Justice

I went to prison at age 60. Here’s what I learned.

I was released from the Federal Correction Institution, Tallahassee one year ago. I was taken to the Greyhound bus station and given a ticket to head home to New York. For the first time in close to a year, I went unescorted to a store to buy a cup of coffee. I didn’t feel free. I felt anxious.

I am 64 years old and fearful I will end up in a shelter.

I have been in prison twice. The first time, I was 60 years old, and I was convicted on three felony counts of tax evasion and one count of mail fraud. I was released when my case was overturned as two of the tax charges were deemed legally insufficient based upon the evidence presented by the government. I then went to prison a second time at age 63 when one of the tax evasion charges was retried. Prior to both trials, I was offered plea bargains with no jail time, but I was innocent so I fought the charges.

Prior to my arrest, I worked for decades. I had a home, family, extended family, and friends. And while I was awaiting trial—a period that lasted 12 years—my father was my greatest supporter. He wanted me to be close to family so he offered me an apartment in New Jersey. He supported me financially by covering my health insurance, electric bills, phone, and car payments. But after I moved there, he passed away unexpectedly.

After my father died, I had my apartment but no money. I lost my attorney. I was hungry and would go to Sam’s Club to eat their samples for dinner. And, after I was convicted and went to prison, my apartment was rented out. I had lived there for more than ten years while I awaited trial following my arrest.

Incarceration

After I lost my first trial, I was sent to a federal prison camp that was difficult for an older person. The prison camp was divided into an upper compound, which contained the housing units, health center, library, chapel, and recreation buildings; and a lower compound, which consisted of the dining hall, laundry, education center, and commissary. The return trip from the lower compound to the housing unit was over a mile and up a steep hill. I had balance problems—on rainy or snowy days I walked slowly because I feared falling. I had to stop every ten feet or so to catch my breath. The weather—severe heat in the summer and arctic cold in the winter—the terrain, and the physically tough environment of the prison were hard for older women. The stress of surviving was added pressure.

The second time I lost at trial I was sent to a higher security prison in Florida. One Physician’s Assistant (PA) there was notorious for telling every woman he examined that aches and pains were due to fat. He told me the same thing he told the others, “You are fat. You need to walk on the track and drink water.” Once, one Latina woman went to him complaining of severe stomach pains. He gave her the fat speech and several weeks later she died when her gallbladder burst. When I heard this story, I wrote about it. I sent the story via email for a friend to post on my website. Correctional officers read our emails and when they saw an officer was mentioned, I was arrested, handcuffed, and taken to solitary—the Segregated Housing Unit (SHU). The officers told me I was being punished for writing about an officer.

I was held in solitary for seven weeks. Immediately I started suffering migraines, which were soon joined by vertigo and high blood pressure. I requested medical attention but was denied. The freezing temperatures added to my physical suffering; I asked for and did not receive an extra blanket.

I also repeatedly asked the prison staff to check my blood pressure—my family had a history of heart disease. Two weeks went by before they checked it. It was 200 over 100—stroke territory. I asked the PA, “Are you going to take me to the hospital to be checked?” No, he said, and I knew my life was in jeopardy. The migraines, vertigo and high blood pressure conditions are still a problem today, and I believe the stress—the physical and mental challenge of being in solitary—caused me permanent damage.

Finally, at an age when most of my friends were preparing for retirement, I was released from the higher-security prison as a homeless, financially broke, convicted, and aging woman. I had nothing to call my own and my legal bills had consumed a lifetime of savings. I was full of fear and anxiety. I came home an orphan with a living family.

Reentry

After I arrived back in New York, I had to report to a residential reentry center (RRC aka a halfway house). Under current law, RRC placements can last up to one year. However, I was permitted to stay only six weeks—a very short amount of time for reentry, especially given that I was 63, homeless, and penniless.

On top of that, this halfway house’s rules were borderline Kafkaesque. Phones were prohibited within the house. There was no Internet. Permission to leave the house was limited and often unattainable. If you managed to get permission to go somewhere that had a computer, you could apply for a job online. However, since there was no way for an employer to call you, the effort was futile. Even if you got an email response, you might not get permission to go to the job site for an interview.

Because I couldn’t demonstrate proof of employment on an application for housing or pass a background check, the only choice I had after the halfway house was a homeless shelter, aka the last place I wanted to live. And so, I arranged to join a three-quarter house, which are unlicensed facilities that rent shared rooms to people leaving mental hospitals, drug treatment programs, and prisons or jails. It’s a profitable business. This one was run by a purported feminist who claimed to care about the women she was housing.

It was a frightening sight. Eleven women were crowded into a few rooms. One working bathroom was available. I lived in a space half the size of my prison cell. My roommate and I could not stand in the room at the same time. One of us had to stay on the bed for the other to get her clothes.

I had nothing to call my own and my legal bills had consumed a lifetime of savings.

I worked a $9.00 an hour job at Old Navy for the Christmas season. Standing on my feet seven hours a day was painful, and I couldn’t straighten out my back and needed to sleep to endure the next full day of work. And, although I was assigned evening hours, the house curfew was at 11:00. Women who didn’t get home on time found their belongings in garbage bags on the street. The so-called-feminist found it easy to throw women out, and I had to call her when I arrived at the house from work each night to get back in after hours.

My struggles to obtain housing in New York City haven’t ended as I don’t have credit or a job. In one telling instance, I had three in-person interviews in one week with an agency whose work focused on the formerly incarcerated. Although I was hired, the job offer was retracted only two days later. I was—and I still am—stunned by the lack of interest in employing formerly incarcerated returning citizens.

In short, I’m writing this story because I believe in coming out as a convicted felon. I believe in disclosing my history to employers, friends, and practically everyone. And as there are as many as 100 million Americans with a criminal record, if everyone “came out as a criminal,” most people would know someone. We would see increased momentum for reform on jobs, housing, and criminal justice reform more broadly. And we could build an elder justice movement that works for alternatives to incarceration for the elderly; the release of incarcerated elders; and responsible reentry specifically focused on the needs of the elderly who are returning home.

But right now I have no job and no housing. I am 64 years old and fearful I will end up in a shelter. I have fought every day to jumpstart my life, but I feel I am losing the battle.

Editor’s Note: The Federal Bureau of Prisons did not respond to TalkPoverty’s request for comment at the time of publication.

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Safety Net

VIDEO: Citizens Tell Congress about Hunger in America

Following Bill O’Reilly’s ludicrous claim that child hunger is a “myth,” eight citizens—including a television executive—visited Congress to tell lawmakers about their experiences with nutrition assistance programs and explain that we must strengthen them to further protect the health and well-being of children and improve their long-term outcomes.

Three of these advocates share their stories here.

Whatever Bill O’Reilly thinks, child hunger is real and an issue Congress needs to tackle.

Posted by TalkPoverty.org on Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Editor’s note: Tell Congress to Protect and Strengthen Vital Nutrition Assistance Programs Now.

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Culture

I’m Homeless. I’m Sorry You Feel Helpless

You’re angry with me. I can see that. You see me sitting on the sidewalk counting change and looking up at the door to a McDonald’s. I’m dirty and I smell, and nothing about that is your fault.

You’re angry with me, I can tell. Not because I did anything wrong, but because of the way I make you feel. I make you feel helpless. You know that there is nothing that you can do to make me not homeless. I make you feel afraid that this might be you someday. I make you feel disgusted that anyone could live this way, and none of that is your fault.

You’re angry with me. I can tell. Not because of what I’m doing, but because of what I’m not doing. You’re angry that I’m not trying to change. You’re angry that I’m sleeping on the streets; that I spend all day begging for change and not trying to change. You’re angry with me because now I have somehow made this your problem.

You're angry with me, I can tell. Not because I did anything wrong, but because of the way I make you feel.

I’m sorry you see me sitting on the sidewalk counting change and looking up at the door to a McDonald’s. I’m sorry I’m dirty and I smell, and nothing about that is your fault. I’m sorry – not because I did anything wrong, but because of the way I make you feel. I’m sorry I make you feel helpless. I’m sorry that you know that there is nothing that you can do to make me not homeless. I’m sorry I make you feel afraid that this might be you someday. I’m sorry I make you feel disgusted that anyone could live this way, and none of that is your fault. I’m sorry that I’m sleeping on the streets, that I spend all day begging for change. I’m sorry that now I have somehow made this your problem.

I forgive you for being angry with me. Please forgive me for being homeless.

***

He’s not there again today. He has been there every day for years. You’re actually worried. Why? He is just a homeless guy. He’s not there again today. For months you passed him by without a thought. One day you figured, what the heck I’ll give him a buck. He smiles and says thank you and god bless you, and he means it. He’s not there again today.

You started carrying a couple of extra bucks just for him. A couple of times you even brought him coffee. Just a routine, barely a second thought. Doing something nice, giving back, helping out. He’s not there again today.

Do you ask around? Do you put up flyers? Do you call the hospitals or the police? Where did he go? Is he okay? He’s not there again today.

Does he know that you’re worried? Does he know that you care? Before he was gone you had no clue how much he meant to you. He’s no longer just some homeless guy. He’s not there again today.

You knew his face, his smile, his way. His dirty coat, old and frayed. You never even knew his name. Why is he not there? Why did he go away? All you know is, he’s not there again today…

***

We must stand together and speak as one. Let our message spread through the streets like a flood, so that every ear shall hear and every mouth shall speak: We will not be ignored any longer.

 

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Media and Politics

Tell CNN to #TalkPoverty During the Democratic Debate

This post continues our campaign at TalkPoverty.org to ask 2016 presidential candidates about how they would significantly reduce poverty and inequality in this country. 

CNN is hosting the first Democratic Presidential Primary Debate, happening at 9pm ET on Tuesday, October 13—and they’re accepting question suggestions via social media. Tell CNN to make poverty a priority during the debates by suggesting questions through their Facebook post:

We’re teaming up with Facebook for the Democratic debate and our very own Don Lemon wants to hear from you! Do you have…

Posted by CNN on Saturday, October 3, 2015

Here are some question ideas to get you started:

  • Millions of people struggle to balance work and caring for their families. What will you do to ensure that households aren’t forced to choose between their paycheck and family responsibilities?
  • Each year, investments like Social Security, nutrition, healthcare, housing, and tax credits lift millions of people out of poverty, and prevent millions of families from going deeper into poverty. However, conservatives in Congress continue to put these programs on the chopping block. What are your plans to protect and strengthen vital social insurance programs?
  • Since research shows that areas with higher union membership demonstrate more mobility for low-income children, what are your plans to increase workers’ ability to collectively bargain with their employers?
  • Income inequality is increasingly a problem in this country with productivity increasing, while wages are flat or falling. How do you plan to ensure that more Americans benefit from the recovery?
  • Families with young children are facing some of the deepest economic pressures just as their children reach a critical stage of development.  This economic stress can affect their life outcomes. What will you do to improve the economic security of families with young children?
  • The United States makes up 5 percent of the world’s population, but over 25 percent of the world’s prison population. What measures would you take to address mass incarceration in this country?

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Media and Politics

Bill O’Reilly Denied Child Hunger Exists. Here’s How Four Mothers Who Have Faced Hunger Responded.

Unsatisfied with the right-wing media’s usual poor-shaming, Bill O’Reilly has a new target: hungry kids. Although 15.3 million children live in households that struggle to put food on the table, Bill O’Reilly used a recent show to peddle his theory that child hunger is made up.

If you look at the studies of poverty, most poor people in this country have computers, have big screen TVs, have cars, have air conditioning. This myth that there are kids who don’t have anything to eat is a total lie. […] You are telling me that you believe in the United States of America, with all the entitlement programs and food stamps and everything else, there are urchins running around that don’t have any food because of the system?

As Bill O’Reilly apparently does not know a single family straining to make ends meet, we did his homework for him and asked four mothers who have experienced hunger to tell us what they think about his comments:

Bill O’Reilly said show me hunger and I say, “Here I am.” My children have lived through a lot of adverse situations; we have been homeless and have relied on shelters. Without food stamps, my children would starve. When is it okay for children to starve in this country? When is it okay to actively ignore starving children in your country? — Asia Thompson, Pennsylvania

He hasn’t experienced poverty but Bill O’Reilly should know that poverty can happen to anyone. When my twin sons were 9 months old, my husband lost his job and we had to go on WIC to feed our children. This program provided support and the food was one less thing we had to worry about. And as a Head Start teacher, I see firsthand how kids can’t focus in school because they’re so hungry. – Mary Janet Bryant, Kentucky

I used all of these programs for my children, and I am a success story like thousands of other parents. My oldest daughter is in her fourth year of college studying stem cell biology on her way to a PhD. I beg to differ with Bill O’Reilly’s opinion, as he doesn’t have firsthand experience with hunger and poverty. – Vivian Thorpe, California

I think it’s easy to miss the signs of child poverty and hunger in our society because people often look better than they feel. I was less hungry as a kid because my family benefited from WIC, SNAP, and school lunch. I also graduated from high school, college, and graduate school. I have worked hard for 25 years in the TV business and I am the social safety net for my family now. To my way of thinking, Bill O’Reilly is seeing the emperor in a fine new suit of gold-threaded clothes but that emperor is naked. – Sherry Brennan, California

O’Reilly is right about one thing. Without nutrition assistance, hunger would be a lot worse. In fact, 50 years ago, images of malnourished Americans with sunken eyes and bloated bellies helped spur the creation of programs that kept nearly 5 million people out of poverty last year.

But his comments represent an attempt to muddy the waters and reduce public support for action on child hunger. We can’t turn our backs on hungry kids. Instead, we need to protect existing nutrition programs that are threatened by cuts and double down on smart public policies that create jobs, boost wages, and increase access to nutrition assistance benefits for families struggling in today’s economy.

Only then will we actually end child hunger.

Editor’s Note: To hear more from families who have experienced hunger, check out our Community Voices: Why Nutrition Assistance Matters booklet.

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