Category Archives: prison reform

Word of the Day: Death

I got up this morning to find that one of three kittens I am fostering for the Humane Society was dead.  It’s not uncommon for foster kittens to die.  The mother cats are stray, barely adults themselves, emaciated and hungry, and/or diseased. It’s a cruel world.

Later today I will attend a funeral where Vince will give the eulogy for his best friend from prison.  I don’t know how he died.  He was only 34.

For those of you who are new to the blog, I began writing it with my son when he was in prison.  As he transitioned from prison and addiction to a healthy, sober life, I was freed to write about fun things like travel.

I still try to contribute to efforts at reforming our US system of mass incarceration.  This week I attended a meeting with the new Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

We were there to demand a moratorium on a practice called crimeless revocations.  In Minnesota, out of the 10,000 men and women in prison, 24% are not there for committing a crime.  That’s right; they are in prison because, after serving their sentence and being released, they missed a meeting with their parole agent or—most commonly—they relapsed and used drugs or alcohol.

So we lock them up, where they sit in prison for four to eight months.  They do not receive drug or alcohol treatment or any other services because they are short-termers.  They lose their jobs, their housing, and whatever fragile relationships they have started to rebuild on the outside.

The commissioner agreed that this practice is a waste of time, money, and lives.  But he said he couldn’t stop doing it until he gets buy-in from all his people.  We’ll meet with him again in a month.

Vince wasn’t sent back to prison, but he had all his privileges revoked because he didn’t answer when his parole agent called.  He was doing community service work in a noisy warehouse at the time and didn’t hear his phone ring.  For a month, he was not allowed to leave the house for anything but work.  No AA, no socializing with family or his sober friends.  No gym, no runs. None of the things that were going to keep him on an upward trajectory.  It was his darkest month.

The prison system is designed to punish, not rehabilitate. One of the worst forms of punishment is to mess with people by setting unclear expectations, catching them on some minor infraction, and coming down on them like a sledgehammer.

In Japan, as I’ve described already, I stood to one side and observed as worshipers approached the inner sanctum of a temple or shrine.  In Tokyo, Nikko, Kyoto, Nara, and Koyasan, they bowed, clapped, threw coins into a donation box, and lighted incense or candles.

I’m not a believer, but I felt something, at times.  Perhaps it was because I was mystified by what was taking place.  Maybe I was moved by the sincerity of the worshipers, or the atmosphere.

Especially since my aunt died, and now that Vince’s friend has died, I would like to think there is the possibility of some lingering connection between the living and the dead.

Maybe I should turn the French curio cabinet I inherited from my aunt into a household shrine, complete with photos of ancestors and incense burners.

Day Two in Tokyo.  My sister-in-law’s father, Fred, is retired from a big Japanese company. He has been painting with a group of fellow retirees for years.  If I understood correctly, companies support their retirees to participate in hobbies together.  Fred is also in an essay-writing group.  Today I managed to find the building in which his painting group was holding an exhibition; these are his works.  He’s very talented.

I stopped first to get some pastries because that’s what people do in Japanese novels.

I’ve had eight hairstyles since I last saw Fred and Hiromi five years ago.  But of course I’m white.  He picked me out in the crowded building lobby, hugged me, and said, “Welcome, Anne-san!”

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.

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.

Broken, now Free

I thought it might be difficult to not write. After nearly 600 posts since September 2014—and many streaks of every-other-day posts, I pledged to (mostly) take the summer off from writing.

And it’s been great.  I have no problem sleeping in instead of leaping out of bed at 5:30am to knock out 700 words.

But yesterday was a big milestone, something worth writing about.  The reason I ever started this blog in the first place—my son going to prison—is gone.  Yesterday, after spending half his time in prison and half on supervised release, my son’s sentence is over. Over!  He wrote a post about it on his own blog, if you’d like to read it.  I liked this line:

“I am free to roam about the country or world as I please. I am free to register to vote, and I will. I am free to drink alcohol, and I won’t. I am still not allowed to own a gun, and I don’t care.”

For me, the low point was the day I was ejected from Moose Lake prison without seeing Vince because I was wearing a “low-cut shirt.”  Then I went off to the Middle East for work, where I got to hear stories of people being tortured in prison.  When I came home, there was a letter waiting for me, informing me I was banned from stepping foot on any correctional facility property in Minnesota for six months.

Corrections employees have nearly complete discretion, and impunity, to do whatever they want.  And so they do whatever they want.

I feel like I am walking out into the sunlight after several years under a cloud. I transitioned the blog to writing mostly about travel a while back, but I’ll still write about prison once in a while because … there are still 10s of thousands of people in prisons. I don’t just care about my son; I care about my whole community, my state, my country.

Sigh, my poor country.  What a mess we are.  It’s like a nightmare where we are all living on the Jerry Springer Show.

I had never given a thought to prison, prisoners, or people whose loved ones are in prison.  Why would I?  Prisons are far away.  You can’t go inside them without permission. Only bad people are in them, so why would you want to go inside, anyway?  And if a single mom is on her own because her man is in prison, then she and her kids are probably better off, right?

Boy, has it been an eye opener. There are some bad people in prison, for sure.  But mostly they’re regular people who messed up.  Have you ever messed up?  Of course you have.  You just didn’t do something illegal, or you didn’t get caught.

I am grateful to my son for doing the hard work it took to change his life. He had been under arrest before.  He had been homeless.  I suspected he would die early due to liver failure or a car accident or a drug deal gone wrong.

Ironically, it was prison that set him free.  He always says he needed to go to prison. So for all my idealistic fellow campaigners on prison reform, keep that in mind when you propose repurposing prisons into artists’ retreats or organic garden centers.

I have made little progress planning for Australia, except to decide that I will limit myself to Australia and not attempt to also visit New Zealand, Fiji, Borneo, or Papua New Guinea.

Heidi and I spoke for over an hour yesterday on What’s App, and we agreed it’s crunch time.  Time to figure out how we’ll get from Sydney to Melbourne, time to book flights to Tasmania and maybe a train ride to Alice Springs.  Time to book accommodations in the Red Centre.   The pressure is on.

And yet it is summer, and it’s Sunday.  I think I’ll go sit in the garden and read the paper.

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.