Category Archives: prison reform

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.

Tsouris, Tikkun Olam, Teshuvah

Another week, another shooting of an unarmed black man by police.  Three, actually: in Columbus, Ohio; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Charlotte, North Carolina.  The kid shot in Columbus was carrying a BB gun; you can understand why that could put a cop on edge.  The cop who shot the man in Tulsa has been charged with manslaughter.  That seems just, except it’s a female cop.   She may be guilty, but I think some of the officers involved in previous shootings (all men) were as well, and most were never charged.   Is a woman seen as easier to prosecute?  No one can agree whether the guy in Charlotte was carrying a gun or a book.  A book.  I think even I could tell a book from a gun.  It’ll be interesting to watch these investigations unfold.

It is emerging that no one who should be collecting statistics on police shootings has been doing so.  The best source seems to be the Washington Post.  Its running list illustrates something similar to the situation I’ve written about in our prisons.

Of the 1,500 people killed by police between January 2015 and July 11 of this year, 49% have been white while 25% were black.  Whites comprise 62% of the US population and blacks are 13%.  Does that mean blacks commit more crime, or that they are singled out and treated differently by police?  That’s impossible to know unless all the white people who have committed crimes and gotten away with them step up and admit it.

There were also two terrorist incidents this week.  You probably heard about the man who planted four bombs in New York and New Jersey.  The police managed to take him alive, even though he actually had a gun and was firing at them.  Hmm.  Ahmad Rahami was born in Afghanistan, came to the US when he was seven, and was apparently radicalized after visiting Afghanistan.

In St. Cloud, Minnesota, where my son Vince was incarcerated for six months, a man attacked nine people with a knife. Dahir Aden was a Somali born in Kenya and also came to the US when he was seven.  He was apparently radicalized by online ISIS propaganda.

People were injured but no one died in either episode except Aden.  To paraphrase a blog post Vince wrote about the St. Cloud attack, we needn’t live in fear of terrorist attacks, because these guys are incompetent.  The ones who should live in fear are African American men.

So much tsouris in the world.  That’s Yiddish for suffering.

As I’ve written before, Vince and I have been getting involved in Jewish Community Action’s campaign to reform the criminal justice system, including mass incarceration.  On Monday night we’ll attend a phone bank event where we’ll call ex offenders to make sure they know they may be eligible to vote and to tell them how to register if they are eligible.  Vince may not be able to vote, but he can help others to do so.

Next Thursday, we will speak at a JCA event hosted at my workplace, the Center for Victims of Torture.  A CVT psychotherapist will talk about the psychological effects of imprisonment.  A CVT volunteer physical therapist will speak about the physical effects, and Vince will talk about the fallout on relationships.  If you are local, please join us for either or both or other events.

So much tsouris.   I feel my share of despair and helplessness, but doing something helps.  I’ve been estranged from organized Judaism since Vince’s troubles began, when our rabbis were less than supportive.  Lately, I’ve felt pulled back toward the community by my involvement in JCA.  That’s because the essence of Judaism is tikkun olam, or healing the world.  Doing something to right injustice, even if progress is slow.

Last week I took a big step and went to my old synagogue because I heard there was a new prayer book that acknowledges doubters and atheists.  I went to a study session with one of the (new) rabbis was a dead ringer for my aunt.  I don’t believe in signs, but this did make me feel like I was literally returning to the family.

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.

As the Wheel Turns

Sunday was Father’s Day in the U.S.  Vince texted me at 8:00 am and asked if he could stop by.  He had already invited me for brunch, in recognition that I was/am both a mother and father to him.  But when he showed up he had a Roku stick for my T.V., and even better, he set it up for me!

And so I was able to watch the new season of Orange is the New Black on my T.V.  How ironic, that a year ago he was in prison, and now I am watching a show about prison thanks to him.  This coming weekend he will mark two years of sobriety with a barbecue.

So people can be redeemed and restored to sanity.  No situation is ever hopeless.  Never lose hope, even when it’s all you’ve got.

I’m going to take a break from blogging for a while.  I’ve been posting 700 words every other day since September 2014.  The first year, half of the posts were written by Vince, although I did spend a fair amount of time typing and actually posting them.

Now I devote every Saturday and Sunday morning to writing, and each post takes about an hour and a half from blank page to Pending Publication.

Writing, editing, finding photos, researching things like the State of Missouri’s motto—I get into the zone, aka, in the now, and that’s great.

But it’s summer!  I’d really like to sit out on my deck with a cup of coffee, read the (real) newspaper, and listen to the birds.

And since I am terrible at just sitting and doing “nothing,” here’s my to-do list of projects I’ve got queued up.  I’d like to publish the first year of this blog—the posts focused on Vince’s and my prison experience—as an e-book.  That feels like it could be a contribution to reform of mass incarceration, or at least a good read.  That’ll take some time.  If anyone out there has any advice for me, I’m all ears.

Then, and this may sound grandiose, but I’d like to try my hand at writing a novel.  The big, sprawling, character-packed type like Dickens or Tolstoy.  Not that I’m comparing myself to them or would even expect to get published.  I don’t have a master’s in Creative Writing from Yale, I’ve never been to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, I don’t live on the east coast and I don’t have any connections in the publishing world.

But I think it would be fun.  About a year and a half ago, my uncle died.  He was a retired English professor and I carted home some bags of classic novels and have been ploughing through them.  They’re like crossword puzzles composed of intersecting people and events.  These are the old style books that people would collect and display proudly on their living room bookshelf.  They are “lavishly illustrated” and have beautiful leather bindings that are, sadly, disintegrating.

So I’ll just publish and e-book and write a novel this summer.  Ha ha!  Then there’s travel.  I’ve been stockpiling my paid time off, and I could take as much as five weeks off at the end of the year.  It also looks like I’ll be going to east Africa for work.  So where could I go from, say—Ethiopia?  India?  South Africa?  Japan, Myanmar, Australia…so many choices!  Trips take a lot of planning, so I need time for that too.

I don’t know how long my break from blogging will be, but the next post may be a report from afar.  Have a wonderful summer, or winter, depending on which hemisphere you’re in.

Jim Crow, Old and New

This is the latest in a series of posts about a road trip from St. Paul to New Orleans that starts here.

If you don’t learn something about yourself when you travel … well, that’s okay—I’m not going to sermonize—but I was pleased to learn something important about myself in Memphis.

In the morning, Lynn and I took a walk along the riverfront, which is beautiful:

memphis_riverfront

We walked back to Beale Street, found a restaurant, and ordered breakfast. We were excited to try southern foods like grits and biscuits.  We waited, and waited.  You could say this restaurant put the “wait” in waitress.  She kept coming by and giving us a dose of another southern treat—calling us “honey”, “sweetie”, and “darlin’” as in: “Your food’ll be up in just a minute, darlins’”

It seemed like half the morning passed away before we got our meals, then we wolfed them down and headed over to the National Civil Rights Museum.

It was difficult to find—there was no signage—but then we turned a corner and there it was, the former Lorraine Motel where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.  I recognized it immediately, having seen it a hundred times in iconic photos.

TENNESSEE, UNITED STATES - APRIL 04:  Civil rights leader Andrew Young (L) and others standing on balcony of Lorraine motel pointing in direction of assailant after assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who is lying at their feet.  (Photo by Joseph Louw/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

And this was the beginning of learning something about myself, because I got so choked up I had to turn away so no one would see me in tears.

I have been to Holocaust museums in Washington, DC; Jerusalem, Berlin, Prague, Chicago, and elsewhere, and they’ve been tear-filled experiences too.  But then, I’m Jewish.  Were my tears only because the story was about my people?  That fear—that I only felt empathy for my own kind—was laid to rest in Memphis.

Can a Man

I wiped my tears away but they welled up continually inside the museum, which was one long, sad horror show that traced the abuse of African Americans from slave days up through the assassination in 1968.

There was a large group of school children, mostly African American, going through with docents.  I wondered what they felt seeing Africans in chains, the police dogs, the fire hoses?  If it was my kid I would want to be on the tour to put my arm around him.  There was the usual laughing and fooling around that any group of kids will exhibit, but I wondered if they would have trouble sleeping that night.

I commented to Lynn, “A coworker of mine at Oxfam used to find every opportunity to mention, ‘the UK never had slavery’ in a superior tone.”

“We may not have had slaves in the country, but we certainly benefited and participated in the system,” Lynn replied as we read a display about how global the slave trade was.

And of course it didn’t end with the abolition of slavery.  “Jim Crow” was the system in the southern United States from reconstruction up through the civil rights era in the 60s that kept “negros” in their place.  Here are a few of the ridiculous laws from that time:

Baseball Law Mulattos Checkers

Really?  Checkers!?  Who knew checkers could subvert the social order?

Then we marched slowly through exhibits about bus boycotts, lunch counter protests, and strikes.  Then there were the cross burnings, lynchings, and bombings by white racists; somewhat counterbalanced by the support of white and other allies (including Jews).

Lunch Counter I am a Man Bus Boycott Activists

I watched a video about James Meredith, the first black student to be accepted to the University of Mississippi, in Oxford Mississippi.  Of course he hadn’t mentioned his race in his application, and when he showed up to enroll all hell broke loose.  After weeks of rioting by whites, which resulted in two deaths, he was reluctantly let in, and as Lynn read later, he did graduate and lived a normal life afterwards.

The museum was really well done.  There was a second building that explored African American activism post 1968, but after three or four hours in the first building we had to leave.

Last week Vince and I talked to a group about mass incarceration.  One of the audience members referred to it as the New Jim Crow.  I agree, although in my opinion it’s about poverty, addiction, mental health, and class as much as racism.