Category Archives: crime

Showing Up

Close to home, in real time, I attended a news conference at the state capitol about a bill that would restore the right to vote for 52,000 Minnesotans who have a prison record.  That’s right—they’ve done their time, they are out, but they still can’t vote—sometimes for years.

I didn’t want to go.  I didn’t want to go. It was first thing in the morning.  It was cold.  The parking would be a pain.

But I went, and as usual with these events I’m so glad I did.  There were a dozen speakers.  I was there with two other Jewish Community Action members, one of whom is an ex offender, and we stood in the back and listened.

The first speaker was a white guy around my age who I assumed—before he opened his mouth—was an elected official.  He was wearing a suit.  Turns out he is an ex offender who owns a business.

“I pay taxes—a lot of taxes,” he said.  “Our country was founded on the idea of ‘no taxation without representation.’  I’m going to pay my business’s property taxes after this but I am not allowed to vote, even though I’m no longer inside.”

An African-American preacher spoke about redemption.  The head of a nonprofit that helps violent offenders stop being violent spoke about how that’s possible.  A member of the Republican Party’s Independent caucus talked about how this is an issue of freedom.

A fellow who looked like Andy Warhol moved to the podium and introduced himself as “your only State Representative with a prison record.”  He had been an addict and was in jail for burglary when he was thrown into solitary confinement and decided to get clean.  That was 43 years ago.

Both county attorneys spoke in favor of the bill.  So did the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections.  Mayor Melvin Carter of St. Paul told of speaking with a lifelong St. Paul resident in his office.  The man said, “You all told me to reintegrate when I came home from prison.  You said you wanted me to be part of the community again.  But no one will rent me an apartment.  No one will hire me, and I can’t even vote.  I am shut out of my own community.”

The head of the coalition that’s sponsoring the bill said that one of the reasons it failed last year is the impression that all ex offenders will vote Democrat.  Hey, that’s an easy 52,000 votes for Republicans to keep blocked. But 70% of ex offenders live outside of the cities, and rural and suburban voters tend to vote Republican.

There was mention of how African American, Latino, Native, and poor people are disproportionately represented among the prison population, and therefore the fact that they cannot vote is a new kind of Jim Crow.

Vince, my son, was unable to vote in 2016 even though he’d been out of prison for a year.  I know he’s looking forward to voting in 2020.

There was mention that North Dakota has the same voting language in its constitution but it allows ex offenders to vote.  North Dakota!  Similar to how New Yorkers consider Minnesota flyover country populated only with farmers muttering Uff Dah, Minnesotans think of North Dakota as an empty Nowheresville, populated with a few range-roaming, gun-toting cowboys.  For North Dakota to have a more forward-thinking policy was like a dare.

Ninety-five percent of JCA members live in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  Our representatives are as liberal as we are, so they won’t need convincing to vote this bill up.  There’s not much we can do except show up and be bodies at these events.

If you happen to be a Minnesotan who lives in a conservative district, and you “get” the need for this reform, please contact your representative and urge him or her to vote Yes on Restore the Vote.

The event made the evening news, at least on the one channel I watched, but it was overshadowed by much blather over the next impending snow storm.

Prawns and Prisoners and a London Souvenir

After a lovely day with Puffing Billy, it was time to face facts that we would leave in the morning.

I would fly to Cairns.

Heidi and Danielle were hashing out how to get each of them back to different places with one car in one day.  They could retrace the route we took to get here, with Heidi dropping Danielle off in Blayney.  But Heidi wanted to stop in Canberra to see her friend Moira. Danielle was up for that but it would add another day.

People everywhere talk about how to get from A to Z: should we fly or drive or take a train?  “If we drive, maybe we might as well stop in Hooterville since it’s kind of on the way.  But the train would be more relaxing…but driving would give us more control.  But flying would be faster…not really, when you factor in getting to the airport and getting through the lines, and we wouldn’t have a car on the other end.”

And so on.  People everywhere do this, but I think for Australians the stakes are higher and they spend more time thinking and talking about getting around.

But first, a farewell feast.  Dean would barbeque and we would contribute three salads.

I made tabbouleh, my go-to salad.

“I’ve got shrimps on the barbie,” Dean joked, “except we don’t call them shrimps, we call them prawns.  There was an Australian Tourism advert …”

“Starring Paul Hogan—Crocodile Dundee,” inserted Danielle.

“Where they had to say ‘shrimp’ instead of ‘prawn’ so you lot would know what it was talking about.  I’m also making sausages and grilled veggies.  We do make other things besides shrimp on the barbie.”

I noticed the box of red wine on the counter top.  “Oh, these are the crimes people could be sent to Australia for?”

“Yeah,” Lisa responded, and we read them out loud.  We had to Google a couple, like “Impersonating an Egyptian” (a Gypsy, or Roma, who were considered rogues) and “Embeuling Naval Stores” (stealing).

“Murder isn’t on here,” I commented.

“Aww, you would have just been hanged immediately for that,” Lisa explained.  “These are all mostly property crimes that poor people would commit out of desperation.”

“Yeah,” added Danielle as she reviewed the list, “Don’t threaten an English lord’s right to own everything, from your house and land to the fish in the river and the rabbits and firewood in the forest.”

Back in December at my cookie baking party, I provided a few bottles of 19 Crimes and visitors had fun with their very clever app which brought the convicts to life.

I couldn’t help snapping a photo of Lisa and Dean’s shopping list the next morning.

Heidi was up before me, undoubtedly anxious about the long day of driving ahead.  Dean had harvested some gorgeous lemons and gave her and Dani a supply.

It was frosty, and as we huddled in a circle drinking our coffee we laughed when we looked down at our feet.

“Socks and flip flops,” Danielle commented, “Australian spring fashion.”

“Not thongs and camel toes,” I quipped.

That killed the conversation.  Sometimes I go too far with my language observations.

“Can I see the cab before I leave?” I asked Dean.

“Yes of course, give me a few minutes.”

I wandered around outside, enjoying the fresh air and this quiet Kookaburra on the sign post.

Dean called me over to the garage, where he’d lifted the door to reveal the souvenir he and Lisa had brought back from London.

“I’m just waiting for it to be old enough to register as a classic car, which’ll make it a lot less costly to drive,” he said.  “I was thinking of starting a car hire business with it but maybe we’ll just have fun with it ourselves.”

Heidi and Danielle and I said our adieus; I would see Heidi again in Sydney. Then Dean and Lisa drove me to the airport, a 45-minute drive on this early Saturday morning. I always enjoy dropping people off and picking them up at the airport.  It reduces their stress and it’s nice to say good-bye and hello to friendly faces, isn’t it?

Thank You

In real time, Happy Thanksgiving, if you are American.  Happy Thursday, if you are not.  I have some news items to share at the end of this post.

Day four in Australia.  Day four?!  It felt like I’d been here forever, in a good way.

We alighted from our bus for sunset viewing of Ularu.  I walked around snapping photos of other tourist vehicles. I have spent many hours in these heavy-duty Toyotas in Kenya and Ethiopia.

There was this crazy sardine-mobile, some kind of motel on wheels.  I’m all for budget accommodations, but this beat even the bunkhouse for the claustrophobia factor.

There was this dusty, Mad Max BMW motorcycle.

A group of barefoot Aboriginal women sat on the pavement selling paintings.  I felt a sharp, uncomfortable contrast as Meg poured sparkling wine.

But then I was distracted by food.  “This is kangaroo jerky,” she indicated, “this one’s emu pâté  and this here’s croc dip.”

“The kangaroo is delicious!” I commented.  “It’s like venison.”

Heidi didn’t touch it.  “I can’t eat it. The kangaroo and the emu—they’re our national animals.”

“They’re animals that can only go forward,” explained Heidi.  “Like our country, I reckon is the idea?”

“I guess I wouldn’t want to eat a bald eagle,” I replied.  Well, all the more emu and kangaroo for me!

The members of our group began introducing ourselves.  Trevor and Gwen had immigrated to Australia from Nottingham, England, 20 years ago.  They were here with their 14-year-old daughter, Tiffany.  Kris and Melanie, a young Swiss couple, never spoke unless spoken to, so I didn’t get to know them at all.  Brenden and Stefanie were another young couple, from Canada.  Johannes and Sandra were a middle-aged German couple who took elaborate tripod-assisted selfies of themselves jumping for joy in front of every landmark.  Mia and Nora were also German; both were around 22 and they were student teachers in a German school in Melbourne.  There was a Chinese couple—father and daughter?  Lovers?  They stood apart and avoided all eye contact.  Another couple, Darren and Kylie, were also a May-December pair.  They said their names and that they were from Melbourne, then also kept to themselves.

I spoke with James, a 30-something Korean guy who spoke confident but almost-impossible-to-understand English. He was an out-of-work cook from Adelaide, blowing all his savings on a last hurrah in Australia before going home to an uncertain future.  He reminded me of Vince.  Because he was a cook, but mostly because there was a soulfulness about him.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it doesn’t involve decorating the house inside and out, buying presents, or any Christmas/Hanuka dilemmas.  You just eat a lot with your family or friends, then fall asleep in front of the TV watching The Hobbit for the millionth time.

Thanksgiving is about—as the name implies—giving thanks, and I have a lot to be grateful for this year.  As I sit here at my writing desk and look out the window at the grey sky and freezing drizzle, I am grateful for a warm home.  I am healthy.  I have friends and family.  I got to spend a month in Australia!  I wish I was there now.

And, some big news: I quit my job last week.  More on that later, but I already feel 10 years younger.

And another big development: Vince and I started this blog together four years ago.  We just published the first year of the blog as an e-book.  It chronicles his time in prison, his recovery, and my ride along with him.

Besides providing insight into why people turn out the way they are, we’ve been told by many readers that it’s just a good read, a page turner.  So if you’re looking for something to binge read over the weekend, or holidays, consider buying a copy.  Only $3.99!

Breaking Free: A Mother And Son Journey From Addiction, To Prison, To Redemption https://www.amazon.com/…/B…/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_AbI9Bb9K1SXQM

Please feel free to share this on social media, and thanks for reading—we know it can be difficult stuff but addiction and all its consequences, including imprisonment, are a reality for hundreds of thousands of people every day.

Susan B

I know you people don’t “like” it when I writing about prison issues instead of travel. Literally, the prison posts are the least liked of my posts.

Well too bad.  That’s how this blog got started—when my son went to prison—and once in a while the absurdities of prison issues pile up to the point where I just have to share them.  So you can skip the next few posts if you want, but I hope you don’t.

You may recall that my local newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, ran a series on solitary confinement (segregation, or seg) a few months ago.  I wrote a letter to the editor which was published.  Jewish Community Action, the group I’m active with on criminal justice reform, received the letter below in response.  It’s from a woman incarcerated at Shakopee Women’s Prison.  She was found guilty of shooting and killing her cousin and wounding an attorney at the Hennepin County Government Center over an inheritance dispute in 2003.

So keep in mind that everything she writes may not be 100% true.  If you would shoot someone to death in a crowded public place, you might lie, too.  But maybe not.  Even though this is all public information, I’ve edited out her last name.  Sorry if the writing is a bit blurry; it was the best I could do.

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Fa la la la felon

It’s Christmas Eve and I thought I’d share this post my son, Vince, wrote from prison two years ago.  If you’re feeling lonely today, write a letter to a prisoner, then contact your local Department of Corrections or a nonprofit prisoner support organization on Tuesday to find out how you can send it.  Half of prisoners never get a visitor, and many never get any mail.  Vince is doing great now.  In fact today he’s on his way to San Diego to spend Christmas with his aunt and uncle and cousins.  If you’re interested in following his adventures, he blogs at Fixing Broken.

I haven’t written any blog posts in nearly a week. My job keeps me busy, and I’ll say that there is a little more effort involved in the actual writing vs. typing a blog, from my point of view, anyway.

My co-blogger, aka Mom, came to visit me today. Like everybody else, she had a good laugh at my prison-issue glasses. But then we sat down and talked for two hours. We could have talked for two more and time would have flown by just as quickly. It was really nice to see a familiar face. We spoke on topics ranging from family health to sign-language-interpreting gorillas. It will probably be my only visit during my whole tenure as a prisoner, and it was a good one.

Last night I started reading Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. I only made it through 40 pages and I had to get to sleep but so far I’m interested. I’m sure once I leave prison I’ll go back to reading zero books. My mind is impossible to control so I’m easily distracted. Sometimes I can’t get through a page without daydreaming. I’ll catch myself. And do it again minutes later. Brain. Bad brain.

I haven’t been sick in years. Years! I am in the middle of a terrible cold, and I don’t like it. I have been told several times over the years that, despite my claims, I am not a doctor. Even if I were, there’s little I can do to suppress the effects of the virus. So I’ll do the standard: rest, drink plenty of fluids, and complain.

I’m not at all religious but I went to a Christmas program for something to do, and I had a blast. There were six or seven musicians, all in their 70s or 80s, from some denomination whose name I cannot recall. Each played a different instrument ranging from accordion to piano to guitar. They had 50 grown men, drug dealers, pimps, and armed robbers, singing Twelve Days of Christmas and even doing the chicken dance. That was the best. We were all laughing. And we all needed that.

I think it may have been the first time in a while that some of the guys smiled.  Which will usually, unfortunately, later, lead to crying.  Quietly, so your cellmate doesn’t hear.  We will be thinking of our friends, families, and why we can’t be with them this holiday season.  I am one of the lucky ones.  I won’t be locked up next year.  Some will.  Some will be forever.  And although they are here permanently for a reason, it will still hurt.  They may not show it, but they will surely feel it.

Prison Update

If I don’t step up my posts about my recent trip, I’ll still be blogging about it by the time I go on my next one, which I just booked—a week of hiking, snorkeling, and kayaking in Belize and Guatemala in February with Wilderness Inquiry.  It may sound precious, but I need something to look forward to.  We’re in the midst of our second blizzard in a week now, and today’s low will be -11F (-23C).  Need I justify myself further?  I was able to book with a deposit and somehow I’ll come up with the rest.  Somehow it always works out.

But it’s time for a post about prison.  My son’s imprisonment was the reason I started this blog, in case you are new here.  He’s been out for a year and is doing great.  I continue to do what I can toward changing the system.

Last Sunday I went to a summit on criminal justice reform organized by Jewish Community Action.  About 300 people attended.  At my table were two people whose parents or grandparents were holocaust survivors.  As we talked about the election and the prospects for meaningful prison reform (or reforms of any kind), they both said they felt afraid for the first time in their lives to live in America.  They both said something like, “I remember my father talking about how it happened so gradually that people kept thinking it couldn’t get worse.”

There were a number of passionate speakers.  A professor of African American studies at the University of Minnesota talked about how we needed an abolitionist movement to get rid of prisons all together.  Others echoed this language.

Coincidentally, the Minneapolis Star Tribune had run a feature story about the abuse of solitary confinement this very day.  The last speaker at the summit was the commissioner of the Department of Corrections, and one of the questions posed to him was about completely banning solitary confinement and abolishing prisons in the US.  I could sense he was struggling to be diplomatic.  “There are people in prison …” he began, “… who have raped five year olds.  I have had other prisoners tell me that they would murder again if they could get out of seg.”

Yep.  I’m an idealist, but I hope we can focus on issues that stand a chance of delivering meaningful change to prisoners.

I wrote a letter in response to the Strib story:

Dear Editors:

Thank you for the feature, “Extreme Isolation Scars Inmates: Minnesota prisons pile on solitary confinement, often for minor offenses ….”  Last year my son, who was serving a 50-month sentence for a nonviolent drug offense, was transferred from St. Cloud to Moose Lake, which didn’t have a bed ready for him in general population.  So they put him in solitary for no offense.   I was not informed, and became concerned after not hearing from him for days, but fortunately he was released after “only” six days in solitary, with no explanation, apology, or even an acknowledgement that something had gone wrong.

We didn’t bother protesting.  I had turned to the American Civil Liberties Association after being banned from visiting my son for six months (when I protested a visiting policy).  The ACLU told me that corrections officers and facilities have “almost total discretion.”  It would be their word against mine, and I didn’t want to risk being punished again.

The terrible experience of having a family member in prison has led me to become active in the movement to reform the correctional system, specifically through Jewish Community Action (JCA), which has made the issue one of its advocacy priorities.

I happen to work for the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), and I organized an event in September which brought together experts from CVT and JCA—and my now-released son—to explore the physical, psychological, and social effects of solitary confinement.  The effects are heartbreaking.  My son experienced some of them after only a few days.  Imagine spending years in “seg.”

I hope others will be moved to demand prison reforms after reading this series.

My letter was the featured letter; I really do hope it gets more people involved.

Calling All Cons

Before I return to writing about my upcoming travel in Italy, Malta, and Spain, I’ll write a couple more posts about my other favorite topic: prison.

I was involved in two criminal justice reform evening events this week.  Normally I hate having commitments like these at night but these were commitments I chose to make.

The first was a phone bank event organized by the Restore the Vote Coalition.  It’s run by Take Action Minnesota and includes Jewish Community Action, a group I’ve written about being involved with.

Here’s why we were there: 47,000 ex prisoners in Minnesota cannot vote.  They’ve done their time but they’re still “on paper”—slang for probation or parole—and they can’t vote until they’re off paper.  Even though Vince has served his time, has been out for a year, has been sober for over two years, is working and paying taxes and rent, and taking his grandma to the grocery and doing all manner of other positive things, he’s not allowed to vote until 2018.

Our job was to call around 7,000 ex offenders who were probably off paper.  Since no sane person enjoys calling strangers—much less ex cons—the coalition tried to make it a fun by calling it a Restore the Vote Block Party.  They had blocked off their parking lot and had booths with a DJ and food, but it rained so we all huddled inside in their basement offices.

There were five or six speakers, including a rabbi and a young woman from Chicago whose father and uncles had been in prison as long as she’s been alive.  It was a very racially diverse group.  A couple guys lead a call and response to get us fired up, then we all dispersed to make calls or knock on doors.

All three of the African-American speakers said something along the lines of, “This is a problem that mostly affects black people.”  While it’s true that African Americans are disproportionately represented in prison compared to their percentage of the overall population, 56% of adult prisoners in Minnesota are white.  As of September 30, that’s 5,228 men and women, not counting juveniles or people in county jails.  I don’t think we do the cause any favors by making it all about race.  Race is a factor for sure, but so are class, poverty, abuse, education level, disabilities, chemical dependency, and many other issues.

There was an elaborate script probably written by a graduate student who’d never been near a prison, which went out the window the moment we started dialing.  We used a really cool online system.  I logged in and immediately a guy’s name came up with his age and phone number and the names of other people in his household.  I said to the leader, “I’d be really creeped out if stranger called me who knew I’d been in prison.”  I was assured that this was public information and that ex cons knew it.

I dialed 72 numbers in an hour and a half and spoke to exactly two ex cons.  About 80% of the numbers were disconnected, busy, wrong numbers, or no one answered.  The two guys I spoke with were opposites.  The first one, who was 28, had researched whether he was eligible to vote, was registered, and was committed to showing up at the polls.  The other guy, who was 56, said, “I ain’t never voted in my life and I ain’t gonna start now.”

I noted their names as I scrolled through the data base—Frank, Damarius, Jason, Katherine, Moua, John, Orville, Krystal, Matt, Jose, Abdi—all typical Minnesota names, all over the state, all ages, all races.  I reached quite a few mothers, which tugged at my heart strings.  They sounded care worn.  A couple said, “I don’t know where he is.”  Ugh.  I’ve been there.  One father told me, “He’s not here,” then, sadly, “He’s in the ground.”  What do you say to that?

“I’m so sorry,” I muttered.  “I’m sorry to have bothered you.  Have a nice night.”

I only reached two guys, but as our group of 80 volunteer callers got pledges to vote from 122 ex offenders.

It may not sound like much, but we did something.