Tag Archives: prison

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.

Me, Mom

Before I continue to the exciting conclusion of the road trip, I am sharing this post from Vince’s blog he wrote for Mother’s Day.

Mom, I know I’ve let you down. Over, and over again I’ve made a mess of my life and brought both of us shame.  There were years where you were unable to explain my whereabouts to family and friends, and times where you yourself didn’t know where I was. I’ve put you through more pain and distress than I care to recall.  I’ve not been a son to you for many years, and I have lost your trust far too many times.

But for some reason, you still love me. It’s an unconditional love that I’ve felt nowhere else. Even recently when we didn’t see eye to eye when we lived together, there was never any doubt that you loved me.  I wish I could promise that I will never be lead astray again by the temptation and allure of alcohol and the world of drugs, but I cannot because it’s the nature of the disease that I am always at risk of going back. Tomorrow, when we go out on our secret trip to an unknown location for Mother’s Day lunch, I will be repairing some of the damage I have caused. I will be repairing the bond that had been broken for so long as a result of my actions. I have nobody to blame but myself, which leaves only me to clean up the mess. And so far, I think it’s working.

It’s hard work, searching inside myself to figure out what’s been broken for so long. But through writing this blog, attending A.A., and working with a sponsor, I’m starting to change my life. I no longer do these things to avoid going back to prison, I do them because I want to be out here living life and being with my family as much as I can.

Although you had help from some family members raising me for a small portion of my childhood, I know that you were solely responsible for bringing me up and I know that you not only did the best you could without a father present, you truly were an amazing Mother, I just didn’t see it until later in life.

You imparted upon me how to be a good, loving person, and it took me about 20 years longer than it should have to recognize that. The things you showed me are the things I strive to emulate now because I know that they are righteous, moral, and honorable.

It doesn’t get any more honest than that. You were instrumental in keeping me sane throughout my prison term. You wrote to me, sent me money, and answered my calls. Not everybody is as lucky, or has a person that loves them no matter what. You moved just to accommodate me living with you when I got out, and I am so grateful for that. I may not have acted like it when I lived there, but that was because I was ashamed of myself, and I shut myself in my room, and my own little world where I felt comfortable. I’m breaking out of that shell slowly, and I won’t forget that it’s because of you that I’m even out here in the first place and had a warm safe place to sleep. Sometimes it takes a while to realize what I have to be grateful for, but eventually it comes.

Tomorrow is your day, and I’m excited that I have the ability to take you out for the day, and the means to make it happen. I think this will be the best Mother’s Day we’ve ever spent together, and I look forward to many more.

Mom, I know I’ve let you down. But I’m going to make it up by becoming a good son, and making up for all the hurt I’ve caused. I love you, Mom.

I told Vince, over the sushi feast he had planned, that I appreciated the post. I also told him that by changing his life, he is making amends to me and he never has to apologize for his past actions again.

Sushi n MeSushi n V

Time to Make a Move

Greetings from Oxford, Mississippi! This is a post written by Vince about his move. It will be bittersweet to come home to an empty house.

Time to Make a Move

Just shy of seven months as a free man, I am happy to report that, as a 37-year-old, I am moving out of my mother’s home. Again. Maybe for the fourth time in my life, and hopefully for the last.

I alluded to this in my last post but not before because I didn’t want to get overexcited about it until it was actually approved by my agents. Now it is official, and I can proudly relate this information to you: I AM MOVING!  Just two short days from now.

I have written about this move before, but as a failed attempt at leaving the nest possibly too early.  I’m moving into a house with two sober guys from the program, one of which I was in prison with, and I’ve worked with for some time. He no longer works with me, but we remain friends. I don’t know the other guy, but he’s sober, and that counts for a lot.

I’ve been to see the house once.  It’s small as you can see in the picture, but I’ll have my own room, so it isn’t like a sober house environment. There isn’t a house manager that watches over us, or anybody to give us random shakedowns and breathalyzers. I have my agents for that. This is a step forward.

V's House

It couldn’t come at a better time, in my opinion, as I will be moving on to the next phase of Intensive Supervised Release program soon after. That will open up a lot more time that I can spend doing things I want to do like go to more meetings, and spending more time with my family. I am also finishing the last three hours of my community service this week.

It’s all lining up.  Everything is going well in so many ways.  So I need to be really careful. For somebody like me, good news can be all I need to trick myself into thinking I deserve a reward.  Maybe I can go out and celebrate with just one drink, or just a little crack (“A little” crack doesn’t actually exist. It’s an all or nothing drug. For more information, go here). I mean, at this point I’ve built myself a pretty good network of people that I can reach out to if the urge hits me, but it’s always good to layer on the protection.

This disease of mine can also be described as an allergy. When I drink or do drugs, things just go haywire. My body responds differently to them than normal people.  Also, my allergy in particular is a little more severe than say, a gluten allergy. Oh, also I don’t believe that’s a real allergy, but I’m not a Doctor.  Anyhow, let’s say that somebody with a gluten allergy accidentally ingests some flour. Well, maybe an hour or so later, they fart a little and that causes some slight discomfort or embarrassment. Well, when I ingest a little alcohol, or maybe some meth, my world flips upside down.  I can no longer take care of myself financially, mentally, or physically. And this allergy affects others, too.  For example, if I smoke crack, you may no longer have a television, and some of your smaller valuables may go missing as well.

Simply put, chemicals make me not give a fuck about you or me.  And I’d really like to avoid all of that so that’s why I’ve immersed myself in this program of Alcoholics Anonymous. I’m not worried about relapsing because of my new place and my new freedoms, I’m excited to see what I can do with them.  And I’m really happy to be able to share this with you people. For you that are new to this blog, I encourage you to see where it all started almost two years ago with just five pieces of writing paper and a 3” flexible safety pen behind the unforgiving bars at St. Cloud Men’s Reformatory/State Prison.

Easter Interlude

I was Skyping with someone at work who is an attorney who documents torture and other human rights abuses perpetrated against Syrians.  I loved this quote she had on her Skype account:

I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.

It was said by E.B. White, who along with William Strunk wrote The Elements of Style, usually just referred to as “Strunk and White.”  It was first published in 1918 and is considered one of the most influential English language books.  It was like a Bible to me when I first began my career.  Basically, in a little over a hundred pages (1999 edition), they tell you everything you need to know about punctuation, grammar, composition and commonly misused phrases and words.

Here’s another quote from White: “Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.”  That’s a great affirmation from someone who basically inscribed the Ten Commandments of writing on paper.  As someone who often wonders, “Why am I writing this blog?” I appreciate this one.

And finally, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.” I hope I am both.

I’m going to share a couple posts from my son Vince in the next week or so. We started Breaking Free as a co-blog, to write about his experiences in prison and mine as a prison mom.  Is that a thing?  It is now.

Easter Interlude

The anxiety started a little over a week ago, when I found out how soon Easter actually was this year. I was finally going to jump over another big hurdle. I’ve been out of prison now for almost seven months and haven’t had the opportunity to attend a gathering with the extended family, and today was that day.

I don’t actually know what it was that I was afraid of. I guess it’s the fact that I haven’t seen them for a decade and I really don’t know that any of them have any idea where I’ve been. I visualize a hundred conversations all ending abruptly when they ask what I’ve been doing, or why they haven’t seen me in so long. And of course it’s not their fault that they’d be curious, we’re family. My grandparents are wonderful but as far as I know, they didn’t really spread the word about my trip to prison, or my years of alcoholism and drug addiction. And there’s the shame factor for me that I didn’t really want to go into any of that at Easter (or ever). I mean who wants to hear such a sad story on Jesus’ Birthday? Or whatever it is.

All the worry and apprehension was for naught. I was greeted with hugs, handshakes, and warmth. And truth be told, I felt some connection with a few of them that it turns out I really missed. And once again I was sitting at the table with my family, laughing, conversing, and feeling all the uneasiness dissipate. I didn’t recognize a few of them as they had all literally aged ten years and were just kids the last time I had seen them.

I think what I realized is that it doesn’t matter where I’ve been for so long, only that I am here now. Not just in this particular situation, but in everything. It took me a while to adapt to life outside the walls, but now that I have been away for a while, I think I can let that go. That time of my life is over, and even though I constantly need to be work on recovery, it’s not so much about not going back, but being able to move forward.

I just got home from the gathering and wanted to get those words down while the event was still fresh in my mind. I feel really good right now. As if a weight has been lifted off of me. But like many of these weights, it was put there by me.  I need to quit that. I’m a work in progress.

Telling It

It’s always difficult to transition back to current life after writing a series like the last one about camping in Wales and Mini extravaganza.

I love traveling, and then I love coming home—so I can start planning the next trip. When you read this, I will be in Chicago on my way to New Orleans from Minneapolis/St. Paul.  Live blogging a road trip sounds good, but I really just want to be there, in the moment.  My friends are coming all the way from Scotland, Oxford, and Wisconsin—I think it would be rude and weird to say, “Sorry guys, I’ve got to rush back to the hotel to write a blog post.”

But it’ll be fun to write about afterwards; travel writing is a way to enjoy the trip again.

A few updates, and back to the other theme of Breaking Free, my road trip with my son through the worlds of mass incarceration, addiction, and redemption.

I saw a notice for a lecture at the U of MN by Dr. Christopher Uggen, Martindale Chair and Distinguished McKnight Professor of Sociology and Law.  It quoted him, “We think of probation as a humane alternative to incarceration. It’s not.”  This is a concept I can’t emphasize often enough—just because you’re out of prison now, doesn’t mean you’re “over it.”

So I was a little concerned about Vince talking with Jewish Community Action, a local group advocating for prison reforms.  I had shared the blog with them, and they invited Vince and me to meet with them, which we did a few days ago.  It happened to be in the same building as Vince’s probation agents.  Would he be “triggered” by rehashing his story?  He still seemed uncomfortable in social situations sometimes.

We met with a young woman named Angela, who listened intently, asked questions, and filled us in on their plans. She talked about the changes they want made to sentencing, and Vince had some insights she hadn’t been aware of.  I can’t explain what he said, but the depth of knowledge you gain about these things by actually being inside is like a mini master’s degree program.

She talked about how they are trying to block the privatization of the prison in Appleton, Minnesota, which has been closed for years.  It wasn’t true, she said, that it would create a lot of jobs, or that conditions are better in private prisons.

“Word is,” Vince said, “among the prison population, that conditions are much better in the private prisons.  Better food, better paying work, more activities.”

This took her, and me, by surprise.  “I wonder if there’s a marketing campaign to spread that idea,” I suggested.  “After my experience with paying for phone time and email, I know those companies are good at promoting themselves.”  But how could anyone get access to the population inside?  I was Vince’s mom, and it had been maddeningly hard for me to communicate with him.

Vince talked about prison drugs (common) and rape (uncommon), MyPillow and Bob Barker products, not being able to vote, and his terms of probation.  It was very relaxed, and I give a lot of credit to Angela—turns out she was a former social worker.

Vince had told us he had to be home at 6:30.  Suddenly Angela said, “I just remembered that clock is slow …”  It was 6:21.  Vince jumped up, ran down the hall and waved at his agent, then bolted out the door.

Later, at home, he said, “I could have talked for hours.” I was so proud of him.  He’s doing so well.

He’s doing so well, in fact, that he announced he may move out soon.  Another ex offender lives in a three-bedroom house that has an opening.  The landlord is accepting of ex offenders.

I felt sad.  I know it’s normal for a 37-year-old man to want to live on his own, and I fully support that.  It was really rocky in the beginning when he came to live here.  We had been separated by miles and drugs and prison for so many years.  Now we get along fine.  I enjoy having him around.  He could do more cleaning, but no one’s perfect.

Croeso i Gymru

Before I resume my series on the UK road trip I have to mention a meeting I attended today.  For those who are new to this blog, I work for an organization that provides psychological and physical rehabilitation to torture survivors.  We had a lunchtime talk by an attorney who is representing one of the 70-some detainees at Guantanamo.  I can’t repeat much of what he said because it is top secret.  Seriously!  I’ve always wanted to say that and now it’s true.

Let’s just say that he firmly believes his client is innocent, that his client was tortured severely and repeatedly, and that his client has horrendous, humiliating physical problems as a result.  As the attorney described his client’s symptoms I watched as, one by one, we stopped eating our lunches.

Well, I kept eating.  I felt like a schmuck but it was my only chance to wolf something down between meetings.

Again, for those of you who are new to the blog, it began when my son Vince went to prison.  He was never tortured, unless you count being kept in solitary confinement for a week.  However, this attorney described actions taken by Gitmo guards that were just like things done by guards in Minnesota.  Mostly, it involved random acts of violation.  For instance, out of nowhere they would go into his cell and rifle through his things and scatter them around.  They weren’t expecting to find anything; it was about throwing him off balance, making it clear they could do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, and intimidating him so he would never feel safe.

Now he is home free and doing well.  But I found myself feeling upset during the meeting.  It’s well understood in our organization that many former prisoners have PTSD from what they endured on the inside.  I sometimes think I have what’s called secondary trauma, which is caused by hearing the stories of people who have suffered.  So even though I’ve never been in prison I am affected by it.  I just needed to get that off my chest.  Thanks for reading.

Back to the road trip!

Rebecca packed all our gear into the Micra and we were off to Wales.  We agreed at the start that I wouldn’t drive, since I had never driven in Britain and didn’t have an international driver’s license.  But mainly it was because every time she took a turn I was inclined to yell, “head on collision!” because in my mind we were in the wrong lane.

It’s only about 200 miles from Oxford to St. David, Wales, but it was spring so road projects had sprung up everywhere, along with the famous bluebells.

BluebellsRoad Works

We were headed for Abergavenny to spend a night at Rebecca’s brother’s house.  The route was clear as a corn maze.  I had never encountered round abouts and I asked Rebecca to explain the rules to me.

She tried, but I think it’s one of those things—if you grow up knowing it, you just know it—and you can’t explain it to someone else.

Bewildering Sign

We stopped at an outdoor store to buy fuel for the camp stove, which they call meths.  Even Rebecca, a native who had visited Wales many times, was stumped by this one.

ParkingParking 2

Back on the road, I asked, “How is it that Wales is part of the UK but still separate country?” Again, she tried, but it seemed to be another case of “it’s clear and obvious if you were raised here, and it’s hopelessly bewildering if you weren’t.”

We had dinner with Rebecca’s brother and his wife.  Rebecca referred to her sister-in-law’s “charming Welsh accent” but I couldn’t hear it.  We left their house early the next morning; ominous dark clouds and high winds increased as we drove toward St. David’s.

We found the campground at dusk, and when we checked in, the woman in the office retracted her lips and sucked in her breath.  She didn’t tell us we couldn’t camp, but she clucked and fussed with a worried frown on her face before she finally pointed out our site, on the edge of the cliff overlooking the sea.

How’s that for a cliff hanger?  Ha ha ha.