Tag Archives: police brutality

A Very Bad Good Woman

I’m interrupting my series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain to write about a memorable New Year’s Eve.

I was in Nairobi carrying out a number of volunteer projects for a human rights organization.  The most interesting was interviewing activists, including a dozen slum-dwelling women who were organizing to fight police shake downs and a guy who had been tortured after protesting the 2007 election results.

I was there for December and January, and just as I was ramping up, the director announced that the office would close for two weeks over Christmas and New Year’s.  I was renting a flat with a 22-year-old German guy who was also volunteering.  He was thrilled about this development and immediately made plans to go to Ethiopia with friends to take photos of the ancient churches there.  This would undoubtedly require massive amounts of alcohol.

The prospect of hanging out in the flat for two weeks was depressing.  Kenyan TV featured the  dregs of American shows, like Baywatch, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and Beverly Hills Plastic Surgeon.  The Internet was maddeningly slow.  Going for walks was considered dangerous.  My supply of books was already running low; English ones were hard to come by and very expensive in the local malls.

So I booked myself on a safari.

I will always feel very lucky to have had this experience.  I went to Basecamp Masai Mara, a “luxury eco-resort” run by a Norwegian company where Senator Barak Obama had stayed with his family.  If it was good enough for them, it was good enough for me.  These links are to my safari Facebook albums.

The organization sponsoring my volunteer gig, American Jewish World Service, had paid my airfare to Nairobi.  For Americans, airfare is half the price of a safari.  It still wasn’t cheap, but it was possible.

So I spent 10 days going on game drives, touring a Masai clinic, reading, and sleeping.  Each morning I awoke to the dawn chorus of hooting, howling, growling, croaking, and cackling coming from the bush.

For each meal I sat at a white-linen-covered table, by myself except once, when a couple of fellow international development people invited me to join them.  He was Norwegian and she was Swedish.

“We know how it feels to eat alone,” he said.

For the last two nights I moved to a remote camp.  I spent New Year’s Eve gazing out over the Masai Mara and Just Being.  Words cannot describe the beauty of the land and the light.

At my last dinner, a Masai guide named Manfred pulled a chair up across the table from me.  This familiarity was unfamiliar behavior.  Manfred was 30ish and had a sweet, innocent face.  He was short and muscular and his skin had a reddish sheen from working outdoors.

He sat back in the cow-hide chair, spread his shoulders and legs wide, and clasped his hands together in front of his chest.  His body language wasn’t confrontational but he was staking his ground.  He smiled at the floor for a few seconds, then up at me.

“When you first arrived, we all thought you were a very bad woman, but now we know you are not.”

I wasn’t completely surprised by his comments.  I’d had the sense that they didn’t know what to make of me, a woman traveling alone.  But I wondered what theories they had about me.

“Did you think I deserted my husband and children?” I asked.

No, he shook his head but didn’t counter.

“Did you think I was a lesbian?” I asked next.

Manfred laughed uneasily, tipping his chair on its back legs.  Now that’s a universal male thing, I thought.

“No, we have had many homosexual guests and they are very nice people.”

That sounded like a line he’d been instructed to say.  I knew from interviewing a transgender activist that alternative sexual orientations had yet to gain acceptance in Kenya, to put it mildly. 

He couldn’t contain himself any longer; he leaned forward and said, “We thought you were a sex tourist.”

I burst out laughing.  I would turn 50 in a month.  I don’t condone sex tourism, but being suspected of it felt like a compliment.

Happy New Year’s!  Enjoy every moment of your precious life!

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.

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.

Dakota Bound

I’m on a road trip! No, not to New Orleans. Believe it or not, I am going to meet with three potential donors in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Yee haw!

Here’s the deal. The Center for Victims of Torture, where I work, does psychotherapy, physical therapy, and social work for survivors of torture and war trauma. We do it in groups in Jordan, for instance, because all the clients speak the same language. We do it on an individual basis in Minnesota, because clients come from 36 different countries and speak myriad languages which must often be translated, which doubles the time everything takes.

This is all good as far as it goes, except that there are an estimated 1.3 million torture survivors in the US alone. We do a lot of training to try to equip professionals outside of CVT to recognize and help torture survivors. But there’s also no way we can train every doctor, social worker, cop, or immigration officer that might come into contact with a survivor.

People have been talking about doing something with technology at CVT for years, but without funding that’s just dreaming. Part of my job is to find new sources of funding, and that’s what I hope I’ve done. I won’t bore you with the details, but there are three HUGE international development innovation funds that we hope to tap. To do this, we need to find partners who know how to reach patients in remote or difficult to access situations. That’s why we’re going to South Dakota.

It’s so important, when you’re trying to get people fired up about complicated ideas, that you have the right people on your team. My co-pilots on this trip are a colleague who is from Sioux Falls and whose father has opened some doors for us, and CVT’s clinical advisor for our international programs, who is Kenyan and a PhD psycholgist. He describes the needs this way:

In Nairobi, there are thousands of Somali torture survivors living in the slums who are not there legally, under the protection of the United Nations. They literally cannot leave their dwellings during the day, because the Kenyan police will round them up and shake them down for bribes. Which would you choose: Pay a bribe, or be sent back to Somalia where you may face certain death? They may not have iphones, but could we develop a text-based therapy intervention?

Among the survivors who are in Nairobi legally, there are many Congolese and people of other non-English speaking nationalities. Kenya is an English-speaking country. The refugee kids may have already missed years of schooling due to being forced to serve as child soldiers and living on the run or hiding. Now they spend 12 hours a day in school—regular school, plus an extra block of time added on to learn English. They have survived unimaginable horrors. Many of them need psychotherapy or physical therapy, but they don’t have time for it. Could we develop a game-like therapy intervention that would appeal to youth?

CVT also works in Dadaab, the largest refugee camp on earth, in northern Kenya near the Somali border. Its population is about the same as Minneapolis—about 350,000 people. Could we do tele-therapy with them—either mental health or physical? If so we could reach so many more people. We could also use videoconferencing to train our own and other organizations’ staff.

MinneapolisMinny Bungalow

DadaabDadaab Tent

“Do they all have smart phones in Dadaab?” I asked. I have been to Nairobi but not Dadaab.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “We would have to do a survey to determine who has the old Nokias, how many have smart phones. The Chinese are making big inroads into the African market with cheap smart phones. Most Kenyans use their mobiles for everything. They don’t have tablets or desk tops or TVs or land lines. They’ve basically skipped over those generations of devices and they do everything on mobiles.”

I love projects like this. They’re big, messy, uncertain, and complicated. They require me to work with people with whom I don’t normally interact. They may have big payoffs. And in this case they require a road trip.

Au Mal Pain

As usual, the prison news includes the good, the bad, and the disgusting.

The good: If I didn’t work in fundraising I might not have caught this item.  The California Endowment has announced it will divest its assets from companies that run private prisons, jails, detention centers, and correctional facilities.  This is fantastic!  The California Endowment is a foundation with $3,668,459,217 in assets.  That’s real money, and maybe it will start a trend.  I look at foundation tax returns almost every day, so I see where they invest their money.  It’s disgusting to see a foundation with a portion of its assets invested in a weapons manufacturer, for instance, and making grants for international poverty programs.  In part, it’s all the small arms the U.S. peddles to warlords abroad that destabilize developing countries and keep them impoverished.  That’s an extreme example but I bet it’s not that uncommon.  If you have retirement investments, you too may own part of Alliant Techsystems or Prison Corporation of America, and you are probably earning fantastic rates of return.

The not-so-good news, also in California, is a report that found abuse, racism, and cover ups a physically isolated prison about 90 miles northwest of Reno.  The town in which the prison is located, Susanville, has fewer than 16,000 people, and the two correctional facilities are its largest employers.  “Employees form tight-knit social groups known as “cars” that can foster what the report terms “a code of silence” that makes it difficult to report wrongdoing.”  They are accused of abusing physically-disabled and minority prisoners, inciting attacks against sex offenders, and conspiring to impede the investigation.   The prison’s nearly 3,500 inmates won’t report abuse because they fear the nearly 1,000 employees will find out and retaliate.  If this is true in this case, why wouldn’t it be true in Moose Lake, where Vince was incarcerated?  Moose Lake has a population of only about 2,700 and, as you might guess from its name, it’s in the sticks.

Then there are two items that would be ridiculous if they weren’t true.

First, rapper Nicki Minaj did a December 10 interview with Billboard Magazine in which she spoke out against mass incarceration, lengthy drug sentences, and the racial bias in sentencing: “What it has become is not a war on drugs.  It has become slavery.  When I see how many people are in jail, I feel like, ‘Wait a minute. Our government is aware of these statistics and thinks it’s OK?’ The sentences are inhumane.”

Earlier this year, she had said about Barak Obama’s prison clemency program, “I thought it was so important when he went to prisons and spoke to people who got 20 and 30 and 40 and 50 years for drugs. There are women who are raped, people who are killed and [offenders] don’t even serve 20 years.”

I guess you could call it a case of bad timing, then when Minaj’s brother was arrested December 3 for raping a 12-year-old girl.  She posted his $100,000 bail.  Blood is thicker than principles, I guess, and I’m not being sarcastic.  As his sister, she probably believes there’s a good explanation.

Last, in prison food news, the New York Times reports that the state’s prisons have announced they will stop serving Disciplinary Loaf—also known as NutriLoaf—to prisoners in solitary confinement.  It was served with a side of cabbage.

God, sometimes I wonder if you think I make this stuff up—that’s why I provide links.

This menu change is part of a slew of reforms to solitary confinement practices.  It was brought about as the result of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, whose director said, “Food is very important to prisoners in a deprived and harsh environment; it is one of the very few things they have to look forward to.”

I’ve pasted the recipe below in case you want to serve it to your family over the holidays.

Recipe for Nutraloaf

Makes 50 loaves.

Ingredients

5 pounds whole wheat flour

20 pounds all purpose flour

1.5 gallons milk, 1 percent

8 ounces fast active dry yeast

4 pounds sugar

2 ounces salt

2.5 pounds powdered milk, nonfat

2 pounds margarine

5 pounds shredded potatoes (with skin)

2 pounds shredded carrots

 

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Heat milk to 105 degrees, then add sugar, salt and yeast. Let stand for 5 minutes.
  3. Add both flours and dry milk, then mix.
  4. Add margarine, potatoes and carrots. Mix for 10 minutes.
  5. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let dough rise.
  6. Grease and flour loaf pans and add dough.
  7. Bake loaves for 40 to 45 minutes.

 

A Cell is a Cell is a Cell

ANNE

Is there such a thing as prison-phobia? If so I’ve got it. After nearly two years of thinking, reading, talking, and writing about prison, I have an irrational fear of ending up in inside myself.

Just for the record, I have not broken any state, federal, or international laws.

However, just last night I was reading the novel, “Go Tell It on the Mountain” by James Baldwin. In it, a character is minding his own business when a two robbers being chased by the police come running along and stand next to him, catching their breath. He is arrested with them and beaten mercilessly in an attempt to get him to confess, which he doesn’t. He is eventually released, but he slits his wrists the next day because he is so traumatized by the experience.

Did I mention he is black and the cops are white? Does this sound familiar? The book was published in 1953. Sadly, some things don’t change.

So that scenario is not likely to happen to me, but phobias are irrational, not rational.

I was also freaked out by the third season of Orange is the New Black. I won’t give away what the last scene of the last episode sets up for the inmates, but it had something to do with crowding/lack of privacy and it really hit a nerve.

My cousin, Molly, and I have talked over the years about buying a piece of land overlooking the St. Croix River and building a retirement community of tiny houses. You know, these are the 250- to 400-square-foot houses (75-122 square meters) made of beautiful woods and lots of clever features to store stuff and make the most use of the space. The idea is, you can have a paid-off house, live in the country, and feel good about yourself because you aren’t destroying the planet by consuming as much as the average new home built in America, which as of 2013 was nearly 2,500 square feet (762 square meters)!

Then Molly sent me this article, “Dear People Who Live in Fancy Tiny Houses” and it killed my dream:

What if you’re having a shitty day and you just want to be alone? You can’t be alone, right? Because your partner or children are sitting two to ten feet away from you at all times. Don’t you feel like a rat trapped in a cage? Don’t you ever want to turn toward your lover or spawn and shout, “Get out! Get out of my tiny house!”

The condo Vince and I are sharing is 800 some square feet. So it’s not the tiniest, but there are privacy issues. When the other Molly—Vince’s girlfriend—is over, I’m sure he wishes I would disappear. I wish I could kick back on a Friday night and watch my geek-ola shows like the PBS News Hour and Washington Week in Review with a couple glasses of wine, but I can’t.

On the whole, things are going well with us, at least from my perspective. But I have mostly lived alone since Vince left home 20 years ago, so it’s an adjustment.