It’s his 450th birthday, and The Bard has never appealed to a wider or more diverse audience. American higher-ed English departments may be teaching him less than they used to, but the Internet and modern film and TV interpretations have helped democratize appreciation of his works around the world. That’s only fitting: In Shakespeare’s era, the royalty in attendance at his productions was joined by crowds of commoners called “groundlings” and “stinkards” who paid a penny to stand in the pit, sweltering in the heat, while even more milled about outside.
There’s one “commoner” population to whom Shakespeare can hold special significance: convicts. Recent decades have seen a proliferation of programs in prisons, jails, and juvenile detention centers meant to introduce the accused to works found in the Folios and Quartos. While arts outreach efforts in correctional environments are nothing new, any diehard Shakespearean might recognize how his works appeal uniquely to the criminally accused, one of society’s most marginalized populations.
Laura Bates, author of Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary With the Bard, described teaching the plays in a super-max facility housing the most violent criminals in the system in an interview last year with NPR. The book’s title comes from the words of one inmate, convicted of murder as a teenager and placed in solitary confinement for years.
“The day that I came knocking on his cell door,” Bates explained, “his life had been so desperate, so bleak for so many years that he was literally at the point of suicide. And so in that sense by Shakespeare coming along, presenting something positive in his life for maybe the first time, giving him a new direction, it did literally keep him from taking his own life.”
Read more. [Image: AP]
When Glenn Ford became a free man last month, his friends had the idea to build him an Amazon registry for all the things he needed. But after a lifetime behind bars, where do you begin?
Read more. [Image: Gary Clements]
Anywhere he wanted to go, the jubilant defense attorneys told a hungry Glenn Ford late Tuesday afternoon as they left the television cameras behind, piled into their car, and left the yawning grounds of Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison.
Ford was hungry, very hungry, because from the moment he had learned that he would be released from death row—after serving 30 years there for a murder he did not commit—he had decided that he would not eat another morsel of prison food.
On their way back to New Orleans, driving on State Highway 61, there was this one restaurant that Ford had wanted to try, but it had closed for the day. And then the relieved lawyers and dazed client passed a gas station that served Church’s fried chicken and Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
Doughnuts? Ford pondered the possibility until the car was about a mile further down the road. “Look, if you want doughnuts we’ll get you doughnuts,” even if they come from a gas station, attorney Gary Clements told his longtime client.
Anywhere he wanted to go, the jubilant defense attorneys told a hungry Glenn Ford late Tuesday afternoon as they left the television cameras behind, piled into their car, and left the yawning grounds of Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison. Ford was hungry, very hungry, because from the moment he had learned that he would be released from death row—after serving 30 years there for a murder he did not commit—he had decided that he would not eat another morsel of prison food.
On their way back to New Orleans, driving on State Highway 61, there was this one restaurant that Ford had wanted to try, but it had closed for the day. And then the relieved lawyers and dazed client passed a gas station that served Church’s fried chicken and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Doughnuts? Ford pondered the possibility until the car was about a mile further down the road. “Look, if you want doughnuts we’ll get you doughnuts,” even if they come from a gas station, attorney Gary Clements told his longtime client.
So they pulled a U-turn and arrived back at the gas station. The lawyers got out of the car and started to walk in. Ford stayed in the car. It did not immediately occur to him that he would have to open the door himself to get out. When you are on death row for 30 years, when every door in your life is opened and closed for you every day by guards, you forget that you have to reach out and grasp the handle to move from one place to another. “He was just sitting there and waiting for someone to come and tell him he could get out,” Clements told me.
Read more. [Image: Gary Clements]
They nearly beat the man to death.
In the Dodger Stadium parking lot, after a game against the San Francisco Giants, Marvin Norwood, 33, and Louie Sanchez, 31, knocked a man wearing a jersey of the opposing team to the ground. A witness heard his skull thud on the asphalt.
Bryan Stow lay on the ground helpless.
But his attackers kept up the assault. One repeatedly kicked the off-duty paramedic him in the head. He was lucky to survive. After arriving at the hospital, he was put into a medically induced coma. He’d stay in professional care facilities for two years. He could’ve stayed longer, but his insurance money ran out.
Now he lives at his parents’ house.
For the rest of his life, he will suffer brain damage and require caregivers. He was beaten so severely that, forever more, he’ll need to wear an adult diaper. “He has to be reminded why a plastic shunt juts from the base of his skull,” the Los Angeles Times reports. Yet the men who nearly beat him to death, when sentenced Thursday, got just four and eight years in prison. This despite the fact that both “had previous felony convictions, including one case each of domestic violence.”
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Kimberleigh Weiss-Lewit and eight other women made a makeshift circle in the middle of the cell.
“It’s just you, your baby, and your breath,” Kim said.
One woman got up and left for the yard. Two others drifted off soon after.
“Let’s try to connect and trust one another,” Kim said.
“You don’t trust anybody in here,” scoffed one of the remaining four mothers-to-be.
Weiss-Lewit says she has to remind herself, “My version of Rikers is not theirs.”
Entering any prison to help pregnant women prisoners relax always made her feel like she was walking on eggshells. A corrections officer stood at the door with a big smile and maintained it for most of the class, “Girl, you can do it!”
Read more. [Image: Susana Vera/Reuters]
An ex-con tries to bring mindfulness to a state penitentiary.
In two months, America will observe the 50th anniversary of one of its most dubious moments. On March 13, 1964, Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was brutally murdered in Queens, New York. What made her case infamous—legendary, even—was that nobody responded to her cries for help. “Please help me, please help me!” she cried, over and over, and at least 38 people in her neighborhood who heard those cries did nothing to help her. They did not call the police. They did not come to comfort her. They did not, they later said, want to get involved. “When good people do nothing” is a timeless moral question, indeed.
One could say the same thing about the citizens of the state of South Carolina, who stand condemned today by one of their own. On Wednesday, in one of the most wrenching opinions you will ever read, a state judge in Columbia ruled that South Carolina prison officials were culpable of pervasive, systemic, unremitting violations of the state’s constitution by abusing and neglecting mentally ill inmates. The judge, Michael Baxley, a decorated former legislator, called it the “most troubling” case he ever had seen and I cannot disagree. Read the ruling. It’s heartbreaking.
The evidence is now sadly familiar to anyone who follows these cases: South Carolina today mistreats these ill people without any evident traces of remorse. Even though there are few disputed material issues of law or fact in the case, even though the judge implored the state to take responsibility for its conduct, South Carolina declared before the sun had set Wednesday that it would appeal the ruling—and thus likely doom the inmates to years more abuse and neglect. That’s not just “deliberate indifference,” the applicable legal standard in these prison abuse cases. That is immoral.
Read more. [Image: SCDC/Trial Exhibit]
Colorado prison officials last week did a good thing—a very good thing. The Colorado Department of Corrections issued a memo to all state wardens telling them that inmates with “major mental illnesses” can no longer be sent to solitary confinement (what Colorado and other jurisdictions euphemistically call “administrative segregation”). Here is the link to the memo.
Read more. [Image: Rick Wilking/Reuters]
When the justices of the United States Supreme Court confer Friday morning to consider new cases they will have the opportunity to accept for review a dispute that tests not just the meaning of their own recent Sixth Amendment precedent but the viability of a major new policy initiative implemented this summer by the Justice Department to bring more fairness to federal sentencing while reducing the terrible costs of prison overcrowding.
In Gomez v. United States, a Massachusetts case, the justices have been asked to determine whether they meant what they wrote about juries and drug sentences in Alleyne v. United States, decided just this past June, and at the same time whether Attorney General Eric Holder meant what he said, in August, when he promised to curb the ways in which his federal prosecutors abuse “mandatory minimum” sentences in drug cases to obtain guilty pleas (or higher sentences).
The justices should accept this case for review. And the Court should affirm the just principle that a man cannot constitutionally be sentenced based upon charges that are not brought or upon facts a jury does not even hear. But even if the justices aren’t willing to muster up that level of indignation, they ought to at least take the opportunity to call out federal prosecutors for saying one thing in front of the microphones and another in court papers.
Read more. [Image: Stephen Lam/Reuters]