. . . Things I Cannot Change

Playroom Creation by a Three Year Old.

I visit a man in “Seg.” (as in Segregation) Aka “The Hole” or “Solitary Confinement.” (Once, on the phone, while making the required appointment to visit this man, I’d carelessly used the word “Isolation” and was quickly and firmly corrected.)  Whatever its label, putting a human being in a tiny room all alone for long periods of time is cruel and unusual punishment. Period. And, yes, in the early nineteenth century, Quakers—and Anglicans—invented this form of punishment so, yes, of course, I feel personally responsible whenever I visit him. And am eternally grateful for the many activists working hard to abolish this inhumane punishment.

His story is his to tell, not mine, so I will offer only this: Let’s just say that because of the times we’re living in, when he’s served his sentence, another sentence will be imposed upon him. And, it seems, there’s nothing anyone can do to change that. (I’ve tried.)

But here’s what I want to report—and to marvel at. In the six months I’ve been visiting him, something truly wondrous has happened! On Friday, the angry, young man I met in September who’d rightfully demanded, “Why me?” shrugged his shoulders; he’s accepted that he cannot change his fate, as deeply unfair as it is. Indeed,he’s viewing his unplanned and unwanted future as, oh, my, an opportunity!  Grinning, he struggled to remember the words but eventually nailed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Living well is the best revenge. And gestured as if to acknowledge to the cinderblock walls of the booth where we met, the glass and metal wall that separated us, the guards lurking outside the booth, the prison cells, the barbed wire fences; all that presently surrounded him.

And, yes, there’s a tiny, tiny part of me that wants to believe that those early Quakers and Anglicans were right! And that this man’s transformation was made possible by forcing him to be “penitent.”

But, mostly, I want to marvel at the human spirit. Again. Oh my.

Speaking Truth—or Redemption—to Power?

Blockade Fencing, Irrepressible Tree, Somerville, MA; 2017

In March, at the request of X, a Massachusetts inmate I have been writing to for the past three years, I send the letter excerpted here to the Parole Board:

 . . . A member of my [Quaker] meeting’s Prison Fellowship Committee, I’d learned through people connected with our prison ministry that X would appreciate receiving letters. So I volunteered. From his letters I have learned that he is a thoughtful and caring person, a gifted artist, and, most importantly, a compassionate, steadfast care-giver to and for his fellow inmates.

X has asked me to explain to you what kind of support I can offer: For the past ten years, Friends Meeting at Cambridge has hosted a weekly meal and sharing circle for the formerly incarcerated. During the meal, useful information re re-entry issues such as housing, jobs, navigating public transformation, etc. is discussed; during the circle, members talk more freely and openly about personal issues. X will be welcomed and supported by our circle.

Tomorrow afternoon I will appear before the Parole Board; I’ll have three minutes to explain the sharing circle and to answer questions. Tonight, writing this, I wonder if I’ll be moved to say more. Pretty sure I will say something about the deep friendships, the care, the love among the circle members I have witnessed for ten years.  Pretty sure I’ll say something about how, over and over, circle participants talk about how sitting quietly around flickering candlelight and speaking about what is in their hearts lets them “be human!” But will I feel compelled to say something about redemption? Something about transformation? To say those precious and, for all of us who have attended the circle, real, embodied, in the-flesh words aloud?

I hope so.

 

What Does Freedom Taste Like?

[Sweet-yet-tart red, salt-in-the-wound white, and so, so blue, July 3, 2017]

In a couple of hours, people will gather on Boston Common to take turns reading aloud “The Meaning of July Fourth for The Negro,” the deeply moving speech Frederick Douglass gave on July 5, 1852, in Rochester, New York. At this heart-breaking and fraught time in our nation’s history, such a fireworks-free, no-rockets’-red-glare, somber ceremony speaks to my condition (although, alas, I will only be there in spirit). For, like Douglass, “. . .  [A]bove your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions!”  I hear that wail, too.

Earlier this week I was gifted to hear something different: a “returning citizen,” imprisoned for twenty-five years and released a couple of weeks ago, described his joy to eat in-season, perfect, all-he-could-eat cherries. Wanting to vicariously taste his sweet-yet-tart exhilaration and to be reminded of how precious freedom is with every bite, I’ve bought some, too. They’re delicious!

I’m trying to hear, I am trying to taste all of it.

 

 

 

Whatever Works

 

When I learned that Nelson Mandela had found great strength in Invictus, I made copies of that William Ernest Henley poem and mailed them to two men I correspond with, currently behind bars.

Nice gesture, right?  But pointless. I see that now. Somehow, mysteriously,  a Victorian, “stiff upper lip,” Brit poem (i.e. language of his oppressors) spoke to Mandela. He discovered that rereading “I am the master of my fate” every day reminded him that his strength was with him. He chose that particular poem; he let it speak to him. Through him. And it worked.

Each of us has to chose our own Invictus. One poem can’t fit all. But whatever works for you, oh Lordy, I hope you’ve found it, find it!

Here’s what’s working for me these days: a cheesy* version of “How Can I Keep from Singing?” It sounds an echo in my soul, indeed!

*A word about cheesy: From an interview with Patty Jenkins, director of “Wonder Woman” (New York Times, June 1, 2017):

This may be a cheesy question, but what do you want people to take away from this movie?

Did you say cheesy? Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that’s what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis.

I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind. I believe in it. It’s terrible when it makes so many artists afraid to be sincere and truthful and emotional, and relegates them to the too-cool-for-school department. Art is supposed to bring beauty to the world.

“Something Close to Love”

What I love about this picture: it perfectly illustrates its accompanying excerpt from WellingUp.net. Check it out! (Keywords: Prison, Light, Green/Exercise Yard)

What else I want to say this picture: Those rusted bars only hint at the horrors of incarceration. But my intention for using this dangerously-close-to-prettifying photograph is to illustrate a prison conversion story—I am not trying to educate the general public re prison conditions. So, reluctantly, I chose what I chose out of thousands of gritty, heart-breaking, online choices.

(But, must say, I will be writing to my prison pen-pals with renewed care and tenderness from now on.)

 

 

 

The View from Here

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Saturday night, the Cambridge Bail and Legal Defense Fund hosted its first-evah silent auction. A needed, organic offshoot of Friends Meeting at Cambridge’s Prison Fellowship Committee’s ministry, the Fund supports those in need—with an additional, deal-breaking criteria:  People on Prison Fellowship must know these potential recipients.  People who come to our Wednesday night sharing circle—another PF initiative—or people our members visit in prison, or people our members drive so those folks can visit loved ones in prison, or people known or recommended to PF by greater Boston allies* also working on criminal justice reform; all are eligible for Fund support.

Because PF had never hosted a silent auction before and because we only had about six weeks to pull this thing together, we kept the event small and simple. In-house.  So there were a couple of moments Saturday night when the commodious Friends Room felt a little echo-y. Despite the less-than-optimal attendance, however, the Fund raised almost twice its goal! (In lieu of showing up, several people simply mailed us checks—much appreciated!)

Some examples of what was donated: To teach up to 4 people how to make a flaky-crust, amazingly delicious apple pie (my husband donated this so I KNOW all about his pie skills). Or 3 hours of gardening work. Or advice and support re de-cluttering.

Here’s What I Want To Say:

As point person for the auction, I interacted with the (mostly FMC) people who’d donated goods and services. Their generosity was deeply touching—especially those of modest means who nevertheless gave. Equally touching were donors who bravely offered something that involved some personal risk—but offered, anyway. So I have come away from this experience with such gratitude! To have witnessed such generosity, such trust—and faith—has been an enormous gift.

Because the Fund hoped to refill its coffers, the silent auction came from a place of need, offering a few,  selected-carefully “big ticket” items (in the hundred$, not the thousand$ range, I hasten to add). The comfortable and the well-off would, basically, have no choice but to bid for these $150 to $300 items, in other words. But the next time we run a silent auction, it’ll come from a place of community-building. We’ll have lots of $5 items. People can just show up on the night of the event with whatever they want to auction; the more stuff the better! We’ll do extensive outreach and publicity. We’ll fill that Friends Room!

Most important: The next day, pretty exhausted, I attended an FMC meeting for business. One agenda item elicited much discussion of “the invisible wall,” i.e. the barrier between our privileged, white, faith community and the rest of the world. “Why aren’t we running a soup kitchen,” someone questioned by way of example.

And I realized that my meeting does run a soup kitchen every Wednesday night at the sharing circle. My FMC entails weekly worship and communion with people of color. My FMC is teaching me the wisdom of Mother Teresa’s commentary: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” My FMC is building connections with others in greater Boston doing prison ministry, re-entry support for ex-offenders, criminal justice advocacy et al. My meeting overwhelms me with its generosity and love.

I say these things, not out of smugness but, like the blind man and the elephant, because I only know my own experience, what I, myself, have touched or been touched by.

So, maybe, PF’s outreach needs to begin with FMC?!

 

* Like the Committee of Friends and Relatives of Prisoners

Cops as Case Workers?

 

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Last Thursday, I “showed up”* at the Cambridge Police Department to attend a strange (and potentially wonderful) meeting.

The cities of Somerville, Cambridge and Everett, funded by a grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, plan to “reduce crime and improve safety . . . through a coordinated and sustainable intelligence-driven model that identifies the most prolific repeat offenders that impact all three jurisdictions and disrupt their offending through focused deterrence.” [from the meeting’s hand-out.] A second section explained: “The effort is coordinated by an interagency working group involving federal and local police, probation, prosecutors, and community resource personnel.” (That last bit; that’s me, apparently.)

Basically, “focused deterrence” means two things: “We know who you are.” and “I am a Somerville or Cambridge or Everett cop and I’m referring you to a drug treatment program because you need help.” Wow.

Prompted by the Annie Dookhan Situation, this initiative, called Operation RASOR (Regional Analytics for the Safety of Our Residents), elicits, not surprisingly, a schizoid response from me: “Oh, great! Big Brother and hassle and surveillance for ALL of us.” (If the police are to keep track of targeted ex-offenders, who else are they watching?)

and

“Great! Maybe this is how the paradigm, aka The War on Drugs, shifts.” Because if, for example, the police do begin to refer long-time drug users and dealers (the men and women they’ve been arresting since 1971, the year that hopeless yet devastating War began) to drug treatment centers, they will discover what re-entry “community resource personnel” already know: There ain’t enough. Ditto, finding a job in Massachusetts if you have a record. Ditto, in greater-Boston, finding an affordable place to live.

Maybe, just maybe, if men and women in blue join the re-entry conversation, something different can happen.

I believe it’s possible.

 

*To be present, to witness, to publicly identify as a Quaker.

Branded # 4: “Trust the process.”

 

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[Our apple-cheeked Friend rests on a Bible; beside him are a couple of others: Tim Wise’s White Like Me,Wendell Berry’s The Hidden Wound, Cornel West’s Race Matters.]

I had jury duty today, the first time I’ve been asked to serve in the thirty-four years I’ve lived in Massachusetts.

In the deliciously long silence of meeting for worship this past Sunday, I had plenty of time to reflect on this lofty, civic duty. I was already pretty clear that, unlike some Quakers, the raising of my right hand and swearing to uphold—whatever—was not going to be an issue. (I already knew that the “Place your hand on the Bible” thing doesn’t happen any more.)

More deeply, however, I realized that, in truth, (or as my mother used to say, “deep down inside”) I’d prefer not to put my life on hold, thank you very much. And realized that I’d been imagining that my Quaker principles would somehow automatically exclude me from selection. But realized that, really, short of magic-markering “I am a Quaker” on my forehead, there wasn’t any real way, no space on the “Juror’s Confidential Questionnaire” form to declare my religious affiliation. (Which is as it should be, right?) Further, I realized—with alarm and embarrassment—that actually, I’d been planning to use my principles to get out of jury duty!

An interesting challenge: How can I be a person of integrity and truth-seeking without using those principles to avoid something inconvenient?

I prayed over this for a long time. And it came to me: Trust the process. Two weeks ago, for example, as I watched the jury selection process for another case [see “Seeking That of God”], one of the questions those jurors were asked to respond to was, basically, Do you trust the testimony of the police over the testimony of someone else?

Hmm, I thought, anticipating today. Now there’s a question I’d have a hard, hard time simply acquiescing to.

So on Sunday, I decided that I would simply trust that were questions such as this raised, I would answer truthfully.

And they were and I did and was promptly dismissed.

Driving home, I had second thoughts. Maybe I should have kept quiet so that someone with lots of experience cheering and supporting defendants could have served.

But that’s not exactly “fair and impartial,” is it?

So I think I did the right thing. Do you?

 

 

 

October 25, 2012: “Don’t Blame Me . . . “

So, here’s the first op-ed piece I submitted to The Boston Globe:

“Don’t Blame Me . . . ”

            Remember those heady, “Don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts” days? Remember, post Watergate, post Nixon’s cringe-worthy “I am not a crook,” how proud we were to tell the world we lived in the only state Tricky Dick didn’t win in 1972? That George McGovern, principled, fierce opponent to the Vietnam war and Nixon’s Democratic opponent, died on Sunday at the age of ninety recalls those smug bumper stickers—when hailing from Massachusetts was something to brag about.

These days? Not so much. Sure, MA progressives can crow about our same-sex marriage first-state-in-the-nation record. And we’re tickled pink that Massachusetts’ health care insurance reform law (aka as Romneycare until it wasn’t) inspired Obamacare. But a recent, shameful scandal worthy of Watergate sullies our state’s we’re-not quite-the-rest-of-you reputation and may ultimately prove that, indeed, Massachusetts is exactly like Texas or Louisiana.

This is not about our hapless, 69—93 Red Sox. This is not about The Whitey Bulger Affair (The title of a 2004 MA House Committee on Government Reform report, “Everything Secret Degenerates: The FBI’s Use of Murderers as Informants” perfectly sums up that scandal.) This is about our very own drug lab scandal.

60,000 tainted samples, 34,000 affected cases; such numbers grant First Class scandal status. No one yet knows the full impact of this criminal justice nightmare yet one thing already seems clear: thousands of cases will be thrown out and thousands of inmates will be released. So re-entry, i.e. finding an affordable place to live in a safe neighborhood, a decent job, and, if applicable, staying clean and sober, never easy in the past, just got that much harder for all of Massachusetts’ former inmates.

Early days, as this scandal unfolded, it was tempting to wonder: “Why should I care? I don’t deal drugs. Neither do my friends. What’s this got to do with me?” When a possible link between a drug lab employee and a Norfolk County prosecutor surfaced, however, this scandal became everyone’s story. Prosecutors are a key part of our criminal justice system. Even the whisper that the Bay State’s system has been co-opted affects us all.

A 2009 Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) study explains why:  “Prosecutorial misconduct is an important issue for us as a society, regardless of the guilt or innocence of the criminal defendants involved in the individual cases. Prosecutorial misconduct fundamentally perverts the course of justice and costs taxpayers millions of dollars in protracted litigation.”

Further, The NCIP report stated: “Those empowered to address the problem—California state and federal courts, prosecutors and the California State Bar—repeatedly fail to take meaningful action. Courts fail to report prosecutorial misconduct (despite having a statuary obligation to do so), prosecutors deny that it occurred, and the California State bar almost never disciplines it.”

In their July 2, 2012 report, “Wrongful Conviction and Prosecutorial Misconduct,” John Floyd and Billy Sinclair concluded: “We strongly suspect these alarming NCIP findings, suggesting the lack of disciplinary action in cases of prosecutorial misconduct, will be similar in the remaining 49 states.” Like Texas. Louisiana. Massachusetts.

Every day, of course, from the Berkshire Superior Court to the Falmouth District Court, honorable prosecutors ably perform their jobs. But this possible link between Annie Dookhan, who allegedly tainted those 60,000 samples and George Papachristos, who has recently resigned, is a flashing red light.

Let’s not ignore it. Let’s contact Attorney General Martha Coakley and David E. Meier, appointed by Governor Patrick to investigate this scandal, and let them know that we demand a thorough and rigorous investigation.

October 16, 2012: How do we say “NO!”?

On the other side of way too much busyness—life doesn’t string out our Must Dos over a reasonable amount of time, does it—and feelin’ good. Feeling present. Feeling liberated from those Must Dos (until a bunch of them gang up on me, again.)

So able to sit and to be and to ponder.

Here’s a sampling of what’s now rattling around my less-stressed-out mind:

First, the promised report re sharing NO! with Friends Meeting at Cambridge children. It didn’t quite happen. Or should I say, MY plans didn’t happen.

What did happen was that I had a brief interaction with 3 JH/HS students re the upcoming Textron meeting for worship. And one young man pushed back, declaring that 60 or 70 Quakers sitting in silence outside a factory that produces cluster bombs “a political demonstration.” Hmm. THEN he said, in effect, “And, besides, that’s those people’s job.” Double hmmm.

What would you have said to him?

Second: Vis a vis gearing up to submit op-ed pieces (one of the inconveniently-timed but amazing things I did this past weekend was to attend an all-day symposium at Simmons given by the Op-Ed Project), am pondering a bunch of stuff! For starters, “Do I, a white, privileged woman, have the cred to write about our racist, immoral criminal justice system? How do I, in 750 words, say ‘NO!’ to our status quo Tough on Crime mentality?”

Now do you see why I need some time to wade through such questions?

 

July 20, 2012: “. . . and it’s One! Two!. . . “

Is is possible that a human heart will not stop beating but can endure, in a single day, the televised sunbathers of [not legible] and the faces of Tyre’s inhabitants going through their burned, destroyed, and disemboweled streets? Yes, our hearts are doing it, and nobody has yet died of anguish. (Jacobo Timmerman, in a 1982 New Yorker piece on the Lebanon/Israeli War)

For thirty years, since hastily copying out that quote, I’ve been inwardly calling such confusing, heart-challenging, observed from afar experiences my “Jacobo Timmerman moments.”  Had one last night at a Red Sox game.

Yesterday morning,  I’d listened to mothers and lawyers and others who regularly receive phone calls from Massachusetts inmates eloquently complain about the excessive costs and lousy-quality phone service they must endure. (This was at a hearing run by a state agency that’s supposed to oversee such things.) Talk about anguish! Person after person, most of them African American, made it painfully clear that phone calls are, literally, a life line. “My son needs to talk to me every day,” one mother explained. And then matter-of-factly explained his medical/mental health history which made a daily phone call to his mother so important. An incredibly expensive phone call, mind you. A phone call VERY likely to be cut off.  Reconnecting, which may happen several times during a conversation, costs an additional $3.00 fee each time. Which this poor, grieving mother has to pay.  “The Department of Correction will tell you it uses this money to pay for programs. I have no problem with programs for my clients,” one lawyer noted. “But to pay for them on the back of the most poor people of our state is unfair.” And, yes, several people referenced the Habitual Offenders bill, aka as the Three Strikes Bill, which was probably being voted upon and passed at that very same time, as a potential source for many MORE frustrated but forced-to-pay phone customers!

And, no, my heart did not stop beating.

But last night, singing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” at Fenway Park during the seventh inning stretch, I again wondered how is it any of us can endure these wild and lurching moments when we simultaneously contemplate the pain of “Threes strikes, you’re out”  while joyously singing those words with 37,000 other people? (it was, BTW, a joyous game.)

 

May 4, 2012: Speaking Truth to Power

Don’t get me wrong: Chen Guangcheng’s plight is deeply moving. That this blind activist has been imprisoned, tortured, his wife beaten, his family harassed for merely speaking out against forced abortions in China is, of course, appalling. My prayers for our gal Hillary and the State Department and the Chinese government to resolve this latest USA/China flap.

But when I watch a smuggled video of Chen directly addressing the Powers That Be re his horrific treatment—and demanding that the officials who beat him and his wife be held accountable—I can’t help but feel uncomfortable. This intense media coverage is so damned smug, isn’t it!

I also can’t help but wonder what would happen if a young Black man sat in front of a camera and  recorded this:

“I wish to speak directly to the President of the United States. My name is EveryAmericanEighteenYearOldBlackMale—I live in Harlem, in Roxbury, Detroit, Chicago, I live in every community of color in this country. And every day, simply because I am a young, Black male, a police officer stops me and frisks me. Every day. This is what the War on Drugs is really about, Mr. President. That cops, needing to fill their quota, troll the streets of my ‘hood. Hoping they’ll get lucky. Sometimes, they’ll plant drugs on me and my peers, then arrest me.

“This is a human rights violation, Mr. President. I have names, dates; I have written down every encounter. I keep track.

“Please do something.”

The only difference between such a video and Chen’s? One of them doesn’t need to be smuggled.