of being in a men’s prison. And how old was Parsell? Seventeen, and the crime for which he was convicted was of holding up a photo mat with a toy gun. A toy guy, you ask? Can anyone take this seriously?

Well, the cashier did, and so in the eyes of the law a toy gun is just the same as a real gun. Oh, and if the cashier had been eighty and had keeled over in a heart attack, Parsell would have been charged with murder.

Well it worked out well for Parsell, at least to the extent that he graduated from high school, went to the university, and wrote a book—Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man’s Prison, which I’m now reading, and for which Parsell started a Kickstarter project in 2010, in order to turn the book into film.

The book is compulsive reading, and only the Bolshoi Ballet transmission of Swan Lake, yesterday, stopped me from reading it in one sitting.

Consider that last sentence, and consider the experience that separated me from Parsell, since he grew up white and blue-eyed in the Michigan four years after I grew up white and blue-eyed in Wisconsin. But he grew up in a family marked by alcoholism, divorce, abandonment, and incarceration. My world? Well, ever seen Leave It to Beaver?      

And so it was Beaver’s world yesterday, since the audience in the theater was elderly, white, cultured / upper class. All the things, in short, that Montalvo isn’t when he landed in jail for a week after being separated and adjudicated from the parrot, or that Parsell wasn’t when the toy gun was taken from him, and the state of Michigan decided it needed to correct him for two and a half years.

Going to the Bolshoi Ballet confers no protection against incarceration: Growing up, however, in an environment where people might know about the ballet and go to the ballet does, however. And gay people are—hold tightly to your seats here—not unknown among ballet audiences. So what has the gay community been worrying itself with for the last five or six years? Oh, and shouldn’t being gay confer some protection against incarceration? If—according to stereotype—we are the intellectual, artistic, introverted type, well, why would any gay kid land in jail?

Answer to the questions: The gay community has been focusing on marriage equality, which I support. But it’s feeling more and more to me that this is almost a classist issue, and especially when I read that…well, here’s Wikipedia on the “LGBT_People_in_Prison

According to some studies, LGBT youth are particularly at risk for arrest and detention.[34] Jody Marksamer, Shannan Wilber, and Katayoon Majd, writing on behalf of the Equity Project, a collaboration between Legal Services for Children, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the National Juvenile Defender Center, say that LGBT youth are overrepresented in the populations of youth who are at risk of arrest and of those who are confined in juvenile justice facilities in the United States.[34]

A brief by the Center for American Progress found that each year approximately 300,000 gay, trans, and gender nonconforming youth are arrested or detained each year, 60% of whom are Black or Hispanic. These queer youth make up 13-15 percent of the juvenile incarceration system, compared to their overall population of 5-7 percent. Similar to how transgender adults are often placed into solitary confinement, allegedly for their own protection, these youth are “protected” in the same way. Often, however, it is because they are seen as sexual predators rather than potential victims. To add insult to injury, courts also commonly assign queer youth to sex offender treatment programs even when convicted of a non-sexual crime.

In short, we lock up twice as many gay kids as you would expect from their prevalence in the total population. But is that really any surprise? We know, for example, that there are a lot of gay kids on the streets, and where does that lead? To drug use, prostitution, and crime.

And what happens when we lock these kids up—especially these 17 to 20-year-old who weigh 150 or 160 pounds, and who are coming up against guys with 100 pounds more muscle? Guys who know the system, know how to play it, and know how to manipulate and conquer? The wonder is that Parsell lasted 24 hours….

And Montalvo? Well, I asked, and however much the prison scene might have changed since the passing of the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, it didn’t transfer to La Regional two years ago, on that day when Montalvo go sent there. Two things happened—catcalls and obscene suggestions / propositions, and the immediate question: What gang was he in? So he chose the most common gang, and was promptly initiated into it by having the shit beaten out of him, as well as being marked.

Part of the obscenity of this system—for me—is the sheer waste of it all. The prisons have been privatized, many of them, and a lot of money is flowing from the public sector to the “private”—quotes because presumably a lot of that money flows back in the form of bribes or “legal” campaign contributions to the politicians who awarded the contracts in the first place. But does society get anything from having prisons? A university adds value to society, but what good does it do us to lock up people?

Even worse, we are locking up people whose lives we have wasted in one way or another: Through poor education, broken families, draconian drug laws, and persistent and ruinous social stigmatization. And the final waste?

It costs, I recently learned, almost $40,000 a year to lock up a prisoner in the state of Wisconsin. Undergraduate tuition and fees are $10,410 at the University of Wisconsin, which means that we could give every inmate a college education for what it costs to incarcerate them.

Of course, the university comes a little too late. For a look at what might be truly effective, check out the video on the Harmony Project below….