Category Archives: mass incarceration

Horrid Little Men

We returned to the coffee shop we’d been to the previous day and people watched.

Lynn commented, not for the first time, that the Botero statue of the fat man with a little dick dressed as a gladiator reminded her of a certain president.  “Such a horrid little man,” she said.

This was the second time this day she had used the phrase “horrid little man.”  Over lunch we’d had a long conversation about the Me Too movement and our different experiences.

Lynn’s mum had made it clear to her three daughters that they should put up with no nonsense from anyone.  “Remember, you’re a Rutter!” her mother would admonish them.  Rutter is Lynn’s last name, no relation to the famous composer.

“We didn’t even know what that meant,” Lynn said, “But it had its effect.  When Jan and I were traveling around Europe …” (Jan is her older sister) “… when I was 17, we slept on a hillside in Italy with a bunch of other broke young people who were sleeping rough.

“I woke up in the middle of the night to find a bloke unzipping my sleeping bag.”

“Did you know him?  What did you do?” I asked.

“No, I didn’t know him! I yelled at him—‘Get away from me, you horrid little man!’  It just came out of my mouth.  I don’t think any bloke wants to be called ‘little.’”

“What did he do?”

“He scurried away.  I went back to sleep.  No one bothered me again.”

“And no one ever hit on you at work, ever?”

“I don’t think so,” Lynn replied thoughtfully.  “If they did, I didn’t realize it.”

“Well if you had had any of the experiences I’ve had, there would be no doubt about what was going on,” I replied drily.

I wrote a post last November detailing some of the incidents where men have stalked, groped, exposed themselves, or otherwise sexually harassed me, including at work.

I think, due to my early childhood experiences, I had a big V for “vulnerable” or “victim” stamped on my forehead until just a few years ago.  My mother never told me, “Don’t forget—you’re a Maertz!”  But then, she had been an abused woman herself.

As I write this, a month after this trip, Colombia is in the news because its peace process is in danger of falling apart.  The US is trying to extradite one of the FARC leaders to face cocaine trafficking charges.  The 2016 peace deal promised immunity to FARC leaders, all of whom were wanted in the US, if they quit the drug trade.  The US says that Seuxis Hernandez-Solarte (great name!) has continued in the coke biz. FARC claims the US and Colombia are in cahoots to frame him.

Sigh.  More fat men playing at gladiators. And why was the drug trade so lucrative?  What was the economic incentive?  It was the US demand for drugs. And rather than get people into drug treatment which would have dried up demand, we tried to arrest and incarcerate our way out of the problem.  My son is Exhibit A.  What a waste of lives, money, and time, in both countries.

We had a last supper with Roxana and Ricardo and Gaby at the same restaurant we’d enjoyed the previous night.

The next day we would fly to Santa Marta, on the northern coast.  We would have to make a connection in Bogota.  Someone would pick us up in Santa Marta and drive us to Tayrona National Park.  It became unclear from that point out, but somehow we would then spend an hour traveling on foot or by horse into this park.  It was going to be a long day.

The driver didn’t arrive at the agreed time, 7:30am.  He hadn’t showed by 7:45, so I What’s App’d Responsible Travel.  It was an hour-long drive to the Medellin airport, there was only one route, and we had seen miles of backed up traffic going in the other direction on our way in.  If we didn’t get to the airport it would set off a cascade of missed connections and we didn’t want to know where that would land us tonight.

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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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.

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.

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.