An email to the Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb — prison overcrowding and the high recidivism rate

Introduction

The following is an email addressed to Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb of the Alabama Supreme Court. Elected in 2007, Cobb is the first woman to hold this office. She has a distinguished career, after serving almost thirty years on the bench, and is a recipient of numerous awards. Earlier this week, a story appeared in my newspaper, the Press-Register, regarding the Chief Justice’s plans to bring the state’s district attorneys, judges and corrections officers to the state’s capitol to discuss the issue of overcrowding and the high recidivism rate in Alabama’s state prisons. Also, on the agenda are prison tours in an effort to help prosecutors and judges get a better understanding of the dire conditions.

In a recent study, by the Pew Charitable Trust, Alabama ranked first in the nation in overcrowded prisons, but last in funding per inmate. Alabama prisons were found to be 195% of capacity followed by California at 185% and Massachusetts at 145%. Upon taking office, Cobb expressed a concern with this issue and the department of corrections increasing demand for tax dollars to run the system. I sent my email to the Chief Justice Cobb, on Friday.

Since my last commentary, “Foie gras – American style”, I have added professors from the top five U.S. business schools, as ranked by U.S. News and World Report (2009). Their list of top schools include Harvard, Stanford, Penn (Wharton), Northwestern (Kellogg) and MIT (Sloan), respectively. Last year, I wrote two essays on business matters that caught the attention of Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Warren, in the aftermath of the banking, financial and insurance crisis. As a result, I’ve become interested in exploring this subject further as it pertains to spirituality and capitalism. The recent stories from friends about their work conditions speak volumes about the breakdown of our society.

And finally, in February, I applied for a fellowship with the Open Society Institute and the Soros Foundations Network, based in New York. Billionaire George Soros, who established this foundation, is a currency speculator, stock investor, businessman, philanthropist and political activist. We will see.

Reference:

Wikipedia, Soros, George http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Soros

Enjoy!

Ted

March 12, 2010

Dear Chief Justice Cobb,

I am writing to you after reading a recent story, appearing in the Press-Register, on the issue of overcrowding at Alabama’s state prisons and your plans to bring the state’s district attorneys, judges and corrections officials to the capitol city for meetings and prison tours. The article also mentioned your concerns over the current recidivism rate, being in the thirty percentile, after three years. I was quite surprised to see such a low number based on what I have read on the national figures being at 67.5%, for that same time period. What do you suppose the figures are for Alabama in year 4 and 5?

One obvious group missing from your meeting are the inmates; their views are not being taken into consideration, at all. Wouldn’t you suspect that their interests have never been properly recognized when this society continues to see them as monsters – as evil and dangerous? Many of these same elected judges and prosecutors along with state politicians have exploited this issue for political gain with their promise to be “tough on crime”. That’s been a failed policy at the local, state and federal levels. Wouldn’t you agree?

With this longstanding attitude, how can the system (or society) ever seek to honestly and compassionately help the incarcerated prepare for life after jail and prison? That’s what you’re attempting to accomplish by reducing the recidivism rate, is it not? Not one of your participants, including those of the Christian faith, has it in their heart to truly understand the inmate’s dilemma when none of these officials have ever been arrested, booked and spent a single night, much less, months and years in jail or prison. No one! You may know all about the process of incarceration, but you lack the personal experience. That’s so crucial. It’s like getting an education in sex. You know something, but you lack the experience of having to put on a white or orange jumpsuit, being stripped of your wallet, car keys, cell phone and being hauled away to a room full of criminals or a cell. There’s a big difference between the two.

If the chronic problems of overcrowding and recidivism are what you’re trying to eliminate or greatly reduce then you’ve got to understand the root cause, which includes the state’s attitude and actions towards or against “these customers”, as well as, the offenders that repeatedly check in, check out and check back in, again. If a new outlook by the state leads to real help for inmates and a safer society, how interested would you be? I am offering to volunteer my time and energy on behalf of Alabama’s voiceless inmates. This sounds crazy until you know that rest of my story.

In April 2002, I had a nervous breakdown in the weeks leading up to and following my wedding. I was thirty-two, at the time, and was under a lot of stress due to a failing sales career caused by a learning disability and the pressures over my new obligations, as a husband, including dealing with my unhappy in-laws. Weeks after my honeymoon, I was hospitalized, at Mobile Infirmary, for four days and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I refused to accept the diagnosis and wouldn’t take the medication in the hospital or after being discharged. Over the next two or three months, I briefly saw my new psychiatrist before stopping altogether.

Within thirteen months of saying, “I do”, I was arrested, taken to jail and hospitalized, on two separate occasions. First incident happened on my first anniversary, in Apalachicola, Florida. On Friday, sensing trouble my wife backed out of our scheduled trip. I found a friend and we went without her. By Saturday morning, I was pretty manic with symptoms of pressurized speech and behaving out of character. Still in deep denial over my illness, I was not taking any medication, at time. As the day progressed, I continued to disintegrate mentally and by dusk I was out of it. In less than 24 hours into our trip, I had succeeded in making my friend pretty mad. The sheriff’s department received a call over my behavior on the streets. I was soon located and picked up, around ten o’clock.

I was arrested and taken to jail, but I was not processed. I wasn’t fingerprinted or photographed. Instead, I was driven around to the back of the facility where I was led into an observation unit and placed in a cell. Without meds, I slept for short durations before getting up and pacing the cell. At one point, a voice came over an intercom instructing me to lie down, which is an impossible task without any medication. I could see a team of three behind a glass partition across the corridor and I noticed that a camera was mounted inside the cell. Due to Florida’s Baker Act, I was evaluated, that night, before being transported the next morning to a psychiatric hospital, in Tallahassee, FL, for what turned out to be a weeklong stay.

Florida’s Baker Act is designed to protect the mentally ill when we get caught up in the legal system. The law requires the signature of two medical doctors for the temporary commitment of someone before a formal hearing is held. Alabama does not have any such law protecting those incapacitated due to an active mental illness when we get arrested. Instead, we are treated like the rest of the general population where we get processed and housed amongst the criminals. When you’re not some harden person jail is a scary place to find ones self. When you’re out of your mind and your senses are off you so vulnerable. Who can you trust – the corrections officers? No.

The second incident occurred only thirty days later (May 2003), in my hometown of Mobile. Following my arrest at home, I was “committed”, by my mother, in Mobile County Probate Court. I spent the night in Mobile County Metro Jail and I attended my commitment hearing the following afternoon. A brief hearing was held, testimony was presented and Judge Don Davis ruled in favor of the petitioner, my mother. I spent the next four weeks in a local psychiatric hospital waiting to be transferred to Searcy [state] Hospital, in Mount Vernon, AL.

Due to overcrowding issues at Searcy, my stay was cut short to only sixteen days instead of the original thirty days established by my treatment team when we met, for the first time, on day 14. That week, I was one of three patients selected to leave early, in order, to create some bed space. With the denial finally broken and now complying with doctor’s orders, I went home to put my shattered life back together. I lost my job, reputation, friends stopped calling and the neighbors were scared of me. Completely at a loss in life, my career was soon coming to an end with a 9-month stint at my next and last employer. In the summer of 2005, I reluctantly returned to college at the University of South Alabama to attend graduate school for counseling. It had always been an interest of mine, due to my recovery from alcoholism (1989) and now mental illness. For many years, I had worked with other alcoholics including sitting on the board of directors of a local treatment center (1999-02). I thought I had something to offer the world.

In the fall of 2006, while starting my second year of school, my wife announced to me that she wanted out of our four-year marriage and nine-year relationship. She took to the road to visit her family, in North Carolina, while I took a road trip of my own. I had my first manic episode since my stay at Searcy. Over a thirty-day period, I went from having nice manic feelings to a great upward swing in mood, on little sleep, before suddenly crashing into full-blown psychosis and paranoia. After a thirty-eight hour trip across five states and back, I was finally arrested at the Mobile Regional Airport. Once again, I was transported to the Mobile County Metro Jail instead of a hospital for treatment.

After being processed, I arrived in the dayroom minutes before “lights out”. Very paranoid due to a lack of sleep for days I refused the invitation of a rather insistent, cellmate to join him in his small cell. This arrangement put too many bad ideas in my head. I needed another option. As the last of the inmates were making their way upstairs to their cells, I noticed two corrections officers entering the dayroom. I was comforted by their presence and thought I might get some help from them. However, within seconds of approaching me, I was assaulted by one of them.

I was hit in the face so hard that I was knocked unconscious only to wake up and find myself sitting upright on the metal slab, “the bed”, in “our” cell. My slender, black cellmate, in his fifties was standing, to my left, at the back of the cell as one of the COs was standing in the doorway. My once white t-shirt and boxer shorts were covered in blood. I don’t know if I even slept that night. The following morning two COs came and got me. I was placed in leg shackles, a first, and handcuffs. I was led through the jail passing some thirty inmates on the way to a parked sheriff’s van outside. I felt like I was parading through the jail in my bloody rags. I was loaded up and taken away, on what turned out to be, a ride to USA Medical Center.

Due to the assault, I refused to allow anyone at the emergency room to touch me, to treat me. From out of nowhere, I invoked my rights as my own doctor and lawyer. With that declaration and to my surprise, we all loaded up in the van and returned to Metro. That afternoon my mother’s attorney, who was also my next-door neighbor, came to the jail to claim me. Completely exhausted, I don’t have any memory of his visit. Three months later, while standing in my front yard, he recounted his trip to jail that afternoon as I was being transported, once more, to the local psychiatric hospital across town. At first glance, he thought that I must have had barbeque for lunch before realizing my face wasn’t covered in red sauce.

I wouldn’t learn until day four in the hospital what happened to me as I began to stabilize. Apparently, the CO was wearing, either, a wedding band or some other type of ring when he struck me. Standing in front of a full-length mirror I could now see that my two front teeth were damaged and my chin was cut. Mobile County violated my rights while I was in their custody. Violence begets violence, you know. Violating another person’s integrity and dignity is criminal, be it at the hands of a murder or a corrections officer employed with the county or state.

There’s no difference, in fact, its worse if jails and prisons are actual breeding grounds for producing more violent people and not less. There’s no public oversight, the conditions are dangerous and the food is god-awful. Inmate on inmate violence and COs on inmate violence are only adding fuel to an already hot fire. Many of these convicts are going to someday walk and walk across town and through nice quite neighborhoods, like yours. Their suppressed anger and hurt, while imprisoned for years, will resurface someday, either, at home or on the streets. Either way, it’s coming out with force, in some form against society. Current legislative and judicial policies have created this crisis. If these policies were working, wouldn’t you have empty jails and prisons across the state and not overcrowded ones? The existing policies are corrupt and are failing the residents of Alabama. Your problems are big. You need a new and different mindset, not a D.A.’s, not a judge’s and not a politician’s.

The absence of personal freedom, truth and happiness produces the insanity at, both, the personal and social levels; these characteristics are the root cause of crime, the state’s high recidivism rate and the overflowing prison population. Address, both, individual and institutional integrity, dignity and sanity and the positive changes that you’re seeking will manifest. The historic design and operation of the facilities is a crime, in itself, against humanity. It destroys human life including that of the entire jail and prison staff. What kind of a person volunteers to work everyday at a jail or prison – someone who’s equally trouble? There’s also the business of jail profiteering where counties, or sheriffs, get paid to warehouse inmates on behalf of the state or the federal government. That’s completely immoral and destructive, as well.

In my case, I didn’t lash out at society for what happened to me in jail, on that September night, even though I was very upset over the unnecessary harm done to my once perfect teeth. My dentist encouraged me to get crowns put on my teeth, but this option seemed completely unacceptable. I chose instead to have them bonded.

In April 2007, I summoned up the courage to confront Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran, about the assault, by calling his office. He didn’t take my call or return it. Instead, one of his wardens did. From the outset of our conversation, the warden implied that I came into their jail in that bloody state, but this wasn’t true. He expressed no interest in looking into this event. Rather he stuck to the script. I have seen and spoken to Sheriff Cochran, at public functions, on at least two occasions. However I have gotten, neither, an apology nor any restitution. That’s what a lack of institutional integrity, dignity and sanity looks like and that’s only one incident. I guess only the criminals are the bad guys, yet right!

Following my last manic episode, I was kicked out of school at USA due to my illness and personalities conflicts with the faculty. Two separate attempts to get a meeting with USA President Gordon Moulton went unanswered. For the record, the current tally is three nights in jail and over ten weeks at psychiatric hospitals. With mental illness, there’s no guarantee there won’t be more. With no laws protecting the mentally ill, in Alabama, that’s an unnerving thought. We don’t take seizure and stroke victims to jail nor should we treat the mentally ill like criminals. On the issues that you’re trying to address, I have more experience than you and all of your participants, combined. It’s unrivaled.

I know and understand, first hand, the violence in Alabama’s jails and prisons. And I have benefited personally from the affects of overcrowding in state hospitals. Y’all should be listening to me, if you’re looking for personal experience and insight. As it stands, you’re looking at this problem all wrong. What you’re labeling as criminal is really one big social problem. Everyone sitting in our jails and prisons have social problems. It’s hard to have compassion for criminals until you see them in a different light. If Alabama’s criminal justice and penal systems won’t change their attitudes towards these inmates nothing is going to change on the issues of record overcrowding and high recidivism rates in our state prisons. You’re simply wasting your time and energy on this project.

Out of my breakdown, came a breakthrough, I finally developed the capacity to think and to write. For more than thirty years, dyslexia made my life miserable as a student and then in the workforce. In the summer of 2002, I took an IQ test and scored a 142, a 40-point upswing. At the age of 38, I am a full-time essayist. I am actively pursuing a fellowship with the Open Society Institute and Soros Foundations Network, based out of New York and Budapest, Hungary. Currently, I am on disability and I have never been convicted of, either, a misdemeanor or a felony. My record is spotless. So, who’s going to represent the mutual interest of Alabama inmates’ and our society, at your forum?

Since February 2007, I have been living life as a philosopher and writer. Each month, I produce one to two commentaries on business, political, social and spiritual matters. My international audience has grown to over fifty-nine hundred contacts including attorneys, business executives, clergy, major foundations (Bill and Melinda Gates, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur and Charles and Helen Schwab), judges, state and federal lawmakers, media, American notables and Washington DC policy institutes of which fifty-seven hundred are PhDs teaching at more than sixty colleges and universities in ten countries – the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Included are eight nationally top-ranked university professors – Emory University’s Patrick N. Allitt, PhD (Berkeley), University of Toronto’s Kenneth R. Bartlett, PhD (Toronto), University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Bart D. Ehrman, PhD (Princeton), University of Oklahoma’s J. Rufus Fears, PhD (Harvard), University of Virginia’s Gary W. Gallagher, PhD (U. Texas @Austin), Emory’s Luke Timothy Johnson, PhD (Yale), UNC-Chapel Hill’s Lloyd Kramer, PhD (Cornell), University of Georgia’s Edward J. Larson, PhD (U. Wisconsin @Madison).

Among the schools are twenty-eight world-class universities and over four thousand professors from four different programs at Harvard College, Harvard Divinity School, Harvard Kennedy School (Government), Harvard Law School, Harvard Business School (over 750), Yale, Yale Law School, Stanford, Stanford Law School, Stanford Graduate School of Business, Berkeley, Princeton, Columbia, Columbia Law School, Chicago, Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, New York University School of Law, Duke, MIT Sloan School of Management, Oxford, Cambridge, London School of Economics, Trinity College Dublin, ENS-Paris, EHESS, Leiden Universitat, ETH Zurich, Freie Universität Berlin, Toronto, McGill, British Columbia, Australian National University, Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland. In this group are the top five U.S. law schools and business schools, ranked annually by U.S. News and World Report. As of 12/09, my retention rate among my four thousand professors exceeds 99%.

Since March 2007, I have produced over forty thought provoking essays on matters ranging from Alabama politics, gay rights, Middle East peace, freedom and slavery, our government’s treatment of our soldiers and veterans, Jesus’ hijacked message, global warming, abortion, capital punishment and the role of the U.S. Supreme Court, original sin, freedom, America’s lost virtues – truth and freedom, crime and society’s role, self-governing and democracy, the current U.S. economic crisis, taking risks, success, corporate consciousness, the genius of Forrest Gump, health care reform and my own spiritual journey for the past twenty years.

I have consistently received high marks for the quality of my writing, as well as, for the insightful content. Last August, my work was featured as the top story at on-line magazine www.ExecDigital.com. In 2009, three of my essays (“Business as Usual?”, “Corporate consciousness” and “An invitation to David M. Walker the President and CEO of The Peter G. Peterson Foundation”) were submitted to the Congressional Oversight Panel (COP) by its Chair, Harvard Law Professor, Elizabeth Warren, a member of this audience. Each time, I received notification from her congressional committee.

(In 2008, COP was established by Congress following the financial meltdown in the banking and financial industries to track the government’s TARP (Troubled Assets Relief Program) money.) In addition to writing about political and social matters, I have also shared with this group a couple of life-altering experiences that have shaped my outlook on our world while discovering a hidden talent to think and to write.

I have received accolades from the likes of business executives Joe Bullard, Congressman Jo Bonner (AL-R), Capitol Hill’s Roll Call newspaper, Jan Love, Dean and Professor at Emory University Candler School of Theology, in Atlanta, GA, Alabama state senator and Mobile, AL attorney Ben Brooks, Fairhope, AL attorney A.J. “Jay” Cooper and from many friends. In response to my essays, I routinely receive correspondence from U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (AL-R).

Other notables receiving my essays include the Retirement Systems of Alabama CEO Dr. David Bronner, cartoonist Scott Adams — the creator of “Dilbert”, Boston University’s Dr. Andrew Bacevich, economist and former Vice Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve Dr. Alan Blinder of Princeton University, legal investigator Erin Brockovich, Dr. Richard Brinker, Dean and Professor of SFWS (Forestry) at Auburn University, former two-time West Virginia Governor and College Board, President Gaston Caperton, Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and New America Foundation President Steve Coll, former three-time New York Governor Mario Cuomo, Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, former Mobile, AL Mayor Michael C. Dow, Harvard University President Drew G. Faust, National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) Executive Director Michael J. Fitzpatrick, Mobile Chamber President Win Hallett, international artist “Nall” Hollis, Harvard Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, economist Dr. Simon Johnson of MIT Sloan School of Management, Dr. Patty Kelly of George Washington University, American University’s Professor Peter Kuznick, University of Sydney’s (Australia) Dr. Jake Lynch, Yale University’s Dr. Dale Martin, Chair and Professor of Religious Studies, University of South Alabama President Gordon Moulton, syndicated columnist Deroy Murdock, Judge Edmond Naman, Clinton Administration Labor Secretary Robert Reich, Dr. Larry J. Sabato’s Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, Regions Bank Executive Vice President Bill Seifert, Yale School of Medicine’s Dr. Sally Shaywitz, investor Charles Schwab, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Cynthia Tucker, R.E. “Ted” Turner III, founder and former Chairman and CEO of Turner Broadcasting, philanthropist and Chairman of the Turner Foundation, David M. Walker former U.S. Inspector General of the General Accounting Office (GAO) and current President and CEO of The Peter G. Peterson Foundation, Harvard Law Professor and Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel (COP) Elizabeth Warren, and Ashoka President Diana Wells.

I continue to pursue a fellowship with a national foundation or policy institute while growing my audience with faculty from top universities around the world. Hopefully, this endeavor will lead to opportunities to some day lecture and vacation across North America, the U.K., Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

All of my essays can be read on my blog – www.toxicnation.blogspot.com and I can be contacted at – tebjr1@yahoo.com. If you would like to be a part of this audience, email me. You’re free to unsubscribe at any time.

Sincerely,
Ted Burnett

Copyright © 2010. All Rights Reserved. “Dear Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb” by Ted Burnett.

I am available for speaking, consulting and political advising. My other essays can be viewed at my blog – http://www.toxicnation.blogspot.com/. I can be contacted via email at – tebjr1@yahoo.com. My biography can be viewed at http://www.tedburnettresume.blogspot.com.

 Ted Burnett: I'm an American thought leader and pioneer on the subjects of human, organizational and societal development and health. I write about the role that integrity, dignity, sanity play, as well as, on the topics of spirituality, faith, freedom, happiness, problem solving and risk taking. I produce and deliver original, world-class commentaries on business, political, social and spiritual matters to a global audience of world leaders, chief executives and key decision makers, top faculty and notables in the fields of academia, banking, business, foundations, government (including heads of state, lawmakers and governors), healthcare, media, non-profits and policy institutes. Website: www.tedburnett.com