This week’s window box lives on Latimer Street, not far from my office. I picked this box, not because of it’s composition – it’s lovely, but pretty standard.
I picked it because it has attitude – a definite Philadelphia attitude. This box says, “you give me garbage, I’ll give you petunias. You want to write on that wall over there, fine – I’ll answer with pansies.”
It says “I don’t care that I live in an alleyway, a back alley for that matter, full of dumpsters, garbage, graffiti. I don’t care what goes on on the street below, what business is conducted. I don’t care about the dim parking garage, or the after hours club across the street, that brings out seedy characters as the sun begins to rise. Whatever . . . this is the perfect place for a window box.”
And, in that small space, maybe 20 feet above the ground, when you look up, there is a moment of beauty.
And, I was thinking about this box as I finished reading Piper Kerman’s prison memoir, Orange is the New Black, My Year in A Women’s Prison.
When I first started at the public defender’s office fourteen years ago, I used to meet my ride to the prison in this back alley, at the parking garage on Latimer. Back then, there wasn’t a women’s prison – the women’s prison and the men’s maximum security facility shared the same building. So, there weren’t a lot of resources for the women – no official visiting area, no place to really meet with clients. So we met with them in the “law library,” which contained law books circa 1972, several children’s books, and a few bodice rippers. If we couldn’t meet with them in the library, then it was either in the laundry room, or perhaps a social worker’s office, if someone happened to call out sick. Man did I hate going to the laundry room – the laundry room was fairly close to the kitchen, and the two smells together were more than overwhelming. And, it’s there that we interviewed women about their cases, inside the prison, where they lived, worked, and waited.
But, that was then, and now, the women are housed at Riverside Correctional Facility for Women. I don’t have to go to the laundry room, or the social workers office, or the makeshift law library – there’s now an official visiting area one steel door beyond receiving. I’ve never seen the inside inside of RCF – and I think that’s what drew me to Ms. Kerman’s book – because while you’re sitting in that official visiting area, waiting for your client to emerge from inside the heart of the prison, you can’t help but wonder – could I make it? Could I do the time? Whenever I convey an offer to my client, there usually comes a time when they ask me, what would you do, would you take it? And my answer generally is, it’s your case, you have to do the time. I can’t do the time for my clients, I have no idea what it means to walk in their shoes, so when I read Ms. Kerman’s husband’s columns in the New York Times about visiting her in prison, I thought, eh, I’ll read her book – then I’ll know.
But, really – you don’t. Ms. Kerman, throughout the book, is constantly reminding you she’s not walking in “their’ shoes – because she doesn’t really belong there – her crime is sooooo old, and she went to Smith, and she has a good family, and she has a wonderful fiancée, and she has a website and she reads real books, not cheap novels. And to walk in “their” shoes – meaning real criminals, not her, you have to walk in those shoes out of the prison, and she was always cognizant of the fact that she was going to walk back into her privileged life, change out of her prison slippers and into Coach boots and be on her way. So, while she rails against mandatory sentences and inflexible sentencing guidelines (all of which I am in complete agreement with her), the truth is, her case is almost an argument for mandatory sentences and sentencing guidelines (and guidelines, in the federal system, is a misnomer – they are mandatory as well) – because if there weren’t guidelines, she would have gotten probation, whereas someone who committed the same crime but not coming from a similar privileged background would go to jail.
And, I guess she feels better about that by rationalizing – it’s because I have a high powered attorney. But, it’s not – it’s who you are that gets you your sentence, not who your attorney is. Our federal public defender’s office (we’re technically all part of the same Defender Association, and have the same board, but our federal office pretty much functions independently as part of the federal system) has some of the finest attorneys in the country, and they are recognized as such – this is their life’s work. And, they don’t do it because they can’t find other jobs, or they went to inferior law schools, they do it for the same reason I do my job – because it’s who we are and what we do. So, I’m not sure why it was necessary for her to single out the public defender’s phone in the law library as an example of poor representation. But, whatever, that’s just my personal beef.
So, while prison for her did seem on one hand to be a book waiting to happen, an experiment, it did suck, she did do her time, and the book was interesting from that perspective – one woman’s journey through prison. We know what it would be like to walk in Ms. Kerman’s shoes through prison, but I’m not sure what it would mean to walk in Natalie’s shoes, or Pop’s shoes, or Mrs. Jones’ shoes, or any of the other inmates she introduces us to throughout the book. And, what Ms. Kerman advocates -a restorative system of justice (i.e., probation) – requires rehabilitation, not retribution – which is what she experienced. Well, that’s all well and good, I’m with her there too, but for rehabilitation to begin, and for probation to work and be appropriate, rehabilitation begins with recognition, and Ms. Kerman never quite gets why she’s there. Her crime was a whim, a need for excitement, kind of just fun – which to me, makes her criminal involvement so much worse than other women who find themselves in simply untenable situations, that because of their backgrounds, commit similar crimes out of need – whether it be need for money, drugs, or just survival. Indeed, when writing about her crime on her website, she says, “When Piper was a young pup she was involved with some unsavory characters, and traveled in some unusual circles – put this circa 1993, post-Smith College. There were unpleasant drug-related things happe
ning, often in exotic locales. She broke ties with those folks, and made her way to SF, where she became the nice blonde lady you know.” She says that she refers to herself in the third person just for the hell of it, but really, the reason is deeper – she never fully comes to grips with the fact while she may have plead guilty to money laundering, she really was a drug dealer, on the money end, albeit, but a drug dealer all the same.
There comes a time during every sentence, where I think every judge looks at a defendant and thinks – is this guy sorry he did it, or sorry he got caught. I think she would like to be sorry she did it — she certainly was sorry she put her family, fiancee and friends through the fallout of her criminal escapades, but if you take away the guidelines, the mandatories, I’m not so sure a prison sentence wasn’t the appropriate one in the end anyway – restoration requires reciprocity – the defendant does something, the community gets something. And the only thing Ms. Piper can offer society is a heartfelt apology – sincere remorse. And if you can’t do that – then do your time. Which is what she did, and in the end, it doesn’t seem all that unfair in the scope of things.
Once, at RCF, I was waiting for a client, and suddenly, the room was full of women — Amish women — and children – toddlers, babies, school age youngsters – they were there as part of a program that was trying to promote the bond between children and their incarcerated mothers. Seeing these Amish women, surrounded by children, reuniting them with their mothers in this setting was more than surreal, — it was truly a moment of humanity.
And, that is what’s lovely about Ms. Kerman’s book – she’s observant, and there are many moments of humanity in these pages, and to humanize the prison experience is a thing of grace.
And that’s why, when I finished her book, I thought of the Week 3 box. The moments she describes – whether it’s a birthday party featuring cheesecake baked in a microwave from scavengered ingredients, or her proud, soon to be released, older bunkie getting her GED — are really moving.
Moving in the same way that this flower box, that lives in an alley, among dumpsters and graffiti moves me.