In real time, last weekend I spoke at a synagogue about my son’s incarceration and its aftermath. There were about 20 people in attendance and I was nervous. I rarely speak in front of groups, and this was a sensitive subject. But it went fine. Unfortunately, I know my stuff when it comes to being a prison mom, and authenticity carried the day.
They specifically wanted to know about challenges of re-entry into society. I described them in detail: housing (few landlords wants to rent to an ex con), employment (ditto, although some employers are known for be open minded), social support (many ex-offenders have been written off by family and friends), mental health and sobriety (it’s hard to stay on a healthy path when your housing is precarious and you can’t afford food, etc), medical and dental care (thank you, University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, for discount care!) and finances (prisoners net about 25 cents an hour in their jobs; Vince had amassed $300 after working full time for a year).
Supervision makes all of the above more difficult. A revolving door of agents can shop up at the ex-offender’s job or house anytime, day or night, and demand a urine sample. Vince lived with me, and I had to have a landline installed because the Department of Corrections is not operating in the 21st Century yet.
The agents strictly enforce rules one day and let things slide the next; the capriciousness of the system is enough to drive anyone mad.
“What about voting rights?” someone asked. It is thought that most ex-offenders would vote Democratic if allowed to vote.
“To be honest, that’s the least of their concerns, for sure when they are first released,” I replied.
Think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Ex-offenders are struggling at the bottom.
A few days later I was at a friend’s house. She and a neighbor agreed they want a Democratic presidential candidate who will bring about drastic—not incremental—change. Free college education. Reparations for slavery. Medicare for all. Green New Deal.
I think about my coworkers at the YMCA. They’re a racially diverse group of mostly blue collar young people who will probably vote Democratic—if they vote.
In nine months since I’ve worked there, none of them has ever talked about climate change, institutional racism, voting rights, or gender-neutral bathrooms.
Their concerns are: Where can I get the best deal on snow tires? Should I make tacos or spaghetti for dinner tonight? Should I color my hair red or get highlights or keep it black?
My coworkers aren’t at the very basic level of needs, but I worry. If the Dems choose a candidate that Trump can paint as “extreme,” I don’t think ex-prisoners or my coworkers will vote at all.
It’s not that they’re incapable of understanding higher-level issues. It’s that they have more basic needs demanding their attention and they’re not going to get fired up about a candidate who lectures from a flip chart about emissions trading.
In Nara, I deployed my secret weapon, a stash of five pills leftover from one of my Restless Legs Syndrome prescriptions. I slept well for the first time in 16 nights and was giddy with energy when I awoke. Lynn was still asleep so I hung out in the huge bathroom and made coffee with this …
… while I talked to Vince on Facebook.
“I think it must have taken five mechanical engineers to design this,” I said as I demonstrated it to my son.
Vince laughed at the thing. “Bring me one, will you?” he requested, “so I can show it to my coworkers in the kitchen?”
“Will do,” I replied. The connection failed so I took selfies of myself in the Nara Hotel yukata. I never take selfies, so you know I was feeling good.
“Why don’t you just take medication every night?” Lynn asked later. Fair question.
“Because it works, and then it stops working, and then I need to take more and more, and then it starts to actually make the symptoms worse, and then I have to go through an excruciating withdrawal process,” I explained.
“But for today, I feel human again!”