March 6, 2012

My Brother’s in Prison.

My Brother’s in Trouble, & I Can’t do Much to Help.

My brother Dave is incarcerated.

Of the prison variety, in case there’s any other kind. I’ve written about him before.

He just spent two or more weeks in segregation from an alleged malfeasance. According to my harried sister-in-law, who talked to him on the phone, he was “forced to sign a confession. If he did not, he would spend 160 days in segregation” and be “shipped to Rush City (a maximum facility).” He could have kept refusing to sign and would eventually have a hearing. But Dave believed the hearing would have been unfair with nobody to represent him.

I don’t quite understand why he didn’t stand his ground. After two weeks in segregation, questioned while handcuffed to a table, I try to imagine what I would have done. It’s easy to stand my ground when my son wants to watch more TV, and I say no. Homework first! But in a prison? Probably not so easy.

So, he’s in detention for 30 days. Since he signed the confession, the incident won’t go on his record. That’s what they say.

Dave’s been in prison for six-and-a-half years, now.

A couple years ago, he was promoted to a job at the prison’s nursing home. There was more freedom there—even a room with a small window. The view may not have been spectacular, but it was better than no window. He was able to order real art supplies and create his amazing and sometimes disturbing artwork, which he sent home for his wife and son to post to Dave’s blog, which has since been taken down.

It’s hard to admit that being moved from one building to another within a prison can provide a ‘breath of fresh air.’ But it does if only for a brief moment. ~ Dave wrote, July 2010.

While life here in the Linden Unit is much better there is still no way around the daily reminders that this is still prison. ~ Dave wrote,  October 2010.

Now that he signed the confession, he will no longer be eligible to work at the nursing home.

Art above by Dave. A self-portrait of himself and his heart.

Overall, the situation has been most difficult for his son and wife, left alone in rural Wisconsin where my nephew (12 at the time my brother was whisked away) was in 4-H and marching band and school plays; and my sister-in-law has her own business that barely keeps them afloat. My nephew just started college in the fall (thanks to financial aid) and is doing amazingly well.

Both sides of the family shared the legal fees, with most of the burden slammed onto the parents. Both sets of parents are the furthest thing from wealthy. Even if you combined their net worth. Some extended family members and friends were generous and contributed. A hundred here, a thousand there. While they were able to cover the fees of the first, reasonably priced attorney (who needs a heavy-hitting high priced attorney on scale with OJ Simpson? Hell, it’s not like my brother killed anyone. He got in a scuffle over money owed to the victim who was, according to my brother, also a drug dealer. Everyone believed Dave would probably get charged with assault. Cut and dry.), it seems it will never be enough.

The first lawyer did a piss-poor job. Many mistakes were made. You get what you pay for, I guess. Dave was sentenced to 20 years for pre-meditated attempted murder.

Once my brother was in prison, another lawyer came out of the blue. He seemed promising: in prison himself at one point, Lawyer #2 (currently under investigation for professional misconduct) studied law while incarcerated and was able to get himself out of prison. He heard about Dave’s seemingly unjust sentence through another inmate and sought him out. He offered hope—even a smidgen of hope was enough for Dave to hire Lawyer #2 for the appeal. This, of course, required more money. People were already tapped. But many re-opened their wallets and hearts.

Before hiring any lawyer, Dave spoke with a public defender who would have cost nothing. But she recommended he hire a lawyer. Why? She was overloaded with cases and probably wouldn’t be able to give his case the amount of time it deserved. Hiring a lawyer can run in the tens of thousands. More if you want a really good one.

Brings to mind the new faucet we just had to purchase from Home Depot. The cheap one came with loads of bad customer reviews like, “It leaked after one day.” and “The stainless steel finish cracked off and now we’re left with plastic!” So we chose the one that cost around two hundred bucks with zero bad reviews. My husband can try to install it—he is not handy and doesn’t have much time, so if he starts it, we run the risk of having absolutely no kitchen faucet to use for an unknown amount of time–or I can pay the $149 for Home Depot to install it. More out of pocket, but our kitchen will be back in working order lickety-split with less chance of unexpected geyser activity. And if something does go wrong, they’ll come back and make things right. Spending more money can equal less stress.

Getting someone out of prison is apparently tougher than keeping a person out in the first place. (i.e., would Home Depot still charge $149 if my husband installed the faucet himself but mistakenly connected the toaster to the hose? Okay, enough with the faucet analogies). Dave’s appeal was denied. The money lost forever. Hopes dashed. He’s in there behind bars and he’s in there good. As I understand it, there are no more chances for appeal unless new evidence presents itself.

I’m just running out of things to say —if five years of thought encapsulated and illustrated on my blog has such little impact on people, including my extended family, I give up. It is truly a blind, deaf and dumb society more interested in entertainment than reality. ~Dave wrote to me 5 years later, October 2010.

So why is my brother in trouble now, you may ask.

He was accused of being on a computer. What? Why, in prison, would a prisoner have access to a computer?

Here’s what happened, according to my brother’s letter dated February 22, 2012 (written before I heard from my sister-in-law that he signed the confession):

Here’s another fine mess that my friendly nature has gotten me into. I guess I’ll start with some details, unsure of how G described the situation to you. Let’s see, was talking to Dr. P [the dentist] about the Shinders Bookstore that used to be on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis and the neon sign that hung in the window for years, designed by a college professor from MCAD, Frank Gaard. Both Sue and I have known him for years. We see the image on Google, comment on it. He gets up from his chair and I look at it for a few seconds, then follow him to leave the office. Suddenly an old ratbag officer who is usually too lazy and hungry to lift a finger walks in the back way and shouts, “Why were you on his computer?” —and here I sit.

So since then I’ve learned that on that Friday alone there were over a thousand searches done from his computer, including to some strip club site. And they tried accusing me! Or should I say they politely requested confession to the venal sin of operating a state computer. No way! But so far they have not come forth with any hard evidence to support their theories, you know, video of me in the office, at the terminal with corresponding key stroke data and matching time signatures. They just don’t want to spend the man hours to study 100,000 computer searches. So here I sit in administrative segregation which means that none of this time counts toward discipline… discipline for what? I don’t know yet. I haven’t touched a computer in six and half years.

But this folly has me otherwise worked up. If after all the good service I have provided for the D.O.C. … this is how I am to be treated?


I just spoke with G, not much new. She mentioned something about me writing a kite to our lawy library to get info on a public defender. I’ll try, but I may actually have to be charged with a crime. I don’t know.


Another day—no punishment. It turns out my room mate is on the other side of segregation and they’re holding him because he won’t rat on me, there is no tale to tell. “The rats are in the wheelhouse.”

Before my brother signed the confession, I called his caseworker and sent an email to the warden. Just to let them know there are people on the outside that care about my brother and know what’s going on. It was a lame but well-intentioned attempt to make them think twice about their actions. What if it made them treat him more harshly?

I couldn’t help but picture Dave in a small cell with a mattress on the floor, no supplies. Food and water. Was it shoved through a little slot? How great it was before, knowing he had that window. And the toilet wasn’t in his cell, but down the hall. Janitorial duties were far from glam, but pushing wheelchairs of the old inmates could, I imagined, provide him a new perspective on his life. The gig of gigs as far as prison goes.

Dave’s previous caseworker admitted to me a couple years ago that my brother keeps to himself, is quiet and stays out of trouble. But, as the current case-worker said, there are rules and not going on a computer is one of them. So break a rule—even without proof—and off to segregation you go. Could whistling a happy tune help?

Initially, I chose not to trouble my parents with this. I wanted to protect them from further hurt and frustration, the inevitable sleep loss. And that nagging hopelessness. I worry about them more than I worry about my brother. Of course I do. They’re my mom and dad and have always been there for me. But I had to finally break it to them, unable to keep it to myself. He is their son, after all. So they sent emails and made some calls. And lost some sleep.

There’s only so much you can do when your loved one is locked behind bars at the mercy of the imperfect prison system. Unless you have unlimited funds for a lawyer. Even then, if you’ve gone through the appeal process with zero appeals left, there’s not much a lawyer can do. (Although, I would think a lawyer could at least advise Dave about whether or not to sign a confession stating he did something he didn’t do). According to a few people well versed in the U.S. prison system, there are tens of thousands serving an unjust sentence. And the majority of the rest of the incarcerated just believe their sentence is unjust and/or that they don’t belong there at all.

My brother is virtually alone in there.

Unable to fight within the system. He broke a rule, in the prison’s eyes, and he must go through the process.

I stand on the side of justice and believe with all of my heart that my brother got a bad rap with his original sentencing of 20 years. And this recent trouble was just totally unnecessary, ridiculous and unfair. Unless, of course, they have undeniable proof that he actually hopped on a computer and looked up a strip club that he’d have to wait 7 years to visit.

But, apparently, there is no justice within the prison system. In most states, an inmate is not entitled to a public defender or a lawyer of any kind when dealing with disciplinary matters within prison. Prison staff act as prosecutor, judge, and jury.

I wish I was able to separate myself emotionally from the situation. Why can’t I just take in the information, do what I can do to help then carry on with my life as if all is well with the world? My mom said it’s because I’m human. I’m not a wreck, but I am emotionally drained from this recent distress within my family. When my brother is just serving his time and my sister-in-law isn’t sending frantic emails, I can distance myself and carry on.

I got crabby around my son (soon to be 11) after a recent phone call with my sister-in-law. I apologized then explained that it makes me sad and downright cranky to know that my brother’s in trouble. That I want to help, but don’t know how I can. I asked my son to please, oh please, follow every law so he can stay out of prison. Being in prison really really sucks, but it also hurts the people outside.

As much as this causes me stress and distracts me from the things I want to do with my life—what a great excuse to procrastinate!—I am not giving up entirely on my brother.

In one of my brother’s earlier letters to me from September, 2005, he wrote:

“G” (my sister-in-law) has been giving me glowing reports on how helpful you continue to be, through your support and financial advice. Thank you so, so much. Every day I marvel at the tremendous support from the whole family, my humility, my shame brings me to tears before God each and every night before I fall asleep. … G would be so frantic and sad if she didn’t have you all helping. I hope those in my family don’t tire of my letters, writing these helps the time pass.

I was never close to Dave. But I looked up to him from a very young age. Even now, I marvel at his ability to draw in such vivid detail. His art is what keeps him sane, I’m guessing. He’ll get his art supplies back at the end of the 30 day detention. After that, he’ll hopefully keep his nose to the old grindstone. And maybe one day they’ll offer yoga at his prison.

I wish I could do more to help him.

The moral of the story: Don’t go to prison, people. If you’re charged with something, however minor, be sure to hire a good lawyer no matter the  cost. Even if it means you’ll be paying it off for the rest of your life. Because life on the outside is so much easier. For everyone.

If you end up in prison, follow all the rules because you can get into even more trouble. That might be where the saying ‘double trouble’ came from.

According to the blog Prison Reform Movement, the United States is the world’s leader in incarceration with 2.4 million plus people currently in the nation’s prisons or jails — a 500% increase over the past thirty years. So be careful out there!

A final note: If you know a law school out there that would help as a class project or a lawyer out there willing to dig into this pro bono—please let me know.

To find out more about how Dave ended up in prison, visit his blog.

Prison bar art by vectorportal

** Originally published on my blog, Putting It Out There.

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