Thursday, December 17, 2020

The Fight To Achieve While In Prison: How The System Blocks Achievement by Ruth Utnage

I am working on publishing an academic paper while I'm in prison and the journals editors have no concept of the challenges I face to meet their standards. Basic tools like a word editor are not available, I have to edit via email and a family member. Tracking the papers changes involves me hand typing two copies of the same paper and pointing out in one the changes in the other by painstakingly numbering each line in each numbered paragraph and documenting all corresponding changes in yet another email.

All of which requires clear communication that allows for someone who has never written an academic research paper before to make the necessary changes on my behalf without making unnecessary mistakes. I have to hand-hold them through literally every line of the entire document via email. And about that email system...

The email system is monitored, of course. It is screened to ensure any potential threats to anything are caught and managed appropriately, thankfully. However, this system is monitored by humans with no understanding of what it is I'm sending and like most humans they tag something they don't understand as threatening until they have decided otherwise. My emails are constantly getting flagged and held up for additional review before they make it beyond these walls. This makes meeting deadlines a challenge, to say the least, because I never know how long this process takes. Sometimes a day or two, sometimes a week or two.

You might think I could simply go to staff and ask for help. Trust them to be rational and help because, after all, I am accomplishing something that is positive and they should be more than willing to help. No, that's not the case though. The foolish stance of "if we do this for you we have to do this for everyone" or "we don't have a policy for this" or its lack of staff or a flat out denial based in ignorance and all that only happens if they will even listen to you. It's more than frustrating, it's disheartening.

Here I am writing new research on criminal desistance and rehabilitation, that has been academically accepted (pending publication), and the system fights me every step of the way. It's a wonder anyone does anything from inside these walls. The system and its operators literally block you from doing it making you feel as if you are committing a crime. How shameful on their part.

A typical roadblock looks like this:

I spend 35 hours painstakingly applying edits on an email that only allows 6000 characters per email. I have a draft folder that allows basic copy and paste, the extent of my word editing software. Once its sent or something is sent to me, copy and paste is disabled. In order to copy something I must pay $.60 a page to be printed and mailed to me (which takes up to 30 days to receive) or handwrite everything and retype into my drafts. My most recent paper took the entirety of 8- 6000 character- emails, each of which was labelled "Email 1" through "Email 8" so I can track which ones get held up in the mail system or "flagged". I sent 8 and my editor received emails 1, 2 and 6 only. The rest have been sitting in someone's inbox waiting to be screened for over a week.

Each email cost me money, $.60 to send each 6000 characters. Sometimes I have to resend each email in smaller segments to navigate the arbitrary screening system. For example, I took the recent emails 3,4,5,7 and 8 and divided them into each smaller emails (email 3a, 3b...etc) comprising an additional 14 emails, all which went through accept emails 3a, 4a, 5a, 7a, 7b, 7c making editing still impossible until those too are released.

Now my options are to wait and hope for the best or call and narrate the changes by phone, which costs $2.50 per 20 minute phone call and by the way you are cut off at 20 minutes. Oh, and by the way, there are other people waiting to use the phone so after 20 minutes you have to get off, wait in line again and hope your editor can wait as well (usually not). Sometimes 1 call will net half an email, of changes, if you're lucky because the other person has to manually type everything you say and repeat it back to you for clarity.

None of this includes the process of research. For instance, one of my editors added a cite to my work, necessarily. However, didn't add the reference to my bibliography. When my peer review noticed it I had to go and dig up that reference on my own. Without internet. Without a library. Without someone who knows how in my circle of outside support. I had to ask a friend who's mother has access to places like "JStor" to send him all articles that might fit that author and year and hope there was only one. In this case it was simpler because the cite and author was from 1963 and 1959 (Goffman), so I was able to get the paper, reference both properly and add them to my reference page. But it took 4 people and $7.50 worth of phone calls, emails and postage to do so.

All of which would have been avoided if the prison would bother to help in any way instead of block in every way.

And people wonder why prisoners sit idle for years. Me personally I understand my life is one big fight. I am a trans woman in prison who hails from extreme poverty and childhood trauma. I know that nothing in my life is going to be handed to me and I have had to fight for everything. My clothes, hormones, my emails, my education...hell, even my books I have to fight for.

I'm going to publish this paper even if it costs me every penny I have, and it has, even if I have to handwrite every line and snail mail it out or orate every letter by phone until I'm broke. Then you know what? I will take credit for every word and every bit of accomplishment and will make sure everyone who cares to listen knows I did it not because of prison but in spite of prison.

Ruth Utnage



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