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The Things They Teach Me

We learn from our mistakes, they say.

What of the mistakes of others?  My friends that live behind bars teach me every day.  They teach me about regret, and strength, and love.  They teach me about redemption, and forgiveness, and compassion.  They teach me that we all deserve a chance, people can change, and common decency can be lost in some places.

They teach me that after twenty years in a cell – you are no longer the person you once were.  Guilty or innocent or harshly punished – the people I know are no longer the people they were when they were incarcerated.

A few have taught me to toughen up.  A few have taught me not to be naïve.  A few have disappointed me.  But, most have taught me about what it means to be human.  Most have made me look at myself and what is important in life.  Most have made my life fuller through their friendship.

Some are innocent, some are guilty, some were punished far beyond reason.   But – they are all just as human as me.   Those that treat them less than human, are sacrificing their own humanity.

Kindness, Freely Given

My daughter says that when she walks close to our pastor – one of the most insightful men I’ve ever heard speak – she feels his spirit in the air around him.  What she feels in the air around him, I feel in his words.  Sunday he spoke of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.   There is no side of the fence that can sensibly argue with trying to grow that kind of fruit.

When you see it – that fruit that is grown in people – it’s awe inspiring really, like the view from a mountainside with the clouds barely lifted.  I recently read something that a woman in Pennsylvania wrote.  Her name is Susan.  I see the fruit the Spirit grows in her words.  This is what she had to say about a simple act of kindness.

I live on a hot, busy, city street.  My cement porch sits right on the sidewalk, and many people without transportation walk by on their way to grocery stores, the drug store on the next corner, pizza shops, mini marts and yes –  to work.  There is a Triangle Car Wash two blocks away that hires people who are eligible for work release from the local county prison.

Last summer and this summer I put ice chests on my porch filled with free bottled water and snacks, like crackers, breakfast bars etc. – no strings attached.  I got numerous, heartfelt, Thank You notes, so I know this is needed and appreciated. This morning as I headed to my part time job, I passed a young man in worn clothes and sneakers, no electronics in his ears or hands!  –  so most likely from the local prison located 1.5 miles away, and on his way to that job I mentioned.  I think they serve prison breakfast fairly early, but I honestly don’t know what folks on work release are able to do for lunch…

I always say good morning and wish people good day, which they can’t hear if they have electronics in their ears, and then I said to him, “Hey, there’s free cold water and snacks on that porch down a little ways if you’d like.”

He gave me a big grin and thanked me, and as I pulled my car out of my parking spot and looked down the street, I could see he had stopped at my porch.  Yay!

Why am I telling you this? Not for any accolades, but because years ago, when my little girl was caught up in Heroin addiction and lost in another, even bigger, city 35 miles away, I would pray, “Please, Lord, may she meet good people, kind people who will help her,” and she did.  Some were barely able to help themselves, but they were good people who knew the right thing to do, and eventually she was able to get into recovery and have a baby boy and marry and find a job as a Recovery Specialist and celebrate 19 years in Recovery. That is why I do this, so that others I may come in contact with will meet good people, kind people who don’t turn away or look down upon them, and maybe that day, the day they found respite from the heat on a cement porch, will be a good day for them, and the good days will add up into a lifetime. We need to be there for each other in whatever way we can. Blessings, everyone. and as I have written on the note on the porch, “Freely given, please pass it on if you are able.”

That is what life’s all about really.  The first time I visited a prison, there were several things that struck me.  The coldness of the bars and the paint chipped walls was one.  The condescending treatment of inmates and their visitors by staff was another and something I didn’t anticipate.  The gratefulness and joy on the faces of men in that room, regardless of their situation – that was so apparent.  Their gratitude for a bit of companionship from the outside, air conditioning in an otherwise non-air-conditioned facility, a smile, a microwavable frozen hamburger from a vending machine.  I sat next to the person I went to visit, treating that visit as if it were taking place in a fine restaurant, ignoring the scowls of officers and the ants and the harsh lighting.  I reached over after a time and grabbed his hand.  I just knew he needed human contact.  That moment was priceless.  I will spend of the rest of my life reaching out my hand.

This country needs more Susans.  Argue politics all you want, but there is nothing that compares with the value and importance of simple kindness and compassion.  It needs to be worked back into our corrections system.  Words to live by, “Freely given, please pass it on if you are able.”

I made a decision today.  I am going to write a book.  Not real.  Not about prison.  Not about this heartache.  Simply because being touched by all this heartbreak, learning what it does to people inside and out – it is true, just like that woman told me – it sucks the life right out of you.   It reminds me of that movie – The Secret Life of Bees.  The girl who feels others’ pain and she eventually kills herself because it is too overwhelming.  I am choosing not to kill myself.  Instead – I will create a different world.

So – as my escape from this sadness – I am writing my first novel!  I’m excited….

Keep Going or Shut the Door….

People ask me how this got started.  It’s coming up on a year, and I ask myself that too.  I also ask myself if I can keep it going.

The honest answer to the second question is, I guess I am going to try.  Near the beginning, I was talking to a woman who ran a program in New Jersey.  She told me she didn’t know if I would have the heart for it.  Not meaning that I didn’t have the drive or the passion, but meaning that my heart was going to take a beating.  She was dead on.  Correct.  This isn’t for the tender hearted, and I always saw myself that way.  The stories are heartbreaking.   You want to help the people who reach out to you through those bars, but you can’t.  There’s no way to open the door.  You talk to people facing death in prison, and we aren’t talking ‘nice’ prisons.

Some of the places are fair. Some have air conditioning.  Some don’t. Some are in places where you wouldn’t want your dog left out in the heat, and there is no air conditioning.  Some serve food the yard cats won’t eat.  Some places aren’t even guarded – the inmates guard themselves.  I’ve seen the video.  I’ve heard the stories.  This isn’t a joke.  It’s a reality.  Men and women are actually all locked together in some places with drugs and no supervision.  Some of them are cold blooded killers, some of them never hurt anybody.  Juveniles sent to live in maximum security and learn how to survive.  Corrections Officers with condescending, overbearing, power hunger attitudes.  It’s true.   I’ve seen articles written by a self righteous few, and comments on some of my articles.  I have to ask myself if those people are really that oblivious to all that is going on around them.  Yes.  There are some good Corrections Officers with their hearts in the right place.  But, don’t try to throw up this smoke screen that that is the overwhelming reality.  Blanket statements on either side make progress impossible.

I guess how it got started isn’t as important as can I keep going.  I have to.  It’s like opening a door and seeing a pile of broken souls and shutting the door quietly and walking away, trying to pretend I never saw it. I can’t.  So – if I am a voice that never gets heard, so be it.  But, I can’t live with myself if I pretend.  I thank God, I have faith, because that is the ONLY thing that keeps my heart from breaking after seeing and hearing the things I do.  Faith alone.

So, I’m going to pull out Rayvell Finch’s story again.   The man who got life when he was arrested for sitting on a stoop.   The poor guy had a drug problem.  A problem.  An addiction.  His life was a mess already.  They gave him life.  Twenty years later, he’s still in there.  He wrote me last week and kindly asked me to write to the parole board.  Get a letter like that and quit?  Nope.   For the love of God, somebody listen!!!  Somebody change this God awful system!  I’m just a mom, that’s it.  I’m not a politician or a lawyer.

My divorce has been in the courts now for about a year and a half.  Who knew you could learn how much is wrong with our judicial system from a divorce.   If we can’t get divorce court right, we don’t have a chance in hell, but I won’t be quiet about it.

Still haven’t answered the question of how it got started.   But – a year later – maybe I have answered my question about if I can keep going.  I don’t really think I have a choice.  I am not cold enough to shut that damn door.  It would be easier if I were, but I’m not.  I guess that’s the mom in me.  I’m a good mom, even though my ex’s lawyer said I was the ‘worst example of a parent he had ever seen’.  That was just lawyer bullcrap, trying to scare and intimidate me.  He was nothing but a bully, and our corrections system is full of them.  I won’t be quiet.  So, I guess I am in it for the long haul.

A Corrections System Designed To Fail

Currently, this country warehouses more people in prison than any other nation in the world.   That sounds like a failure. The Department of Corrections in the United States of America is a failure. Failing at something doesn’t mean we should pretend the problem doesn’t exist. Failing is an opportunity to acknowledge what is wrong, make it right, and potentially become great.

This country is over incarcerated.   In some cases, as with mandatory minimums and no possibility of parole, there is no mercy. People are simply waiting and sometimes praying to die. We give incentives to businesses and prosecutors to keep people locked up. Parole boards show no compassion, as in Alabama. Our public defenders often present less than half hearted legal arguments. Profits are being made on the lives of prisoners, and it’s only too easy for the public at large to turn a blind eye.

Until the system itself is improved, what is being done with the estimated 2.5 million people being hidden from sight? There is a perverse and demoralizing climate within the walls of our jails and prisons. It seems the outcome of incarceration is often a broken spirit, with no reason left to trust those in authority and often no hope of a bright future. It is a system that is currently designed to fail. It will continue to fail unless training, education and accountability is put into place for those working in corrections, from the top down. Nobody cares about prisoner reviews or complaints, as prisoners themselves are viewed as less than human. Complaints voiced by the incarcerated or their families are often rewarded with treatment meant to stop the complaints.

There isn’t a person or story I have heard that deviates from this reality. The stories range from those too hard for people to share with me to those that may seem trivial to some, but are all a display of the complete disregard for those that are jailed.

I was reading an article from 2013 about sexual misconduct cases in West Virginia jails. There were several quotes from the executive Director of the state’s Regional Jails Authority, Joe Delong. The quotes speak for themselves, displaying the mindset of our current system. While assuring the public that cameras, training and surveillance was being implemented to improve the excessive number of sexual misconduct cases, he also said several things regarding how the situation became this way.

Mr. Delong was quoted as saying, “It certainly is an ongoing challenge. In a lot of cases you have very young, not far out of high school correctional officers who are working late at night in environments with seasoned criminals.” When reading this, I wondered if Mr. Delong ever made any excuses for the ‘seasoned criminals’ or had any sympathy for them and the fact that they were all once very young and not far out of high school. I wondered if he had a daughter. I wondered if he could hear himself speak. So, are we to feel sympathetic for an officer having sex with an inmate, consensual or not, because the officer is young, innocent and a victim of seasoned criminal?

Mr. Delong didn’t stop there. He was also quoted as saying, “Unfortunately, there are times that they are able to get our officers to do things that are inappropriate.” Yes, that is what he said.

The state’s own laws are clear. Inmates can never give consent for sexual activity with corrections officers. The burden of not having sex with the incarcerated does not lie on the shoulders of the jailed. It is beyond ironic that Mr. Delong also said, “There’s the old saying about people in glass houses.”

I am not naïve. There are bad people in this world. There are people who do bad things and will continue to do them.   There are good people who make bad decisions. There are addicts who are often not able to make any good decisions. There are people who are simply wrongly convicted. There are people under the age of twenty five who make ignorant choices that are not a reflection of their character. Treating people, whoever they are, with respect, will not bring about more crime. Crimes that are going to be committed will be committed, but exercising a level of humanity and respect will not create more crime.

I was told a story of a woman in custody in a West Virginia jail. She was one of several women who altered their hair style.   I was told these women shaved a patch of their hair underneath their longer hair.

So, what should the punishment be for altering your hair style? In a system that’s purpose is to reform, correct, and improve behavior before releasing people back into society, what should the punishment be? My child once cut his own hair. He was in first grade. It never occurred to me to shave his head bald. I would never have injured his self confidence like that. It never entered my mind to do something that degrading to him.

The women who altered their hair styles were given a choice.   Go into isolation or shave their heads. Whatever their crimes, where is the wisdom in that?  What does that accomplish? The climate in corrections is one of demoralizing people. Yes – these women may never alter their hairstyle again. Maybe that was accomplished.   Will it make them more confident? Will it give them a reason to respect authority?

These are the actions of the Corrections Officers at the bottom of the chain of command. At the top, we have a man quoted implying that the victims of sexual misconduct in the care of his jails are in some way responsible for that sexual misconduct. Officers are rarely held accountable. They are held accountable when they are caught, when somebody notices. That is why the system tries its best to keep eyes from reaching the inside.

As it turned out, the women who refused to shave their heads did not go into isolation. In the end, that was simply an empty threat in a game that had the losers ending up with no hair.

 

REFERENCES

Harold, Zach. “Claims of Sexual Misconduct at Prisons, Jails Costing W. Va. Millions.” N.p., n.d. Web.              

“Who, What, Where and Why.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 14 Mar. 2014. Web. 06 Nov. 2016.           

                       

What is ‘Corrections’ Correcting?

A Department of Corrections doesn’t exist in the reality of things. I will say over and over, we need a prison system. We need a place to keep people that threaten the physical well being of others until we can figure out if and how to rehabilitate them. And I don’t know what it should be called. We currently have something called ‘Corrections’, as if there is some type of system ‘correcting’ a problem. There isn’t.

We have an entire society of people locked up for, quite simply, absurd sentences. We are actually turning people who, in a different type of system might have hope for a positive future, into criminals.   We are destroying their faith in humanity, cutting them off from their loved ones and putting them in the care of understaffed and often undertrained institutions. That is a fact. It is irrefutable. It’s a system built from the bottom up on misery.

It reaches beyond the walls we can’t see through. I read someone else’s thoughts the other day and asked if I could copy and paste it here. This is what Dotty had to say.

Just got off the phone with the hubby. He told me tonight that he did the math, and for a telephone call in Kansas State Correctional Facility, Larned – there is a note by the phones, stating that a 15 minute call will be raised from $2.55 to include an additional 18.2% tax carrying fee, making the total $3.01.

Not bad, you say, compared to other states…but here is where mass incarceration comes into play here in Kansas. Budget cuts in medical, state healthcare programs and many other places have caused the state to tax us three times…18.2% to connect…18.2% during the call…and 18.2% imposed at the end of the call.   What good do federal guidelines do to curb the dishonest greed, when clearly we are helping pay to fix a state budget.

The prisons in Lansing are housing men on the floors and some who desperately need to be transferred closer to home are forever denied because prisons in Kansas are overflowing. We speak of needing Prison Reform at state levels as well as federal levels. What good is making a federal law when the states impose whatever they want. For seven months, Larned has had a billboard up regarding a need for correctional officers. There is nothing around for miles and good help is sadly needed there on the very huge campus grounds. It is also the location of the state mental hospital where inmates who are severely mentally and sexually unstable are housed. They use the term ‘work camp’ there to literally work minimum custody inmates in the laundry room and kitchen of the Mental facility. It’s a forced issue among many inmates. They must go to work there if told. Otherwise, they are subject to threats of good time taken, custody levels rolled back, write ups and yes, sometimes segregation.

It will be 10 months till my hubby can see anyone but me and his kids and his brother. None of us can make it that far often enough to help Darian have the support he needs from his family. Not with taxing the phone time 4 times. Yes, he is taxed also to buy phone time now. Darian has a rap sheet a mile long on the inside. His first felony resulted in his first prison term, felony driving without a license. Hardly the hardened criminal they have in there.

This is why we fight in the Prison Reform movement. They just want to do the time they have been given, without harassment and without hostile environments from wardens, guards, medical staff, food service companies, counselors and others that are hired to aid the inmates.

We are in the digital age. Our story is no worse than others. It does not stand out. There are so many cases and stories of abuse that occur within those walls, that no single website holds every account of them. It takes many voices united to make a tough stand to correct what is being done to so many lives. Tonight I will continue to fight for them all and to share their stories until they are heard.

 

THROWN AWAY PEOPLE

With approximately one out of every hundred of us locked up, mass incarceration should be on all our minds. The subject is ugly and probably causes some discomfort, but ignoring it isn’t going to solve the problem. One in a hundred is a problem. Those numbers make us the most incarcerated country in the entire world. Every day that passes that we avoid fixing the problem is one more day that one in one hundred of us lives in a cage. Cages are necessary sometimes, but so many of them are filled to overflowing with throw away people that shouldn’t be there. And, nobody even knows.

I made a promise to myself from the start of this. I can’t tell the story of anyone that committed a violent crime.   There are so many inmates that never physically harmed anyone, and I don’t need to read about anyone that actually committed a crime involving violence. I have a lifetime of nonviolent offenders to write about. Then I read about Shimeek Gridine.

Dana Battles was the victim. I made a small effort to locate him, and ask his thoughts, but was not able to, and I didn’t feel comfortable looking very hard. I respect the victim’s privacy and can’t imagine the affect this crime might have had on their lives, although I would love to know what their feelings are on the sentence that Shimeek Gridline was given. I will assume that Dana was scarred physically and emotionally, to some degree, for life. I don’t ever want victims to be overlooked in the telling of a story. Shimeeks’ story doesn’t lessen the price that Dana paid.

Shimeek was 14. From all accounts he had a solid family foundation, and I read that he played Pop Warner football. His mother lost her job not long before the incident, and they moved in with Shimeek’s grandparents.

I know that Shimeek was cared for, but going through some instability that may have included the recent death of two relatives. He was fourteen. I have had a few fourteen year old kids and been one myself. It goes without saying, he wasn’t yet wise, or mature, or fully developed in any way. Who knows if he was shaving yet. I know that he didn’t have the capacity to fully understand actions and consequences. An educated and experienced judge, adult, lawyer, prosecutor, parent – all those people should know that.

The day that the crime took place, Shimeek was with a 12 year old boy. They had a small shotgun, and claimed to have found it under a car. I am not sure it is overly important where the gun came from, but we will assume the boys found it.

The two boys probably felt a little invincible with gun in hand. They attempted to rob a man at gunpoint.   I don’t suppose we can ever know what was going through Shimeek’s head when his finger tightened on that trigger enough to set the gun off.   The man was grazed in the head and shoulder area, was hospitalized and released the same day.   I don’t know the severity of his injury, or if there was any scarring involved, but he was sent home from the hospital the same day that he was shot.

Shimeek Gridine turned himself in to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, accompanied by his grandparents. In reasoning that I don’t quite understand, he was charged as an adult. The boy went before Judge A.C. Soud, without a jury. Shimeek’s family was supportive and their presence was noted in the courtroom. Judge Soud explained that, because Shimeek had so much support, he should have known better. He was sentenced to seventy years for Premeditated Attempted Murder and twenty five years for Armed Robbery.   The sentences would be served at the same time and there was no possibility for parole. At the age of 14, a seventy year sentence will probably last longer than your life, earning release at the age of 84.

I can guess that Shimeek was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was not privileged. He probably saw his mother struggling to take care of him, and I am sure he knew some hardships. He played in a neighborhood where you can find shotguns under cars. Most likely the sentencing judge could not have a full appreciation of the child standing in front of him and his life experiences.   What I find more frightening about his case than anything else, is the power of one man’s words. With a few sentences a man in a robe essentially sentenced a young boy to never be free again. One man had the power to throw a child’s life away, and did so because he felt the boy had a supportive family and should have known better than to shoot a gun aimed at somebody’s head.

Shimeek is no longer a child. He lives in a prison in Florida. He is scheduled for release in April of 2079. I will be dead by then. Some people worry about prisoners being too comfortable. Most prisons in Florida do not have air conditioning.   In order to keep from being idle, inmates get to grow a lot of their own food. Although Shimeek may get to do something to earn some type of job experience in the future, he has no future outside of a cage, so it is irrelevant in his case.   At today’s cost to house an inmate in Florida, it will cost taxpayers $1,264,480 if he lives for the seventy year sentence. That price will surely go up as the cost of keeping someone incarcerated increases over that seventy year time. At that cost, Shimeek could have been sent to college, and also been given a personal therapist and personal jailer. Imagine if he had been sent to college after spending four years in a juvenile facility, and agreed to donate a certain amount of hours a year in his given profession as a payback to society for his extremely poor judgement. With that solution, we would be receiving tax money and time from Shimeek, rather than paying to cage him until he dies. He may have been the first in his family line to graduate college, and he may have started a bright path for an entire new generation. We won’t know that though. All we know is that our tax money is going to cage him to death. It is so much more convenient that way for the system, I guess.

A man in a robe couldn’t come up with anything more creative than seventy years in a cage at a pricetag of $1,264,480. This brings me back to the most frightening part of this story. What kind of power are we giving to individuals with our tax dollars and our lives in their hands? I doubt that the Judge has given Shimeek Gridine much more thought. I, on the other hand, will never forget him. With one in a hundred of us caged, nobody should. Shimeek Gridine has changed my world.

TRAVION WITH AN I

I was tentative when I started this project, not sure where it would lead and not sure I was up to the task. I’m still not sure I am. I knew finding people to write about wouldn’t be a problem, but I didn’t anticipate just how invested I would feel in their lives.

I am working on someone else’s story, but got a note from Travion today. I had written to him, letting him know of my interest in his case, and the post I wrote about him. It’s funny, but when I was originally trying to contact him, I had a little trouble finding his location. The system has him listed as “Travon.” He has been incarcerated for years, and they don’t have his name right.   It seems like such a little thing, really, but it’s not. It’s his name.   It is what his mother gave him. If his only contact with the outside world for most of his life is through this system, can’t we at least give him the courtesy of getting his name right? It’s Travion.

Travion changed things up for me today. Until now he was a story and information on paper. His story originally spurred me to action, but it was paper all the same.   This morning when I read his note, he became more than paper. He is a person. He’s about the age of one of my sons. From that grey cinderblock home of his, he wrote the words, “hope all is well.” He said some other things, and closed with, “thank you for reaching out.”

The one paragraph letter I found in my mailbox this morning confirmed that I am doing the right thing. It made me know, without a doubt, that succeed or fail, wherever the path leads, I can’t get off it. I am not giving up on Travion. I will be copying and pasting his story to anybody I can think of, and I will keep on doing it until this wrong is made right. It doesn’t just have to be me though. I welcome anyone who wants to join me on this path.

I am not anti-government. I just want to make us better. We are better. This system has got to change.