Category Archives: prison

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.

Power Trippin’

I am a morning person, but 3am?  I sprang out of bed, threw on my clothes, grabbed my bag, said a silent farewell to the Reef Retreat, and met the airport shuttle.

As I wrote at the time, if I hadn’t lost my passport and had to fly back early to Sydney, I wouldn’t have seen the World Wide Wallaby convention on the side of the road.  Those little hoppers made it all worth it.

At the airport I ate banana and a protein bar while waiting for to board.  It was me and about 50 retirement-age Chinese couples who were wide awake and yammering at full volume.  Thankfully the plane was half empty so I was able to lie down in the fetal position across three seats but it was so cold I kept waking up.  I flagged a passing flight attendant and said, “It’s freezing in this plane.”  She gave me a look that said, “You’re crazy,” and when I very politely asked if the heat could be turned up she replied with barely concealed rage, “Ma’am, it’s a plane,” as if that explained it.

She did bring me a cup of very hot coffee a few minutes later, so maybe she felt bad about being a bitch.

Off the plane, and it was a good thing I had done this routine with Heidi a few weeks previous. I knew where to find the train station, which train to take, and where to get off.

On the street, I consulted the paper map I’d marked with red circles.  I found the photo shop and smiled for the camera.  “Don’t smile,” said the photog, so I didn’t, and I walked out with two passport-sized photos of me looking like I’d just been booked at the county jail after a night on the town.

On to the consulate, which was in the MCL Building.  Hooray, I spotted a tower with MCL in giant letters at the top.  But at ground level, there were no unlocked doors.  I walked around the building, dragging my suitcase behind me.  Finally I spotted a delivery man and asked him.

“Oh, you want the new MCL Building,” he said. He was super friendly and helpful, pointing out not only the new MCL Building but which entrance I should use.

I rode to the 10th floor, where a cheery Australian guard informed me I would have to check my laptop.  “There’s a photo shop just down that hall, with rental lockers.”

A photo shop.  I paid $10 to check my laptop, then got in the “American Citizens Services” line outside the consulate.  I was the only American.  The “All Others” line lived up to its name.

There was another elevator ride to the consulate’s floor, with an armed guard. I would have to go through security, fair enough.  As I entered the security hall, the Aussie guard at the baggage scanner was barking at a couple in front of me who were flustered and had lost whatever English they had had.

“Who speaks English here!?” he yelled jeeringly.  They appeared to originally be from India or Sri Lanka.  “Do you speak English?  Speak English!”

My blood boiled, and I also felt panic. I knew exactly what was happening.  I was being “triggered”—to use an overused word—by this bully. All the feelings associated with being bullied, leered at, and jerked around by prison guards while my son was inside came to the fore.

I was next.

“You can’t bring that suitcase in here!?” he screamed, as though it was the first time anyone had brought a suitcase to an embassy.

“You’re going to have to go leave that somewhere and come back,” he said.

“But I have a 10 o’clock appointment,” I said.

“Well it might fit through the scanner, but if it doesn’t, you can’t enter.”

I knew from eyeballing it that it would fit.  He probably did too, but he had to make his point—that he was in charge.

A second Aussie guard, who was manning the scanner yelled, “She’s got electronics in here!” as though he was seeing the outline of a bundle of TNT and a lighted fuse.

Prawns and Prisoners and a London Souvenir

After a lovely day with Puffing Billy, it was time to face facts that we would leave in the morning.

I would fly to Cairns.

Heidi and Danielle were hashing out how to get each of them back to different places with one car in one day.  They could retrace the route we took to get here, with Heidi dropping Danielle off in Blayney.  But Heidi wanted to stop in Canberra to see her friend Moira. Danielle was up for that but it would add another day.

People everywhere talk about how to get from A to Z: should we fly or drive or take a train?  “If we drive, maybe we might as well stop in Hooterville since it’s kind of on the way.  But the train would be more relaxing…but driving would give us more control.  But flying would be faster…not really, when you factor in getting to the airport and getting through the lines, and we wouldn’t have a car on the other end.”

And so on.  People everywhere do this, but I think for Australians the stakes are higher and they spend more time thinking and talking about getting around.

But first, a farewell feast.  Dean would barbeque and we would contribute three salads.

I made tabbouleh, my go-to salad.

“I’ve got shrimps on the barbie,” Dean joked, “except we don’t call them shrimps, we call them prawns.  There was an Australian Tourism advert …”

“Starring Paul Hogan—Crocodile Dundee,” inserted Danielle.

“Where they had to say ‘shrimp’ instead of ‘prawn’ so you lot would know what it was talking about.  I’m also making sausages and grilled veggies.  We do make other things besides shrimp on the barbie.”

I noticed the box of red wine on the counter top.  “Oh, these are the crimes people could be sent to Australia for?”

“Yeah,” Lisa responded, and we read them out loud.  We had to Google a couple, like “Impersonating an Egyptian” (a Gypsy, or Roma, who were considered rogues) and “Embeuling Naval Stores” (stealing).

“Murder isn’t on here,” I commented.

“Aww, you would have just been hanged immediately for that,” Lisa explained.  “These are all mostly property crimes that poor people would commit out of desperation.”

“Yeah,” added Danielle as she reviewed the list, “Don’t threaten an English lord’s right to own everything, from your house and land to the fish in the river and the rabbits and firewood in the forest.”

Back in December at my cookie baking party, I provided a few bottles of 19 Crimes and visitors had fun with their very clever app which brought the convicts to life.

I couldn’t help snapping a photo of Lisa and Dean’s shopping list the next morning.

Heidi was up before me, undoubtedly anxious about the long day of driving ahead.  Dean had harvested some gorgeous lemons and gave her and Dani a supply.

It was frosty, and as we huddled in a circle drinking our coffee we laughed when we looked down at our feet.

“Socks and flip flops,” Danielle commented, “Australian spring fashion.”

“Not thongs and camel toes,” I quipped.

That killed the conversation.  Sometimes I go too far with my language observations.

“Can I see the cab before I leave?” I asked Dean.

“Yes of course, give me a few minutes.”

I wandered around outside, enjoying the fresh air and this quiet Kookaburra on the sign post.

Dean called me over to the garage, where he’d lifted the door to reveal the souvenir he and Lisa had brought back from London.

“I’m just waiting for it to be old enough to register as a classic car, which’ll make it a lot less costly to drive,” he said.  “I was thinking of starting a car hire business with it but maybe we’ll just have fun with it ourselves.”

Heidi and Danielle and I said our adieus; I would see Heidi again in Sydney. Then Dean and Lisa drove me to the airport, a 45-minute drive on this early Saturday morning. I always enjoy dropping people off and picking them up at the airport.  It reduces their stress and it’s nice to say good-bye and hello to friendly faces, isn’t it?

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.

Caravans and Bunkhouses

Last week I wrote a Facebook post which went sort-of viral:

Long post but important, I think.

There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about immigrants, migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. It’s important to know that asylum seekers Are Not Eligible to receive government benefits (no subsidized housing, no food stamps, no welfare, etc.) and they also are Not Allowed to work in the US for five months after their arrival.  

Most of the people in the so-called caravan in Mexico are hoping to claim asylum. They have the right to do so under international law. That Does Not Mean they will be granted asylum; the process can take years, and only 10% will be approved.

Asylum seekers are people who have been tortured, imprisoned, raped, and otherwise abused by their own governments, militias, gangs, police, etc. This may have been because they were fighting government corruption, organizing small businesses or unions, they were related to someone who was doing these things, they were the wrong religion or ethnic group, or they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. 

How would you survive for five months if you weren’t allowed to work and you couldn’t get any public benefits? While they wait for their cases to be heard, asylum seekers literally depend on the kindness of strangers. Many clients of my organization, the Center for Victims of Torture, depend on two local religious orders, the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Franciscan Friars, for housing. When you are thinking about year-end donations, think about contributing to one of them.

I don’t know why this particular post spurred people to share it.  When I started working where I work, I remember being shocked that asylum seekers could not work or get government benefits.

“But how do they survive?” I asked one of our social workers.

“Barely, that’s how,” she replied. She explained that they go from couch to couch in the homes of friends of friends who belong to their same nationality, or they sleep in homeless shelters, because there’s no way the Sisters of St. Joseph and Franciscan Friars can house all of them. “You can imagine,” she continued, “how stressful it is for someone who’s been tortured and is having flashbacks and is afraid of being sent back—how stressful it is to be in a homeless shelter, with people yelling and fighting with each other.”

Heidi and I arrived at Ayers Rock Airport, located in Yulara, a five-hour drive from Alice Springs.

Here, I would have a comical flashback to my son’s time in prison.

Heidi, with the help of her sister—a travel agent—had planned this whole thing.  I had followed Heidi’s instructions to bring only a backpack. She had also urged me to bring a pair of shoes I wouldn’t mind tossing when we left, since rugged hiking and the red dust would destroy any footwear but hiking boots.  I don’t own boots and I didn’t have time to break in a new pair.

A bus took us to Ayers Rock Resort, which holds a monopoly on accommodations in the centre.  There is every level of price and comfort, from a luxury hotel to caravan park, all owned by the same people.

Heidi had booked us in to a bunkhouse.  “I reckoned we’re only here one night, so how bad could it be?”

It was actually named the “Pioneer Lodge.”  There’s a reason they don’t show photos of the interiors on the website.

These people are outside because, well, who would want to spend any time inside?

 

“I feel like we’re in an episode of Orange is the New Black,” I commented as we surveyed the place.

“We’ll certainly get our thirty-eight dollars’ worth,” quipped Heidi.  It was, indeed, only for one night—this was an adventure.

We “fought” over who would sleep up top with the giant pipe.  Heidi sleeps through the night, while I get up several times to use the bathroom.  “You can’t climb down that ladder in the dark,” she insisted.

“I could hold a flashlight in my teeth,” I suggested feebly.  Heidi didn’t get much sleep, since the pipe turned out to be a hot air pipe.

Summer Summary

Today is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  It’s as good a time as any to re-start writing.  I’ll join some friends at synagogue this morning, then have a free day.  The weather is always beautiful on Rosh Hashanah, so I’ll spend as much time outside as possible, doing as little as possible, which is really hard for me.

It’s been three years since my son was released from prison.  I saw him yesterday and reminded him, “When I called you the day before I picked you up, I asked if there was some food you’d like me to bring along for you.  And without hesitation you said, ‘an avocado…or any fresh fruit or vegetable, really.’”

He laughed, remembering this. I had brought an avocado, and some oranges, and he wolfed them down.  Then he had asked to stop at a MacDonald’s, and to buy a lottery ticket. I wasn’t happy about either of those but I bit my tongue. I did a lot of that in the months that followed, as we lived together in my tiny, dark flat over the winter. A couple times I lost my temper and screamed at some inanimate object.  Vince would draw himself up to his full height, look at the floor, walk to his bedroom that doubled as a laundry room, and shut the door.  It was a very long winter.

Vince now has four years of sobriety.  He’s got a job at a country club with good pay and benefits like health insurance—for the first time in 20 years.  He bought a house this spring.  He has a girlfriend with two young children, and he is thriving at playing a father role.

It’s complicated.  I love kids and I am cautiously forming attachments to these two cuties.

It’s been a great summer. As I’ve written over and over, I’m a big advocate of seeking adventure at home. Sure, I would love to travel nonstop, but that’s not in the budget.

This was Pola-Czesky Days, the annual festival in the tiny town where Vince lives. Small town parades consist of marching bands and floats featuring veterans, civic groups, politicians, and other towns’ princesses.

There was also a tractor pull, which I didn’t understand.  It was basically just tractors roaring down the street over and over, making a lot of noise and belching out fumes.

As a life-long city person, this type of thing is more exotic to me than London or New York.  I loved the classic cars.

Other summer doings: I won tickets to a St. Paul Saints minor league baseball game. They were playing Winnipeg.  I don’t know why the Saints mascot is a pig, but hey, never pass up a photo opp with a mascot.

I went to Irish Festival, which always has great music and strange performances involving little girls wearing curly wigs, Irish dogs, and men in kilts hurling things and playing bagpipes.  Then were the Christians at the gate.  I already knew I was in trouble so their Good News wasn’t news to me.

I went to Wannigan Days in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, the highlight of which was human foosball. Unfortunately I didn’t get a good photo so you will just have to use your imagination.

There was a memorable happy hour at Lake Monster Brewery sponsored by Jewish Community Action, with which I am still doing my very small part on their campaigns to reduce mass incarceration and injustice against immigrants.

Inspired by the Great British Baking Show, for my nephew’s birthday I made a cake with layers of sponge and crème patisserie covered with whipped cream and fruit.  It slid sideways in the car on the way to the party but it still tasted good.

I hung out in the backyard of my apartment, which is wild and secluded.  I have come to love where I live, but then I love anywhere in summer.

My summer summary will have to be continued, as will an update on my Australia trip, which starts in two weeks.

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.