Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Is Justice Really Blind in America?

Justice is supposed to be blind.  Justice is supposed to be balanced.  Justice is supposed to be fair.  It is supposed to be.  Sometimes it isn’t.  While no one will argue that the rights of the victims should be unprotected, it is also important that justice be blind, balanced, and fair to the accused or convicted as well. 

The simple truth is that justice is harder to come by for those who don’t have money.  Wealthier people are better able to defend themselves when charged with a crime.  Having a good lawyer can make the difference between having a lengthy prison sentence or probation.  It sometimes can mean that the charges are dropped altogether.  Some people of means are even able to avoid arrest or prosecution in the first place.  The poor are at a substantial disadvantage when faced with a legal battle.  Too often, having a public defender means asking how long the prison sentence will be instead of asking will the defendant be found innocent.  When this happens, justice isn’t blind.  Only the wealthy are seen.  The poor are invisible.

Justice struggles to be balanced.  If you pay attention, you will hear case after case on the news of murderers receiving lighter sentences than robbers.  Sentences for the same crimes can vary from county to county.  It can depend on which judge hears the case.  It can depend on what neighborhood a crime takes place.  It can depend on how much publicity a case has gotten.  When a robber gets more prison time than a murderer, it makes you wonder if taking peoples’ money isn’t considered more serious than taking their life.  An assault can land someone more prison time than a murderer.  Hurting someone is terrible, but is it worse than killing someone?  Yet discrepancies in sentences happen regularly. 

Justice should be fair.  Given the fact that the poor are underrepresented legally, and given the fact that sentences can vary so widely, justice has a difficult time being fair in our current system.  What can be done about it?

One thing that can be done about it is to reform the Truth in Sentencing Law.  First time offenders for Class A felonies (which includes robbery and assault) currently must serve 85% of their sentences before being considered for parole.  Is it right for a first time offender, someone who has no prior history of criminal behavior, to be housed for decades with truly hardened criminals?  Prolonged exposure to the prison environment is not going to rehabilitate those first time offenders.  It is more likely to have the reverse effect on them. 

You have the ability to change things.  You can help justice be blind, balanced, and fair.  Contact the legislators who make the laws.  The courts can only carry out the laws legislators have created.  The power is in your hands to improve the current system we have.  You can support legislation that gives first time offenders the ability to earn release at 50% of their sentences through proof of good behavior.  Give first time offenders convicted of robbery and assault the ability to show that they can be productive citizens again. 

Giving first time offenders an incentive to be better people will pay off by encouraging true rehabilitation.  It will make prisons safer.  Inmates will have a reason to be good.  The vast majority of them will be released back onto our streets at some point anyway.  Why not give those most likely to reform that opportunity?



Sunday, July 26, 2015

More Words for the Weak

Much the same as what happens to the old, the young, and the weak, the mentally unstable and the handicapped are abused in the current system.  Some people may say that people in prison get what they deserve.  However, what benefit is there to have the predators in the system victimize someone simply because they are older, more frail, or ill?  Isn’t it actually some kind of reward to abusers who have been removed from society to allow them to continue to abuse once inside the prison?  What lesson does that teach?
It’s time we as a society take a look at the rampant victimization that happens inside our prison system.  The Prison Rape Elimination Act, a federal law that mandates protection within prisons from sexual assaults or harassment, gets a lot of talk inside the prison, but in reality not much is done to change what happens.  Young men are still bartered as commodities for sex.  Inside the prison, it’s common knowledge that there is a system of “daddies” (the owners of young men) and the “babies” (the young men who are used for sex).  Two-man cells are a main venue for exploitation.  Nothing is done within the department to eliminate the problem.  Trainings are given to employees, but nothing changes behaviors or the physical surroundings that are grossly evident. 

The old and the physically infirm are preyed upon.  The simple act of aging puts one in danger of being violated and victimized in a number of different ways.  The strong and the wicked prey upon the elderly and the weak in a never ending cycle of trauma.  Not much is done to safeguard the rights and humanity of those who fall into the prey category through illness or the simple forward movement of time.

The weak have no voice, and this was our chance to say something on their behalf.  No one said that prison had to be pleasant, but no one should be victimized because they are old, young, weak, ill, or handicapped.  Only with public awareness and outcry will change happen. The system has no incentive to change unless people complain.



Friday, July 24, 2015

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Facts

 Even President Bill Clinton, who began the use of the 85% mandatory minimums law in the early 1990s, now admits that this legislation is too great of a burden.  The financial cost is staggering, and the human toll is immense.  Here are some facts to help acquaint you with the issue Missourians are working to reform.

·          The “Truth in Sentencing Law” was enacted in 1994 after the Clinton Administration offered federal funding incentives to states to adopt the 85% mandatory minimum sentences for Class A felonies that the federal government uses. 

·         Prior to 1994, Class A felonies in Missouri had a 40% mandatory minimum.

·         The federal funding has gone away, and Missouri now pays for all of the additional years that must be served.

·         Prior to 1994, at 40% of a 20 year sentence, an inmate had to serve 8 years.  After 1994, at 85% the amount for the same crime soared to 17 years.

·         It costs approximately $21,000 a year to incarcerate one person.  That means Missouri taxpayers pay an additional $189,000 to incarcerate someone in the example above.

·         For every 1,000 inmates that this bill affects, the taxpayers will save a total of $189,000,000.

·         This bill will not reduce the sentences for those with murder, rape, or child molestation convictions.

·         This bill only applies to first time offenders.  Repeat offenders will not be covered by this reform.

·         First degree robbery ranks first as the most common conviction in the Missouri prison system with approximately 2,572 currently incarcerated.  Hundreds of others are incarcerated for first degree assault. 

·         By shortening time served for first time offenders who demonstrate good behavior while in prison, it will help alleviate the overcrowding in the Department of Corrections.

·         32,000 people are currently incarcerated in Missouri. 

·         11,000 others are convicted and sit in county jails awaiting bed space in prison at a cost of $40 per day that the state pays the counties.

·         Currently county jails are overcrowded due to the state prisoners being housed there, and the probation and parole system has difficulty sending parole violators back to prison due to overcrowding.

·         The average capacity of a maximum security prison in Missouri is 1,500-1,800. 

·         This legislation will alleviate the equivalent of one maximum security prison from our strained system over the course of the next five years.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

A Word for the Weak

People having fist fights in prison is not uncommon, and there are various reasons for fighting.  Less than a year after Keith’s arrival at SCCC, he witnessed the aftermath of a fight or, more specifically, a beating.  As he saw this, it sparked and affirmed his awareness to a prevalent problem within the system. 
This beating took place in one of the two meal halls.  A group of inmates, including Keith, were held up on the walk so guards could take the two inmates involved to the hole.  Keith noticed one of them was unscathed.  The next man was bleeding badly from the head area.  Something else was very wrong, though: he had an obvious mental handicap.  Another group of inmates started laughing and talking about someone “beating the shit out of the retard.”  The whole scene was sickening.

Sometimes it is not hard to tell when someone suffers from being slow or when someone has some type of mental illness.  The number of inmates suffering from mental illness or handicap is in the thousands in the Missouri prison system.  After witnessing this beating, Keith began to look at the issue a bit closer.  Later, Keith and I would talk about problems in the system multiple times.

Many people in the Missouri prison system are prescribed mind-altering medications.  These medications are given to them to either treat their mental illnesses or to sedate them so that they do not become dangerous to themselves or violent towards others.   The numbers are staggering. 

Regardless of what prompted the beating of that inmate, to see a mentally ill, handicapped, or somewhat defenseless person beaten is a huge problem.  Is the general prison population really where they belong?  Not only is their safety in jeopardy in a predator/prey situation in prison, but more than likely these inmates will be tossed right back out into the public with no real treatment for their problems.  Do you want to encounter them in the mall parking lot?  Not only are they unstable, but now they have been victimized in the prison system by beatings and sexual assaults.

It is hard to believe that any judge would sentence someone in that vulnerable condition to be placed in a general population prison. The Missouri Department of Corrections does not give many of these inmates the help and care that they need.  As a society, we need for them to have that help so that they can be more stable, not less stable, when they re-enter our communities.  Not only is help not given, but they are not separated from the rest of the prison population.  Mental illness, and the lack of effective response to it, creates a very dangerous situation for both inmates and employees in the prison system.  Prison is a violent and volatile environment.  When mental illness or mental handicap mixes with violence, it is an ugly scenario for everyone. 

As the system stands now, it is inhumane.  We just lock them up, drug them up, and forget about them.  As long as they are out of our hair, that will suffice.  But, the judges are not entirely to blame here.  What choice do judges have?  Since the people in charge of the ways and means in our state and country have all but completely stopped funding facilities designed for mental health issues, the courts don’t always have many options.  The courts cannot simply let these people run amuck and continue to hurt themselves or others.  Many have no family, or their families are unable to care for them.  Prison is the only place the government has at this point to get the violent mentally ill off of the streets. 

We often hear on the news of an act of violence being committed by a mentally ill person.  Many times, the families of the perpetrator will be interviewed, and they will tearfully say that they tried and tried to get help for their mentally disturbed loved one.  They are met with brick walls.  There is a shameful lack of services available in our communities to truly intervene when someone is heading toward a psychotic disaster.  In most instances, the erratic, dangerous behavior had gone on for weeks, months, or years, but the families were unable to find anywhere that could help them.  Nothing is done until the horrific event occurs, and by then it is too late.  The news is filled with concerns about public safety once a homicide or mass shooting has occurred.  Nothing ever really changes, though.  No substantive improvements ever seem to happen in the way our society deals with mental illness.  The government ended most of its funding for mental hospitals decades ago.  However, it is amazing, and quite baffling, what our elected officials do find worthy of spending your hard-earned tax dollars on. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Mention the word felon, and people immediately envision the most desperately evil person imaginable.  Having worked for two and a half years in a maximum security prison, I can tell you that those monsters are real. BUT, not everyone who commits a felony is one of those monsters.  Many who are imprisoned are regular middle class or working class people who made a mistake. Keith Giammanco is a kind, intelligent father of twin daughters who made mistakes.

Put Keith in a business suit, and you would confuse him with the stock trader that he is. He does not fit the stereotypical image of an inmate.  He made a few wrong turns after financial ruin in the stock crash in 2007-2008.  Before that, no one (including Keith) would have guessed Keith would become a notorious bank robber.

Who is Keith Giammanco?  He is the youngest of four children who grew up in a single parent, hardworking home in northern St. Louis County.  He is an avid hockey player, and he enjoys playing and watching sports.  Golf is one of his passions.  Keith enjoys informed political discussions, and he has traveled the world. Keith has an incredible memory and can recall details from scenes years past. He has a keen mind for the stock market and would fit in at any business meeting. Keith Giammanco is not the typical inmate.

Keith is a loving and devoted father to his twin daughters, Elise and Marissa, whom he tried to shield from the financial turmoil that struck their household. He was raising his daughters as a single father, and at the time felt alone and desperate when the world tumbled down around his ears.  He used his brilliant mind to find a solution. Unfortunately, that solution was to rob banks.  Keith is not a violent person, and he never used or threatened a weapon. In reality, he was more in danger of a security guard or off-duty officer shooting him during the robberies than anyone was in danger from Keith.  He used notes, not bullets, to take the money he needed to keep his family afloat.

Keith has maintained a strong and healthy relationship with his daughters.  Not everyone is as blessed to have children who stick by him.  Other family members have turned their backs on Keith, but we are both thankful for the warm relationship we have with Elise and Marissa.

Keith is a kind, creative, brilliant man with a caring soul.  He has a sincere dedication to God.  He isn't a prison convert.  Keith's belief in God has been a part of him his entire life.  For a short time he forgot to have faith, to trust, in God and that is where he began the dark path to prison. 

I am proud of who Keith is.  He has made mistakes, but he has always accepted responsibility for his actions.  He is much more than the sum total of those mistakes.  He is a remarkable man, and I hope when my book is published you will get to know him even better.  His crimes made national headlines, but he is a person who surpasses the infamy of his bank robberies.

I hope you enjoy finding out about Keith, his motivations, and his experiences in the legal and prison systems.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Double Jeopardy/Dual Sovereignty Doctrine Facts

Americans grow up learning as citizens we are protected from double prosecutions (or double jeopardy) for the same crimes.  It says so in our Constitution.  However, some states (like Missouri) skirt this prohibition by using the “Dual Sovereignty Doctrine” and proceed with second prosecutions.  Below are some information points about this practice.

*  The Dual Sovereignty Doctrine stems from a clause in the 10th Amendment which says states have the right to pass and enforce their own laws.  Abraham Lincoln, President at the time, boldly voiced his concern that states could use the Dual Sovereignty clause to harm citizen’s rights.

*  Half of all states do not use the Dual Sovereignty Doctrine or have laws actually forbidding its practice.

*  Most counties in Missouri do not use Dual Sovereignty to convict for a second time.

*  Dual Sovereignty is constitutionally uncomfortable.  Most people don’t know it is happening and don’t even think that it can.  Few will say this isn’t a violation of double jeopardy protections.

* Per the “Petite Policy” adopted by the United States Attorney General’s Office, the federal government itself does not use this practice after a state conviction of the same crime.  The federal system recognizes it is not Constitutionally sound.

* Across the country (and even in Missouri), many circuit court and higher judges do not agree with the use of Dual Sovereignty (see State of Missouri v. Roach, 2012).  Almost all defense attorneys disagree with its use as well as many prosecutors who refuse to use the doctrine to achieve a second conviction.

*  Some overzealous prosecutors use this practice to increase their conviction rates or to make a name for themselves.  This happens at the taxpayer’s expense (see State of Missouri v. Ivory, 1978; State of Missouri v. Giammanco, 2008; and State of Missouri v. Roach, 2012).

*  Double convictions put costly strains on the courts, jails, and prison system in Missouri.  The defendant has already been convicted and sentenced by the federal government.  Why fill up our court systems (and spend taxpayer money) for a second prosecution, trial, plea bargain, and prison sentence?

*  Missouri taxpayers are paying to house what should be federal prisoners, often times for decades.  In almost every Missouri case involving the use of Dual Sovereignty, Missouri is the arresting party and primary custodians.  Missourians pay the bill for both sentences.  The convicted never sees a federal prison.

*  The dissenting opinion written by the appellate judges in the State of Missouri v. Roach case concluded that the courts are bound by current law and that relief can only be found in the legislature.  The legislature makes the laws for the states, and legislative reform is the only way this unfair practice can be reversed.
Missouri State Capitol Building, Jefferson City.  In these halls, the laws affecting every Missourian are made.
Missouri State Capitol Building, Jefferson City. In these halls, the laws affecting every Missourian are made.
As citizens, we must take the steps to bring about sensible reform in our state and nation.  Change starts with you.
Published inPrison Issues and Reform

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Small Town Girl and Prison Relationships

Prison relationships have hit the headlines lately thanks to the escape of two inmates in New York. By now, most of us know an emotionally involved prison employee helped with the escape. Not all prison relationships should be viewed in the same light. While numerous scams are perpetrated, there are many devoted, loving couples who find themselves in this situation. Not everyone is manipulated. Not every relationship is about money or power. Sometimes two people fall in love in very unusual circumstances.  That’s what happened with Keith Giammanco and me.

I am college educated and a professional. I grew up in a military and law enforcement family in conservative southern Missouri. I am not a soft-on-crime, bleeding heart kind. Having a prison relationship was the last thing on my mind. I wouldn’t change where I am at, though. What Keith and I found is worth the daily struggles we go through.

I was teaching at a maximum security prison. Keith didn’t want to appear to be a creepy inmate whose interest was unwanted. I wasn’t emotionally in a place where I wanted a relationship with anyone. Anywhere. Still, we had never felt more comfortable around anyone else before. We were instantly a team. 

I know several other women who have prison relationships. Some are the stereotypical prison groupie.  They can be found on the prison support pages, and it doesn’t take long to figure out who is getting played and who is in it for the thrill of talking to a bad boy. Some, however, are in the relationship for keeps. Our loved ones made mistakes, but they are paying for those mistakes. We can love them for who they are beyond their failures. Isn’t that what we are supposed to do with everyone?  Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

I will blog about a wide variety of prison topics, including the struggles of having a relationship separated by prison walls.  Many people wonder what prison is like, and it is eye opening to know what the reality is. Thank you for joining me as I share my experience and my knowledge of the Missouri prison system.