Category Archives: crime

Justice, Sweet and Sour

Summer is over, and so is my break from blogging.  In my last post, I listed all the things I was going to do with my extra time: sit outside in the morning with my coffee and listen to the birds, plan a fall trip, and figure out how to publish the first year of the blog as an e-book.  Oh—and write a novel.

I sat outside with my coffee once.  I am planning a fall trip to Italy, Malta, and Spain.  I didn’t write a novel, but Vince and I have started working with an editor on the e-book.

Mostly, I’ve tried to live in the moment.  Summer is so brief.  There were fun moments.  At a family weekend at a cabin, someone brought a Donald Trump piñata (Made in Mexico, appropriately).  I fostered a litter of seven kittens which drew visits from friends and family.  Vince and I went to the State Fair where, at the FabBrow booth, he insisted he wanted a uni-brow.  The makeup artists got back at him by making him look like a community theater actor.

pinatakittens

fabbrow

I spent a lot of time outdoors.  There were hikes and bike rides, and one day a friend and I spend hours making jewelry down at the river. Other times I packed a book and a beverage and biked to some quiet spot at a lake or the river.

The big local news this summer was of the killing of Philando Castille by a cop.  Castille was black.  The cop, Jeronimo Yanez, was Latino.  Castille was pulled over for a broken taillight.  He had a gun in his glove compartment, and believed that the proper procedure when interacting with a cop was to inform: “I’ve got a gun, and I’ve got a permit to carry it.”

I suppose Yanez didn’t hear anything after Castille said “I’ve got a gun.” Blam!  Shot point blank five times and left to bleed to death.  Castille’s girlfriend live streamed his last moments on Facebook.  I have not watched that video, but hundreds of thousands of people have.

I live within walking distance of the Governor’s mansion in St. Paul, where the inevitable protests took place. Traffic was blocked off by the police for a month and I was kept awake a couple nights by helicopter noise.  The protestors blocked off the nearby interstate and either police were patrolling with helicopters or it was news media copters, but they were loud.  Not that I’m comparing my minor inconvenience to the Castille’s family’s loss.

govs-mansion

This week marked one year since Vince was released from prison.  He is doing so well.  He just started a new job in catering, and he’s excited.  In a month he will go off intensive supervised release, which means he’ll be able to stay out past 10:30 or go to Wisconsin to visit cousins.  Best of all, he won’t have ISR agents showing up day and night asking him for urine samples.

Another event prompted me to write this post.

In 1989, an 11-year-old boy named Jacob Wetterling was abducted by a stranger at gun point in a small town in Minnesota. He was never found.

Vince was the same age as Jacob.  Vince became a Bar Mitzvah, got his first job, moved out, turned 20, had a serious girlfriend, had serious drug and alcohol problems, went to jail, got clean, relapsed, turned 30, moved to Lanesboro, went to prison, got out, and has two years of sobriety.  In a few months he’ll be 38.

This week, a man confessed to abducting, sexually assaulting, and executing Jacob Wetterling by shooting him in the head, then burying him—and returning a year later to move the remains.  Lying handcuffed in the last moments of his life, Jacob asked the man, “What did I do wrong?”

Vince was sentenced to over four years in prison for drug possession.  Because the statute of limitations has expired, Jacob’s killer will get 20 years on a child porn charge.  He’ll be a cho-mo—the most loathed prisoner among prisoners.  According to Vince, they are also considered a “protected class,” by officials, perhaps to prevent prison vigilantes from meting out real justice.

Long Ago in a Land of Spandex

Greetings from St. Louis.  One more day of the road trip, and one more guest post from Vince.

Long Ago, In a Land of Spandex

It’s Friday again, my favorite day of the week. I like my job, but I like weekends more, and at this very moment it’s the longest possible time before more work.  This will be the seventh post now on the topic of my career.  Or careers.  Or lack thereof, uh, yeah.  I have no career; I have held many jobs over the years.

At this moment, I’m taking a break from packing my few belongings for the big move. I finally threw away all of my stuff from prison and boot camp. I was never going to use any of it, so I’m happy to toss it out.  Alright then, on with it.

After leaving Rochester and finding temporary shelter with a friend of a friend in Fountain, Minnesota, I was given a job as a line cook at Pedal Pusher’s Café in nearby Lanesboro.  The owners were a couple with three kids and they all lived upstairs of the restaurant. Looking back, it really sucks to see how things went down.  They were kind, generous people who went out of their way to help me when I was down.  They even let me sleep in their camper for a while after things went sour in Fountain, and while I waited to find an apartment of my own which they also loaned me the money for.

pedal-pushers-cafe-corner

Lanesboro is a bustling little city full of B&B’s, bike trails, trout fishing, tourists, and spandex,  It has a few restaurants too, and they were very busy in the summer. I hadn’t been on a line in some years when I started there, but I picked things back up pretty quickly. Time flew by, I worked hard, and started drinking hard.  I also met a new friend that would play a major role in my life for many years to come: gambling.

In the form of pull tabs, I whittled away my pay checks one dollar at a time for months. Eventually, I started taking advances on my pay checks, and very shortly after I started doing that, I started taking advances without their knowledge. This may come as a shock to some people with whom I have not been entirely honest over the years, but I’m letting it all out now.  I felt like a lowlife piece of shit, but unfortunately, I just did not care.  It didn’t take them long to catch on to me and I was eventually fired for stealing.

Unable to get unemployment benefits, I became withdrawn and moved in with an unenthusiastic friend and his soon to be wife.  I sat in that room for a month, maybe two.  I wore the same clothes, I ate ramen out of the package, and I cried every day.  I was too proud to ask for help.  I couldn’t take care of myself, I couldn’t find a job (because I absolutely was not looking), and I was about as close to having a suicidal urge as I’ve ever come.  Auspiciously, a very good friend of mine got me out of that trance and back into Fountain where I held a few more jobs.

About two weeks ago, I sent a letter to the owners of Pedal Pusher’s. I told them a lot of what has been going on with me, but more importantly, what was going on with me back then. I asked them to give me a chance to repair the damage I have created, and I included a small token of my sincerity in the form of money. I haven’t heard back from them and I don’t know that I ever will.  But I have done my part.  At the very least, I have tried to open an avenue of communication with them so that I may fix what has been broken for so long.  It was the first of many letters to many people, and with each one, I hope to feel a little more human again.

Time to Make a Move

Greetings from Oxford, Mississippi! This is a post written by Vince about his move. It will be bittersweet to come home to an empty house.

Time to Make a Move

Just shy of seven months as a free man, I am happy to report that, as a 37-year-old, I am moving out of my mother’s home. Again. Maybe for the fourth time in my life, and hopefully for the last.

I alluded to this in my last post but not before because I didn’t want to get overexcited about it until it was actually approved by my agents. Now it is official, and I can proudly relate this information to you: I AM MOVING!  Just two short days from now.

I have written about this move before, but as a failed attempt at leaving the nest possibly too early.  I’m moving into a house with two sober guys from the program, one of which I was in prison with, and I’ve worked with for some time. He no longer works with me, but we remain friends. I don’t know the other guy, but he’s sober, and that counts for a lot.

I’ve been to see the house once.  It’s small as you can see in the picture, but I’ll have my own room, so it isn’t like a sober house environment. There isn’t a house manager that watches over us, or anybody to give us random shakedowns and breathalyzers. I have my agents for that. This is a step forward.

V's House

It couldn’t come at a better time, in my opinion, as I will be moving on to the next phase of Intensive Supervised Release program soon after. That will open up a lot more time that I can spend doing things I want to do like go to more meetings, and spending more time with my family. I am also finishing the last three hours of my community service this week.

It’s all lining up.  Everything is going well in so many ways.  So I need to be really careful. For somebody like me, good news can be all I need to trick myself into thinking I deserve a reward.  Maybe I can go out and celebrate with just one drink, or just a little crack (“A little” crack doesn’t actually exist. It’s an all or nothing drug. For more information, go here). I mean, at this point I’ve built myself a pretty good network of people that I can reach out to if the urge hits me, but it’s always good to layer on the protection.

This disease of mine can also be described as an allergy. When I drink or do drugs, things just go haywire. My body responds differently to them than normal people.  Also, my allergy in particular is a little more severe than say, a gluten allergy. Oh, also I don’t believe that’s a real allergy, but I’m not a Doctor.  Anyhow, let’s say that somebody with a gluten allergy accidentally ingests some flour. Well, maybe an hour or so later, they fart a little and that causes some slight discomfort or embarrassment. Well, when I ingest a little alcohol, or maybe some meth, my world flips upside down.  I can no longer take care of myself financially, mentally, or physically. And this allergy affects others, too.  For example, if I smoke crack, you may no longer have a television, and some of your smaller valuables may go missing as well.

Simply put, chemicals make me not give a fuck about you or me.  And I’d really like to avoid all of that so that’s why I’ve immersed myself in this program of Alcoholics Anonymous. I’m not worried about relapsing because of my new place and my new freedoms, I’m excited to see what I can do with them.  And I’m really happy to be able to share this with you people. For you that are new to this blog, I encourage you to see where it all started almost two years ago with just five pieces of writing paper and a 3” flexible safety pen behind the unforgiving bars at St. Cloud Men’s Reformatory/State Prison.

Easter Interlude

I was Skyping with someone at work who is an attorney who documents torture and other human rights abuses perpetrated against Syrians.  I loved this quote she had on her Skype account:

I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.

It was said by E.B. White, who along with William Strunk wrote The Elements of Style, usually just referred to as “Strunk and White.”  It was first published in 1918 and is considered one of the most influential English language books.  It was like a Bible to me when I first began my career.  Basically, in a little over a hundred pages (1999 edition), they tell you everything you need to know about punctuation, grammar, composition and commonly misused phrases and words.

Here’s another quote from White: “Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.”  That’s a great affirmation from someone who basically inscribed the Ten Commandments of writing on paper.  As someone who often wonders, “Why am I writing this blog?” I appreciate this one.

And finally, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.” I hope I am both.

I’m going to share a couple posts from my son Vince in the next week or so. We started Breaking Free as a co-blog, to write about his experiences in prison and mine as a prison mom.  Is that a thing?  It is now.

Easter Interlude

The anxiety started a little over a week ago, when I found out how soon Easter actually was this year. I was finally going to jump over another big hurdle. I’ve been out of prison now for almost seven months and haven’t had the opportunity to attend a gathering with the extended family, and today was that day.

I don’t actually know what it was that I was afraid of. I guess it’s the fact that I haven’t seen them for a decade and I really don’t know that any of them have any idea where I’ve been. I visualize a hundred conversations all ending abruptly when they ask what I’ve been doing, or why they haven’t seen me in so long. And of course it’s not their fault that they’d be curious, we’re family. My grandparents are wonderful but as far as I know, they didn’t really spread the word about my trip to prison, or my years of alcoholism and drug addiction. And there’s the shame factor for me that I didn’t really want to go into any of that at Easter (or ever). I mean who wants to hear such a sad story on Jesus’ Birthday? Or whatever it is.

All the worry and apprehension was for naught. I was greeted with hugs, handshakes, and warmth. And truth be told, I felt some connection with a few of them that it turns out I really missed. And once again I was sitting at the table with my family, laughing, conversing, and feeling all the uneasiness dissipate. I didn’t recognize a few of them as they had all literally aged ten years and were just kids the last time I had seen them.

I think what I realized is that it doesn’t matter where I’ve been for so long, only that I am here now. Not just in this particular situation, but in everything. It took me a while to adapt to life outside the walls, but now that I have been away for a while, I think I can let that go. That time of my life is over, and even though I constantly need to be work on recovery, it’s not so much about not going back, but being able to move forward.

I just got home from the gathering and wanted to get those words down while the event was still fresh in my mind. I feel really good right now. As if a weight has been lifted off of me. But like many of these weights, it was put there by me.  I need to quit that. I’m a work in progress.

Telling It

It’s always difficult to transition back to current life after writing a series like the last one about camping in Wales and Mini extravaganza.

I love traveling, and then I love coming home—so I can start planning the next trip. When you read this, I will be in Chicago on my way to New Orleans from Minneapolis/St. Paul.  Live blogging a road trip sounds good, but I really just want to be there, in the moment.  My friends are coming all the way from Scotland, Oxford, and Wisconsin—I think it would be rude and weird to say, “Sorry guys, I’ve got to rush back to the hotel to write a blog post.”

But it’ll be fun to write about afterwards; travel writing is a way to enjoy the trip again.

A few updates, and back to the other theme of Breaking Free, my road trip with my son through the worlds of mass incarceration, addiction, and redemption.

I saw a notice for a lecture at the U of MN by Dr. Christopher Uggen, Martindale Chair and Distinguished McKnight Professor of Sociology and Law.  It quoted him, “We think of probation as a humane alternative to incarceration. It’s not.”  This is a concept I can’t emphasize often enough—just because you’re out of prison now, doesn’t mean you’re “over it.”

So I was a little concerned about Vince talking with Jewish Community Action, a local group advocating for prison reforms.  I had shared the blog with them, and they invited Vince and me to meet with them, which we did a few days ago.  It happened to be in the same building as Vince’s probation agents.  Would he be “triggered” by rehashing his story?  He still seemed uncomfortable in social situations sometimes.

We met with a young woman named Angela, who listened intently, asked questions, and filled us in on their plans. She talked about the changes they want made to sentencing, and Vince had some insights she hadn’t been aware of.  I can’t explain what he said, but the depth of knowledge you gain about these things by actually being inside is like a mini master’s degree program.

She talked about how they are trying to block the privatization of the prison in Appleton, Minnesota, which has been closed for years.  It wasn’t true, she said, that it would create a lot of jobs, or that conditions are better in private prisons.

“Word is,” Vince said, “among the prison population, that conditions are much better in the private prisons.  Better food, better paying work, more activities.”

This took her, and me, by surprise.  “I wonder if there’s a marketing campaign to spread that idea,” I suggested.  “After my experience with paying for phone time and email, I know those companies are good at promoting themselves.”  But how could anyone get access to the population inside?  I was Vince’s mom, and it had been maddeningly hard for me to communicate with him.

Vince talked about prison drugs (common) and rape (uncommon), MyPillow and Bob Barker products, not being able to vote, and his terms of probation.  It was very relaxed, and I give a lot of credit to Angela—turns out she was a former social worker.

Vince had told us he had to be home at 6:30.  Suddenly Angela said, “I just remembered that clock is slow …”  It was 6:21.  Vince jumped up, ran down the hall and waved at his agent, then bolted out the door.

Later, at home, he said, “I could have talked for hours.” I was so proud of him.  He’s doing so well.

He’s doing so well, in fact, that he announced he may move out soon.  Another ex offender lives in a three-bedroom house that has an opening.  The landlord is accepting of ex offenders.

I felt sad.  I know it’s normal for a 37-year-old man to want to live on his own, and I fully support that.  It was really rocky in the beginning when he came to live here.  We had been separated by miles and drugs and prison for so many years.  Now we get along fine.  I enjoy having him around.  He could do more cleaning, but no one’s perfect.

Updates Part II

In the prison good news / bad news” category, I’ve got some doozies.

First, I was highly amused to read about a brilliant project in which prisoners create portraits of people they think should be in prison. This was in The Guardian—a liberal British newspaper that reliably reports on the most embarrassing elements of American life:

“To find the artists, the activists approached art rehabilitation programs in prisons, but those groups were not interested in being involved with something political. So the pair turned to eBay, where there is a section devoted to art made by prisoners and sold by family members. They found similar prison art networks on Facebook and began conversations with the families of people whose worked they liked. From there, word spread around prisoners and other artists began sending them work.”

No surprise, they’ve captured (ha ha) the usual suspects (ha ha ha) in art: the Koch brothers, Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein, BP’s former boss Tony Hayward. But then there was the CEO of one of my favorite companies, along with Pillow King and Bob Barker Inc. (that’s sarcastic, in case you can’t tell): JPay.

I was disappointed to see that the guy’s name is Ryan Shapiro. He must have a Catholic mom and a Jewish dad. I hate to see stories that reinforce the stereotype that Jews are better at making money than most people. Exploiting—oops, I mean “providing services” to prisoners and their families is very, very lucrative.

JPay Prez

Speaking of Jews and prison, a local organization called Jewish Community Action (JCA) has taken up two prison-related issues:

“Jewish Community Action is currently working on two campaigns related to criminal justice reform and the impact of mass incarceration: One addressing the for-profit private prison system and seeking to push back on the building and opening of private prisons in Minnesota, and one demanding the restoration of voting rights to felons who have completed incarceration and are living and working in their communities.”

I wrote to the executive director and shared the link to this blog. I can’t remember exactly what I wrote; I share the blog with a lot of similar organizations and usually hear nothing back. I mentioned that we’re Jewish and that we’d be happy to support their efforts if we were able. The executive director and two staff members replied—first, to assure me that ours is not the only Jewish family that’s had a run-in with the law or the prison system and second, to ask if Vince and I would come in and meet with them. That will be in a couple weeks and I’ll write more after we meet.

I am not a big fan of Oprah; I have nothing against her but she tends to promote books like The Book Thief, which I regard as one of the most poorly-written books I’ve ever read. But she is currently promoting a book written by an ex offender, Shaka Senghor, called Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison. Next week, Oprah will air an interview with Senghor on her network, OWN TV. I haven’t read the book; I’m only mentioning it because it’s written by an ex offender.

I’ve only ever read one prison memoir, and I can highly recommend it: Willow in a Storm, by James Peter Taylor. The writing is just okay, but the story is harrowing and heart breaking and he tells it real.

Finally, there is this (in the end) uplifting story about Albert Woodfox, who spent FORTY YEARS in solitary for the murder of a prison guard at Angola prison in Louisiana.  He maintained his innocence all these years.  He was released on his 69th birthday.

Updates

Travel, addiction, prison … sometimes I feel I have to justify why I write about these seemingly unrelated topics. How about this: they all fall under the meta theme of “feeling trapped, or just bored, and wanting to escape.” There—does that explain it?

I was at a big work meeting and we were discussing human rights in the countries where we operate in the Middle East and Africa. Someone said, “What about solitary confinement? Shouldn’t we be advocating against it?” Everyone clamored in agreement. As far as I know, I am the only employee with a family member who has actually been in solitary. I was tempted to raise my hand and make a speech about how, if we decided to advocate against solitary confinement, we’d damn well better include the United States. But I didn’t feel like being a spokesperson for prison reform that morning.

Vince is off lockdown, after a month of confinement to the house except for work and AA meetings. It may not sound that bad—after all he had Facebook and phone to communicate with friends. He could binge-watch movies and cook real food and look out windows and take a shower without 50 other guys around. He had a pretty good attitude toward it, but I know he was really chaffing toward the end. He had steadily been earning freedoms after his release, then they were all taken away. The offense was so petty compared to the consequence. Most of all, he just had no power or choice about his comings and goings.

Regardless, it’s over now, and today we are doing a make-up birthday outing for me—going to hear the Minnesota Orchestra play the entire score of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, accompanied by some Finnish choir. I expect it will be either fantastic or dreadful.

Nothing has happened with the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 in the five weeks since I wrote about it and about how Republicans are using its bipartisan popularity to shove in language making it harder to prosecute corporate criminals.

Then there’s the controversy swirling around The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which is being blamed for creating mass incarceration. Bernie Sanders says he only signed it because of the good stuff in it, even though he disagreed with the sentencing parts. Hillary has been confronted by Black Lives Matter activists about ruining millions of Black people’s lives because she voted for it. Bill Clinton has disavowed it—his own law. I give him credit for that, even though it may only be a political tactic. Ugh. I would have to write five more posts to get to the bottom of that one, if I ever could.

Anyway, a poll from Pew Charitable Trusts shows that all Americans—Democrats, Republicans, Independents, men, women, Latinos, African Americans, seniors, young voters, and even law enforcement households agree we need to fix our broken federal prisons system. If you’re an American and you agree, please sign this petition urging Congress to pass the Act now. These are all the celebs who are endorsing the call for reform.

new_Cut50_Celebs-04_REVISED-900px

A lot of what I do in my job involves raising funding from foundations. I was happy to see that 42 foundations have banned the box on their employment applications that asks, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” This is really only symbolic, since foundations have abysmal records of hiring people of color or even just people who aren’t wealthy and well connected. But they are calling on all philanthropic institutions to follow suit, so maybe it’ll catch on.

Anytime anyone speaks out in support of ex offenders I am thrilled. The president of the Rosenberg Foundation, in announcing the foundations’ move, said, “It is time to end the pervasive discrimination against people with past criminal records. The era of mass incarceration and the war on drugs have done severe damage to families and communities, with an enormously disproportionate impact on people of color. Everyone deserves a second chance and the opportunity to compete for a job.”

The Fox and the Hen House

This is the second in a series of posts about a road trip to South Dakota that starts here.

When you think about it, South Dakota makes sense. It’s a very rural state where people have a hard time getting to an ER or clinic. Therefore the largest provider of telemedicine in the world is in South Dakota. We’ll also visit a guy who is the CEO of the country’s largest ethanol producer, and his wife, who have an interest in east Africa.

Then we’ll visit the Helmsley Trust, which is named for the late Leona Helmsley. One of Leona Helmsley’s grandsons lives in South Dakota, and I imagine that’s why the trust is in Sioux Falls. Leona, originally named Lena Rosenthal, was the daughter of Polish Jewish immigrants and became a hotel tycoon in New York City. Sadly she spent time in prison for income tax evasion and was controversial for being demanding. I’m sure she was demanding. You don’t get to be a billionaire by being meek. But when Donald Trump is demanding, no one thinks twice about it.

Leona Helmsley left $12 million to her dog in her will, and the Helmsley Trust, which has around $5.4 billion in assets, was originally mandated to only benefit dogs.

By the time you read this I’ll be back from this exciting trip and will let you know how it went. I don’t expect anyone to write us a big check. Fund raising—or development as it’s called in the US, is a long-term process of relationship building.

Here are a few prison-related updates.

Close to home, Vince got the final word on his punishment for not answering the phone when a probation agent called. He’ll be on lockdown for a total of a month and have an extra month added to his probation. I told a friend about it; she works for the St. Paul City Council and was an admin at the St. Paul Police Department before that so she is no stranger to bureaucracies and the sometimes difficult people who work in them.

“I always figure the guy had a fight with his wife,” was her assessment. “If he hadn’t, or if Vince had a different agent that day,” Vince’d still be on track to finish his probation on time.”

“Are they trying to goad him into doing something that’ll send him back to prison?” I wondered. “He also got two parking tickets that day—one was for parking more than 12 inches from the curb. Do you think they could be in cahoots with the police?”

“No,” she laughed. “They’re not that organized. It’s just random.”

On the prison reform front, the New York Times ran an editorial, “Holding Sentence Reform Hostage.” The pending legislation would “reduce absurdly long mandatory minimum sentences for many nonviolent drug crimes, give judges more control over the terms of punishment and provide inmates with more opportunities to get out early by participating in rehabilitation programs.”

Some Republicans are scaremongering, Willy Horton style. At least that sort of makes sense.

But some Republicans say they won’t approve the bill unless it includes a change in federal law that would make corporations and their executives harder to prosecute for environmental or financial crimes. This has nothing to do with prison reform but is a standard tactic used by politicians to get what they want without having to work hard for it. I know, it’s hard to believe they could be much lazier.

In my opinion, this is evil. I don’t like to call people evil, I really don’t. But making it easier for companies like BP or Goldman Sachs to get off the hook?

In related but also absurd-news category, there’s this item: Former Tyco CEO, Who Served Time in Prison, Appointed Chair of Prisoner-Assistance Nonprofit.

Dennis Kozlowski, who did six years for stealing millions of dollars from his own company, is now in charge of the Fortune Society, a nonprofit that helps former prisoners find jobs, housing, health care, and education.  What a great idea: putting an old, white, rich man–a former thief–in charge of a  nonprofit with $10.8 million in assets.  How nice for him.  What could possibly go wrong?

¡Me Encanta Bailar!

This is the third in a series of posts about Cuba which starts here.

We checked into our hotel, the Habana Libre, a mid-century modern. It must have been splendid in its heyday. It wasn’t run down so much as dead. Deathly quiet, no people except the guy at the desk. The lights were dim. We made our ways to the elevator and when I got off at my floor it was so dark I had to grope my way along until my eyes adjusted to the dark. The room was spacious and clean if Spartan. It was as if slowly, over the years, the art, the phone, the clock alarm, the drinking glasses, every little comfort you expect in a hotel had been stripped away.

In the bathroom I had my introduction to some of the disconcerting results of the U.S. embargo. In particular, crude oil, with which plastic is made, was banned, and so the shower curtain was about as thick as a Walmart bag, and the toilet seat was like a large white Frisbee with a hole in the middle—so thin it couldn’t be well secured to the toilet so it slipped around underneath me. The toilet paper? Well let’s just say that if you toilet papered someone’s house with it, the first light rain would wash it away, it was so insubstantial. There was no soap or shampoo or washcloth but there was a towel—one—also so thin and threadbare you could hold it up to the light and even that dim light showed through it. I was the only one who got off at my floor; it seemed like they had distributed our group one or two people per floor.

There was a mini refrigerator with nothing in it and a black and white TV. I flipped it on and there seemed to be two channels: one with old American TV shows like Bonanza, the other featuring nonstop speeches by various politicians. This was when I discovered that all the hard work I had invested into studying Spanish would really pay off. Not! Cuban Spanish is so different, and so fast, that a lot of Spanish speakers from Mexico or Spain have a hard time understanding it.

Suddenly, there was a hard knock at the door. I jumped and yelled, “Who is it?” then, “Quien es?” The knocking continued so I went right up to the door to see if I could see anything through the peephole but whoever it was must have been standing to the side. I repeated, “¿Quién es?” then “Que quieres?” The knocking stopped, then a woman’s voice shouted something that sounded like “Pocky robbabab ocalaca macanaca!” She said it with great gusto. Was she being attacked? Should I open the door and let her in? There was no phone from which to call the desk, and even if I had had a cell phone twelve years ago there would have been no reception in Cuba. The pounding resumed, along with more incomprehensible Spanish and shouting. Eventually she must have given up and gone away.

The next day our group had a walking tour around the city. I had been to Mexico, Jamaica, and to El Salvador, so I wasn’t a complete newbie to the developing world or Latin America. I had also lived in some pretty poor neighborhoods in St. Paul. I was struck by how there were no homeless people here, no beggars, no children selling Chiclets. There was no graffiti or litter. Was that because people couldn’t buy anything, so they had nothing to throw on the ground? Or would they be thrown in prison if they did? Or was it all a front for tourists?

I returned to my room without incident and found this sitting on my bedside table.

Cuban Dancer

Who had left her—was she a peace offering? Anyway, she’s come with me on my travels ever since. When I get to wherever I am staying in Nairobi or Dubai or Dublin, I set her on my bedside table. Her head got lost somewhere along the way, which maybe symbolizes even more the carefree traveling spirit I endeavor to be.

UN-Doing the War on Drugs

I ended my last post by saying I would write about a road trip I am contemplating, from St. Paul to New Orleans.  I don’t know enough to write about it yet, so for now I will revert to one of this blog’s main topics, addiction—and all the consequences of addiction and trying to stop it.

I’m very excited that the United Nations will hold a review of the whole drug control system in April in New York.  It’s called the Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on the World Drug Problem, or the horrible acronym UNGASS. I’d like to thank the Open Societies Foundation (OSF) for its reporting on this.  OSF promotes research documenting the heavy costs of the war on drugs and shares success stories from countries that have implemented smart policies.  I’ve plagiarized their recent blog posts quite heavily here.

The last time the UN had a special session on drugs, in 1998, the focus was “the total elimination of drugs from the world.”  Ha!  I wonder if there were any actual addicts or former drug dealers involved in coming up with that totally unrealistic goal.

Because it didn’t go well.  The war on drugs has led to public health crises, mass incarceration, corruption, and black market–fueled violence.  Governments—especially those in Latin America that have to deal with the fallout of bad drug policies—have pushed for this UNGASS.

Citizens are fed up too.  A few years ago, a coalition of organizations and individuals in Uruguay pushed until the country voted to become the first country in the world to establish a legal, government-controlled marijuana market.  The main objective of the law was to eliminate narcotrafficking.  But they also have a positive goal, to make the new marijuana production chain beneficial for poor segments of society and a sustainable business for small producers with limited resources.

For the first time, there is significant dissent at the local, national, and international levels.

UNGASS is an opportunity to put an end to the horrors of the drug war and instead prioritize health, human rights, and safety.

I didn’t even know that there was an International Narcotics Control Board, did you?  That sounds creepy.  And it acts like a bully, apparently.

For instance, in the 90s, Switzerland had a major drug problem.  There were open-air drug scenes and one of the highest rates of HIV in Western Europe.  The government pioneered services such as heroin prescriptions, supervised consumption rooms, and community-based treatment.  The Swiss people approved this policy through a series of referenda.

What happened?  The number of new heroin users declined from 850 in 1990 to 150 in 2002; drug-related deaths declined by more than 50 percent; new HIV infections dropped 87 percent, and there was a 90 percent reduction of property crime committed by people who use drugs.

But the UN’s Control Board accused the Swiss of “aiding and abetting the commission of crimes involving illegal drug possession and use.”

On the other hand, when Bulgaria introduced a law that made possession of tiny amounts of drugs punishable with mandatory incarceration for as long as 15 years, the Control Board praised their “political commitment and the will to deal with drug abuse.”  I’ve never been to Bulgaria, but life in a Bulgarian prison sounds horrifying.

OSF is publishing a series of reports in advance of UNGASS, including research into drug courts and their unintended consequences, and an examination of how the drug war affects girls and women uniquely.  You can sign up for their updates here.  Want to get more involved or have a say?  Check out this cool website, Stop the Harm.

So there!  After my recent buzzkill series of posts, I’m happy to share with you some good news and some easy ways to contribute to fixing this world’s drug problem—for real this time.