Category Archives: prison

Cock o’ the North

Huntly Castle is just a few blocks from the town square. I got some more cash out of the ATM just in case there was a gift shop.  The fivver was a new one to me, and the woman turned out to be Nan Shepherd, a “Scottish Modernist writer and poet.”  Don’t ask me what a Scottish Modernist is.  Or any kind of modernist, for that matter.

I walked down the appropriately-named Castle Street and through Gordon’s School, which is the local private (meaning public) high school.  Got that?

This is the lane leading to the castle, which is picturesque enough in its own right to warrant a wander.

The castle was built near the confluence of the rivers Deveron and Bogie, and there’s a lovely bridge before you turn toward the castle.

There was a small trailer at the entrance staffed by a young ranger or whatever they are called in Scotland.  It felt sort of like a state park in Minnesota, only with a 900-year-old castle.  The trailer included a wee gift shop.  While I checked out the tartan coin purses, Highland Cattle-themed wall calendars, and bagpipe CDs, the ranger chattered away with me.  Or at me.  It was a slow day and she was lonely, like park rangers everywhere.

I handed over a Nan Shepherd for the entrance fee and was on my way.  I recalled looking at the ouside of the castle with Lynn and Richard but why had I never gone inside?  The following week, Lynn and I took a long drive to an event, and we passed half a dozen castles and other mammoth buildings.  “There’s a manor over there,” Lynn waved nonchalantly.

“Wow!” I exclaimed, impressed by the house near the road that was a little smaller than Dunrovin.

“No … that’s the gatehouse,” Lynn corrected me.  “The manor is through the trees there.”

It was the height of summer so it was hard to see but I got the impression it was a Downton Abbey-sized house. “Wow,” I said again, humbled.  “Someone lives there?”

“Yes, some lord or other.”

To a native, thousand-year-old castles and manors and lords are a dime a dozen.  But for me, being from the land of shopping malls and Kim Kardashian, they still impress.

Back at Huntly Castle, I made sure to watch my step.

And then I was standing at the entrance, entranced.  There has been a castle here since the 12th Century. The original builder was Duncan, Earl of Fife.  The front section, which is the most intact, is French-inspired.  Did I mention it is a ruin?

The most famous occupant was George, Duke of Gordon, a well-known show off referred to as “The Cock o’ the North.”  To ensure you saw his name across the top of the castle, he added a pointing hand (to the left of the “G.”)

It was a beautiful day and the rose and ochre-colored stone was set off by the blue sky and emerald grass to marvelous effect.

The Gordons were Catholics in a Protestant country. During the English civil war the “popish” symbols were chiseled off the castle by Protestants.

Inside, this fireplace had whatever was Catholic removed from the top.

There were more fireplaces that appeared suspended in air because the wood floors were gone.

This was once a cozy sitting room at the top of a turret.

Mary queen of scots ate here, and when the Earl pulled out all the stops to impress her, she turned around and imposed higher taxes on him.  This described an early version of the crock pot.

The 5th Earl of Huntly collapsed and died while playing football.  Probably had coronary heart disease from all the rich food.

My flash wouldn’t work, or you would be gazing upon “the oldest wooden toilet seat in Scotland.”  Quite a claim to fame.

There was this old section of—it was claimed—an original door.  Fabulous.

I climbed to the top then to the bottom, where my heart was chilled by this sight.

My son’s prison experience was bad enough; I can’t imagine being shut up in a mud floored, windowless dungeon with no heat.  (And no, those aren’t real prisoners; they’re dummies.)

Lady Day

Lynn, Richard, Possum, and I made our way into the Wyndham, got some drinks, then headed into the auditorium.

The show was Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.  The premise is that Billie Holliday, the American jazz icon, is performing at a run-down bar in Philadelphia right before she dies, age 44, in 1959.  It’s a two-hour monologue and song book, accompanied by a man who plays the piano, tries to stop her from shooting up, then procures heroin for her.

I don’t go to a lot of live theatre.  It always feels to me like people are talking in a stilted way: “Look at me—I’m acting!”  I was leery about going to any American show in Britain.  On my first trip to England, my cohort of volunteers—who were from all over Europe and Asia—insisted on going to a west end musical involving a loud-mouthed Texan in a big hat.  There was also lots of waving and shooting of guns.  I squirmed through the whole thing.  The group members loved it and laughed all night about “typical Americans.”

Lady Day would be performed by Audra McDonald, with actual audience members on stage as though they were customers at the bar.  This was a bit strange, since McDonald and the musicians were dressed in period costumes, while the customers/audience members were dressed in contemporary clothes.

We were seated at a café table right below the stage.

I loved Billie Holliday as much as anyone; I had listened to her songs over and over, especially in my angst-ridden 30s, but would I be able to sit through two hours of angst?  And my chair was wobbly!

Then McDonald began her performance, and within moments all distractions melted away and I was riveted.  I knew Billie Holliday’s story—raped as a child, raised by a single mother, addicted to drugs and alcohol, did prison time, full of regret over not having children and a string of abusive relationships.

McDonald’s voice was well up to the task of Holliday’s songs; when the first strains of “Strange Fruit” began I teared up instantly.

Southern trees bear strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

 

Pastoral scene of the gallant south

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth

Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh

Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

 

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop

So the show was about Holliday’s life, but also about racism in America, and the lot of being a famous woman performer, and love, and addiction. Believe it or not she was also very funny.  I wanted to run up onto the stage and hug McDonald/Holliday, tell her everything was going to be alright and that I would take her home and take care of her.

I didn’t find myself feeling defensive about the theme of racism.  In fact, just the opposite.  Racism is a reality in America and always has been.  It’s something we’ve had to struggle with, collectively.  We’ll probably never see the end of it.  I’d like to think that as older generations die off, younger ones will be less racist, but the crowds in Charlottesville at the white supremacist rally last year were mainly young men.

So why would I feel proud of my country?  Because at least half of us are fighting this shit. At least half of us are fighting back–marching, writing essays, lobbying our elected officials in opposition to racism and other “isms.”

The performance ended; we looked at each other and I spoke first, “I feel like a wrung out rag!”

“That was intense,” said Richard.

“I’m exhausted!” said Lynn,

Added Possum, “I never knew!”

We went back to the hotel, ordered some wine, and talked for hours about racism in our respective countries.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill was made into a TV show; if you want to watch it it’s here.

Have a box of Kleenex handy.

Taking Care

I missed a writing day because I invited a dozen friends over for a “Caring for the Caregivers” brunch. It’s not like I don’t have enough to do, what with work and blogging and care giving for my mother.  But for the past couple of years I’ve heard story after story from friends, relatives, and coworkers of how they are caring for their parents, partners, kids, or siblings.  Or all of those.

There’s the friend whose in-laws have been dying, in India, where if you don’t have someone at the patient’s bedside 24/7 to feed and bath and otherwise tend to them, they will be discharged.  So my friend and her husband and his sister and her husband are taking turns flying to India—to a city that is not easy to get to—and sitting vigil by the bedside as the father died, and now as the mother dies.  This is not cheap or easy.

There is the friend whose mother took her life savings—literally bags of cash—to a car dealership. Reports of an 80-year-old woman weaving down the street in a shiny new $90,000 Acura to the food shelf to get her commodities got back to my friend.  Her mother was diagnosed with dementia.  The car went back to the dealership and the mother entered a memory care unit, where she is happily making new friends.  But none of that happened easily, or overnight.

There was the friend whose mother collected things.  Anything.  Everything.  Beanie babies, empty coffee cans, popsicle sticks, travel sized toiletries, balls of yarn, cans of tuna, artificial Christmas trees, washcloths.  Her mother died, and I went with her out to the tiny farm town to clean out the house.  Actually, a dumpster had to be filled before any cleaning could take place.  When I took down the lace curtains in the bedroom, clouds of dust enveloped my head and the curtains practically disintegrated.  The most interesting thing we found was an old Playboy magazine under the shelf paper in her mother’s dresser drawer.

Please, don’t collect things.

Then there is my friend who had to cancel her trip to England.  She wound up having a 12-hour surgery to fuse her spine.  Her partner cared for her, and then she cared for him when he donated a kidney to save her cousin’s life. A kidney!  He and the cousin are both doing well.

It’s not that people are constantly complaining.  But the strain is evident in the stories, even when they’re told dispassionately.  So I felt a desire to gather people to share some stories and maybe some laughs.

It’s not exclusively women who are caregivers.  I am proud that my son has stepped up to care for his grandparents in a big way.  If I had included care giving men in my invitation, I would have had to rent a room in a restaurant to fit everyone.

I keep thinking back to a day, three years ago.  I took a day off of work and left the house at 8am.  I drove to a far southern suburb to a medical supply store and picked up a walker (Zimmer Frame) for my mother.  She had been in two car accidents which caused hairline fractures in her spine and hips.  I drove to her house, in a northern suburb, where I adjusted the walker for her, then did a few loads of wash. I then drove to St. Cloud, a city two hours away, and visited my son in prison.  After my one-hour visit, I drove back to an eastern suburb to my sister’s house.  She was on chemo and I think I folded kids’ socks for an hour and did some other chores.  Then I drove to my brother’s house in another suburb and watched his kids for a few hours.

I got home around 8pm. I was exhausted but the day had also made me realize what I was really made of.

Then I did some variation of this every week for the next two years.  Now everyone is doing well, and I just want to feed people who are in the same boat.

I’m also beginning to plan my next escape ….

Erratic Posts, Jurassic Coast

I used to take pride in writing enough every weekend to load up the blog for an every-other-day, always-the-same-time post.  With traveling, vertigo, moving, and sleepless nights due to restless legs, I’ve become untethered from that discipline.

I don’t know that it’s a bad thing; I stopped reading articles like, “Top 10 Tips to Promote Your Blog,” long ago.  No tip I ever tried made the blog stats Boom.  The stats did boom here and there, but I couldn’t tell why.  I pay $99 a year for the WordPress platform and haven’t been curious enough to pay more to maybe find out why someone in Russia or the UK is reading the entire blog—475 posts as of this one.

I never expected to be able to monetize the blog.  What company wants to advertise on a blog about prison, which is how it all started?  I usually only mention specific hotels or airlines when I’m ripping on them, so I don’t see corporate sponsorships in my future.

I pitched the blog to some publishing agents as a book idea and never even received a form reject email in response.  I pitched some of the story lines to local and national publications—most notably Vince’s observations about My Pillow production inside prison (“Made in the USA!”  Yeah, behind the closed doors of prisons, by people who net about 25 cents an hour.  That’s what Makes America Great, right?  We still have slave labor.)  Anyway, there would be initial excitement, then no follow through.  To be fair, there are lots of stories about corporate and political corruption to choose from.

So I just keep writing because I enjoy it.  If a couple hundred of you follow along, that’s great.  Thanks for reading, even if my posting has been patchy lately.

I came across this flyer in one of the many piles of stuff I am packing.

These stats were on a gigantic sign at the entrance to the Eden Project.  Lynn and I stood there for a long time contemplating it.  I can’t remember if the hand edit was there when I picked it up, or if I did it.  Apparently, the number of rich people who own almost everything in the world has shrunk from 20 to two since 2009.  The Great Recession was great—for those two people.

At work yesterday, a coworker and I were lamenting about our ailments.  She tore her meniscus ligament and had to have a transplant from a cadaver.  Yeesh.  I’m glad my ailments only involve no sleep and feeling like I’m on a rocking boat all the time.

“But at least we’re not in a refugee camp,” I said.

“No. No—we get to have problems.  A torn knee and surgery and a year of PT are not ‘first-world problems,’” she replied.

Our first full day in Lyme Regis.  Lynn and I walked into town and had a beach day.

Now, when I say “beach day,” don’t imagine sun and beach umbrellas and people in bikinis and speedos.  Here is a photo of Lynn attempting to use the combo washer/dryer in the public toilet. Note she is wearing polar fleece.

I was tempted to call the toll free number on the machine and ask for help.

This is the town of Lyme Regis.  The sign on the white building notes that Catherine of Aragon slept here in 1501, followed by King Charles II in 1651.  Just imagine.

Yes, it was grey skies in one direction and white puffy clouds with blue peeking through in another.  And they both changed every 10 minutes.

The area is called the Jurassic Coast because you can find 170-million-year-old fossils there.

There was a small, well-done museum and a café serving fresh crab salad sandwiches and tea.  A woman my age had brought her elderly mother for a day out and was yelling over and over, “Ja wanna saaannie ‘n’ a noice hot cuppa, mum?!”   (Would you like a sandwich and a nice cup of hot tea, mother?)

This plaque described, euphemistically, how the locals were “exceedingly hospitable and generous” to US troops, resulting in many trans-Atlantic marriages.

The scenery was stunning.

 

Getting In, Getting Around

Looking back on my three months of working remotely from Europe, Ethiopia, and the UK, I can say I would love to do it permanently.  From what I can tell, there is no legal reason I couldn’t live in the UK without a work visa as long as I was working for a US employer.

According to the UK immigration website, as a US citizen I automatically get a six-month visa when I enter the country as a tourist, without even applying.

Paying rent could be a challenge.  I’m certain it would be impossible to open a UK bank account.  I would have to find a landlord who was willing and able to have rent paid electronically, probably from PayPal.

What stops me from seriously considering this plan?  Well, every time I enter the UK I get grilled by border control.  This happens to my UK friends when they enter the US, too.  I got grilled by Danish border control when I entered Denmark, so it’s not uncommon.

When I came to the UK from Ethiopia, I walked from the plane through halls festooned with welcoming slogans, “Welcome to the UK!” “See the English Countryside!”  “Visit Historic Palaces!”  In other words, they want people to visit and spend money in the UK.

I waited in line for a border agent.  Again, there were banners above the agents’ booths proclaiming the beauty of the English countryside, historic sites, museums, etc.

I stepped up to the booth and after looking over my passport, the Sikh border agent barked at me, “Why are you coming here?”

“Tourism,” I replied.

He looked skeptical, especially when I said I would be staying for two and a half months.  Would I be working in the UK?  No, I replied.  And this was true to the spirit of the question, I believe.  I would be working remotely for an American employer, not for a UK entity.  I would not be stealing a job from a UK citizen, or being paid by a UK employer and transferring my paycheck to an American bank.  I wouldn’t be collecting any public benefits.

I was afraid that if I tried to explain any of the above I would be whisked into an interview room.  Just in case they did that anyway, I also had a letter of employment and documentation of all my US assets including my condo in an envelope in case they wanted proof that I had reasons to return to America.

He asked for the addresses where I would be staying, the names of my friends, and the places we were planning to visit.  He asked to see my return plane ticket, which I had printed out and ready.

Finally, reluctantly, he stamped my passport and without even speaking to me, waved the next passenger forward.

Maybe I was overly concerned about being turned away since I had been refused a visit with my son in prison, and then banned for six months.

So I got in okay this time.  But—what if I cooked up a plan to stay in the UK for six months—the length of a tourist visa—and got turned away at border control?  How much more suspicious would they be of six months than two and a half months?  The uncertainty just wouldn’t be worth it.  There’s no information about this on the UK immigration website, and I don’t want to raise a red flag by asking about my personal case.  I can just imagine them flagging my record somehow to ban me from entering.  All because I love their beautiful country and want to spend my American paycheck there.

And it is a beautiful country.  You may be thinking, “America is beautiful too!” and you would be right.  I’ve seen the Grand Canyon, Florida beaches, Monument Valley, Lake Superior, and Highway 1 in California.  There’s plenty of beauty in both countries and I intend to see as much of it as I can.

From the Lost Gardens of Heligan, Possum drove us through tiny, twisting roads to Portmellon, where we walked on the beach and had a half pint in a pub called The Rising Sun.

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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