Category Archives: indefinite detention

Work Life Sameness

I wrote a post with this same title three years ago, when I went to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories for work.  My Palestinian colleague and I met with dozens of activists who told us about the terrible prison conditions, torture taking place therein, and the oppressive regimes (both Israeli and Palestinian) under which they live.

Meanwhile, back in Minnesota, my son was in Moose Lake Prison, from which I had just been ejected because I was wearing a “low-cut blouse.”  This was the worst day of my life in the last three years.

All Omar knew about me was that I was a white, Jewish, middle-aged woman from Minnesota.

“My son is in prison,” I informed him at what seemed like an appropriate time.  I told him about being thrown out.  “I don’t think they know who they’re up against,” I said. “They’re not gonna know what hit them once I get back.”

It turned out to be the other way around. A letter from the Department of Corrections—basically a six-month restraining order—was waiting for me when I returned.  I tried to fight it but the DOC has complete discretion and hides behind the term “Security Issue.”

Yep, I was a big threat.

I think Omar realized I wasn’t some dilettante coming to “save” the Palestinians—what we refer to in the NGO world as just White Women With Scarves.

Part of touring Colombia with a company called Responsible Travel is that you get guides with deep knowledge of socioeconomic and political issues.

So on our first day, in Bogota, Lynn and I got an earful from our guide, Michael Steven Sánchez Navas.  Often I will use pseudonyms for people to protect their privacy, but in Michael’s case I am intentionally using his real name in hopes that transparency with protect him.  Lynn and I have both friended him on Facebook, and it appears he does the same with every tourist he encounters.  Maybe many global sets of eyes on him will put a check on anyone who doesn’t like what he has to say.

More about this later, but for now I’ll just say that this vacation seems like it happened a year ago because I came back to work to find we’ve got three proposals for Iraq due within a month.  Another organization is the lead on all of them, which is great, but it’ll still be a ton of work.  It’s good thing.  But it’s all Iraq, all the time, and all I read and hear about is prisons, torture, rape, and war.

But first, let me back up to something less depressing, the Casa Deco hotel.  As the name implies, it’s a deco-era hotel located in the Candelaria neighborhood of Bogota.  It’s got a lovely lobby with no elevator, but a helpful employee hiked our cases up to the second floor.  It was Lynn’s turn to do a small double take—since in her hemisphere the second floor is the first floor.

I have most of these plants at home, but they are at most 12 inches, not 12 feet, tall.

“The owner is Italian,” said the guy lugging our luggage.  This was by way of explaining why the hotel was full of reproductions of work by Gustav Klimt.  Klimt was Austrian, so this wasn’t really an explanation, but we were tired so we didn’t press.

There was one bed.  The hotel guy quickly folded down and made up the couch, which turned out to be a hide-a-“bed.”  I claimed it, seizing my chance to make up for the times Lynn has sacrificed by taking the bad bed.

I had double checked with our tour agent that there would be two beds.

“Lynn and I are good friends,” I had written, “but not that good.”

Besides, the thrashing around I do to relieve my restless legs would drive Lynn (or anyone) crazy.

And it was bad.  Hard as concrete on one side, lumpy with a big dip on the other.

But so what?  You can get by with little sleep for a couple nights.

The art above the bed was more likely to give me nightmares, if I looked too closely.

What We Don’t Know

One more post about prison stuff, then back to the European travelogue.

A couple organizations have been pushing legislation that would improve conditions in solitary confinement in Minnesota prisons.  We Minnesotans think we’re so progressive, and we are in many ways, but we are one of the worst abusers of seg, as testified to by the letter from a prisoner in my last post.  I read the bill and made some suggestions, like that a prisoner’s next of kin be notified when they are put in seg.  I was never notified when Vince was kept there for six days.  I’m sure the prison system would hate that, because they’d have all sorts of mad moms like me calling to demand what happened.  It’s a Republican controlled legislature now, so I’m keeping my expectations low.

If you think US prisons are bad (and they are), Lynn mailed me an article about UK prisons which shocked me—me, and I’ve written a hundred posts about prison.  The link isn’t publicly available, so I’ll recap it for you.

UK prisons are overcrowded and violent.  Assaults against guards and other prisoners are way up, there are riots and strikes, and there were 107 suicides and five homicides in 2016.

I assumed the violence was due to overcrowding, which was due to the same forces as in the US—harsh sentences, corporate interests, institutionalized racism and classism, poverty that causes people to use drugs and alcohol and to deal drugs, and an aging prison infrastructure.

Of course it’s complicated and there are underlying causes.  But the article attributes the violence directly to new “psychoactive substances” which have “dramatic and destabilizing effects.” They’re called names like “Spice” and “Black Mamba” and they can’t be detected in urine tests.

And this is where I laughed out loud: these drugs are being delivered by drones.  Yes, drones!  It’s kind of hilarious, until it’s your son, husband, or brother getting knifed in the kidney by someone who’s high out of his mind.

The US version of The Week ran an excerpt from a Bloomberg Businessweek article which profiled the founder of MyPillow.  Mike Lindell is a recovering addict and I give him lots of credit for that and for building his business.

However, all of his products are stamped with “Made in the USA.”  Lindell is a big Trump supporter and would probably cheer the cutting of government benefits to the poor, which is interesting since MyPillow has contracts for prison labor that must net them millions.

I know this because one of the facilities in which Vince was incarcerated, Moose Lake, had a MyPillow factory line.

And so MyPillow can stamp “Made in the USA” on every box, and it’s true, but that pillow may well have been made by a prisoner who netted $2.00 an hour.

I can’t find anything anywhere to substantiate that MyPillow benefits from prison labor or even that it operates in prisons.  This is the beauty of working inside prisons—it’s a secret!—literally behind locked doors.

I’m not saying MyPillow is doing anything illegal.  However it is hypocritical that Mr. Lindell, a conservative, takes government subsidies.

I wrote to the editor of The Week, Bill Falk, and he wrote right back, which impressed me.   He suggested I write to the author of the original story in Bloomberg Businessweek, Josh Dean.  This should have occurred to me in the first place, but better late than never.  So I wrote to Mr. Dean and he responded right away too.  I didn’t expect BB to amend his article; I just wanted him to have the additional information.  There’s no reason a reporter would ask every businessperson he interviews, “Do you operate inside prisons?”  You might think that a “jobs for inmates” story line might be good PR for MyPillow, but Mr. Lindell didn’t bring it up.

Bill Falk also suggested I contact one of my local newspapers, which might have investigative reporting resources and an interest in pursuing the story, since MyPillow is a Minnesota company.  Mr. Dean also urged me to do this, and I did.  A local editor was interviewing Vince within an hour of me sending the email.  Stay tuned.

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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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.

Prison as Trauma

Most people never get to go to an event about prison.  I went to two in one week.

The first was a phone-a-thon to ex cons.  It felt like a worthwhile use of my time and I would recommend doing something similar if you are depressed, angry, or frightened about some issue.  Like oh, let’s say … a presidential election.

Two nights later was an event I organized at my workplace, the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), and co-sponsored by Jewish Community Action.  It sounds complicated, I know.  What does torture in foreign countries have to do with prisons in Minnesota?

A lot, it turns out.

It was a small event, just 18 of us, but to us Jews the number 18 is a mystical one symbolizing “chai,” the Hebrew word for life.

I was a little concerned that the topic might be a tough one for Vince, my son, who had actually experienced some of the things we would discuss.  My childhood friend whose son is in prison came, and I was worried it might add to her worries.

Our first speaker was a CVT psychotherapist who described quite viscerally how trauma happens and what its effects are.  She had us close our eyes and imagine a baby.  Assuming he has a loving parent who holds him and meets his needs, he learns to trust people and look to them for help in times of need.

Trauma happens to almost everyone, eventually.  It could include abuse and neglect in childhood, a serious illness, the death of a loved one, or a car accident.  Normally, we turn to other humans for comfort.

Torture is intentionally perpetrated by one human being against another under “color of law.”  In other words, it’s authorized or at least there’s a “wink and a nod” from some type of government official.

Usually, there is no one to turn to for comfort because you are locked in a cell.  Your torturers may have your family locked up too; in fact one of the most common forms of torture is to force someone to watch or listen to a loved one being tortured.

Much of the abuse that takes place in US prisons every day—assaults, rapes, solitary confinement—would likely be legally ruled as torture if we ever investigated it fully, in my opinion.

Torture destroys trust.  Rebuilding trust is at the core of recovery.

The second speaker was a CVT volunteer who is a practitioner of Rolfing Structural Integration.  I don’t know jack about rolfing, but she does it for our clients for free and it helps them.  She talked about the physical fallout of trauma, which starts in the brain.  When someone feels threatened, the first thing they do is look for other humans for help, as the psychotherapist had said.  If they are being threatened by those other humans, the right side of their brains “light up” and they go into flight or fight mode like an animal.  I think we’ve all heard about that, right?  What I didn’t know is that the left side of the brain shuts down.  That’s the organizing, verbal, and thinking side of the brain.

And so people who have been tortured, for example, cannot put into words what happened.  On the witness stand they come off as not very believable.

One thing I also didn’t know which I found fascinating was that people kept in small spaces actually stop being able to see beyond the parameters of that space.  Someone kept in solitary for a certain length of time, when they get out, cannot see farther than six feet in front of their face.  They regain their vision eventually, but!

Vince was the third speaker.  He and I read excerpts from blog posts he wrote in solitary, where he was kept after being transferred to Moose Lake—because they didn’t have a regular cell ready.  They told him it would be temporary.  How long would you assume “temporary” meant? Six days, as it turned out. He described the cell and his experience in great detail. I felt myself getting outraged again.  We haven’t talked about it, but I wonder if it raised feelings for him too.

Croeso i Gymru

Before I resume my series on the UK road trip I have to mention a meeting I attended today.  For those who are new to this blog, I work for an organization that provides psychological and physical rehabilitation to torture survivors.  We had a lunchtime talk by an attorney who is representing one of the 70-some detainees at Guantanamo.  I can’t repeat much of what he said because it is top secret.  Seriously!  I’ve always wanted to say that and now it’s true.

Let’s just say that he firmly believes his client is innocent, that his client was tortured severely and repeatedly, and that his client has horrendous, humiliating physical problems as a result.  As the attorney described his client’s symptoms I watched as, one by one, we stopped eating our lunches.

Well, I kept eating.  I felt like a schmuck but it was my only chance to wolf something down between meetings.

Again, for those of you who are new to the blog, it began when my son Vince went to prison.  He was never tortured, unless you count being kept in solitary confinement for a week.  However, this attorney described actions taken by Gitmo guards that were just like things done by guards in Minnesota.  Mostly, it involved random acts of violation.  For instance, out of nowhere they would go into his cell and rifle through his things and scatter them around.  They weren’t expecting to find anything; it was about throwing him off balance, making it clear they could do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, and intimidating him so he would never feel safe.

Now he is home free and doing well.  But I found myself feeling upset during the meeting.  It’s well understood in our organization that many former prisoners have PTSD from what they endured on the inside.  I sometimes think I have what’s called secondary trauma, which is caused by hearing the stories of people who have suffered.  So even though I’ve never been in prison I am affected by it.  I just needed to get that off my chest.  Thanks for reading.

Back to the road trip!

Rebecca packed all our gear into the Micra and we were off to Wales.  We agreed at the start that I wouldn’t drive, since I had never driven in Britain and didn’t have an international driver’s license.  But mainly it was because every time she took a turn I was inclined to yell, “head on collision!” because in my mind we were in the wrong lane.

It’s only about 200 miles from Oxford to St. David, Wales, but it was spring so road projects had sprung up everywhere, along with the famous bluebells.

BluebellsRoad Works

We were headed for Abergavenny to spend a night at Rebecca’s brother’s house.  The route was clear as a corn maze.  I had never encountered round abouts and I asked Rebecca to explain the rules to me.

She tried, but I think it’s one of those things—if you grow up knowing it, you just know it—and you can’t explain it to someone else.

Bewildering Sign

We stopped at an outdoor store to buy fuel for the camp stove, which they call meths.  Even Rebecca, a native who had visited Wales many times, was stumped by this one.

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Back on the road, I asked, “How is it that Wales is part of the UK but still separate country?” Again, she tried, but it seemed to be another case of “it’s clear and obvious if you were raised here, and it’s hopelessly bewildering if you weren’t.”

We had dinner with Rebecca’s brother and his wife.  Rebecca referred to her sister-in-law’s “charming Welsh accent” but I couldn’t hear it.  We left their house early the next morning; ominous dark clouds and high winds increased as we drove toward St. David’s.

We found the campground at dusk, and when we checked in, the woman in the office retracted her lips and sucked in her breath.  She didn’t tell us we couldn’t camp, but she clucked and fussed with a worried frown on her face before she finally pointed out our site, on the edge of the cliff overlooking the sea.

How’s that for a cliff hanger?  Ha ha ha.

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.

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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.”