Sunday, November 1, 2015

Hidden in not-so-plain sight

     Who goes to prison in our country and who goes free? Do we help integrate released prisoners back into society... or do we force them to spend the rest of their lives paying their debt?

   These were the hefty human questions considered at yesterday's “Bars, Barriers, or Justice?” expo and conference, held at the C. A. Melton Arts and Education Center in West Chester, PA. My husband Bob and I represented Amnesty International Group 342, accompanied by Ron Coburn, Bidisha, and Elzat from the AIUSA Philadelphia Group.

    I had the privilege of speaking on the morning panel with Patrick Hall of Campaign to Defeat the New Jim Crow and T.L. (short for Talila Lewis) from HEARD (Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf)  
 And here’s a photo of the organizer of the day’s events, Bill Lockard of Deaf CAN!  

    OK, so you’ve probably read the statistics on incarceration. The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners. Since the 1970’s, the US prison population has risen from 300,000 to 2.3 million, and African-Americans and Latinos account for 58% of that total, although they make up only 25% of the general population. In addition, while White Americans use 5 times the amount of the drugs, African-Americans are sent to prison for drug-related offenses at 10 times the rate. 

    The highly acclaimed book The New Jim Crow by historian Michelle Alexander will give you a lot more information on the pipeline flowing from depressed, predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhoods to America's prisons and on the plight of felons who serve their time yet are never allowed to start over with a clean slate. They can never again vote...their status makes finding employment next to impossible...they are denied access to public housing and food stamps... and they leave prison with a mountain of debt for “room and board” as well as legal and administrative fees.  In other words, their sentences just go on and on.

       I also learned yesterday about the horrendous situation of a substratum of our bloated prison population: prisoners with disabilities, especially those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Many are wrongfully charged with offenses because they cannot explain themselves adequately to law enforcement agents or cannot respond to orders due to their difficulty in communicating. Once convicted and imprisoned, they are cut off from their families, as TTY phone service is largely unavailable.  Many receive penalties –including time in solitary confinement (a.k.a. “the hole”)--  for violations that are not intentional but happen because of their disability.  For instance, failure to appear for roll call in the morning because they don’t hear the bell.

    Here’s actress Marlee Matlin counseling deaf persons on how best to respond if stopped by police on the highway:

     Members of RSOL (Reforming Sex Offender Laws) informed us about the excessively punitive regulations targeting sex offenders. While the vast majority never commit a second offense, they face lifelong unemployment and other hardships because of their status as “registrants,” with no hope of ever expunging their names from the list.

    Other organizations with educational tables at the event:
    We also heard from the mother of one of 6 inmates who peacefully protested a beating spree by guards only to be charged with rioting:  Justice for the Dallas 6 (That's Dallas, PA.). Then there was the heartbreaking story of the mother of a young woman sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, although she committed the act in self-defense: Free Charmain Campaign   AND    

   Attendees were cordially invited to do time sitting in a replica of "the hole." Just about the scariest Halloween Day prank I can think of.

   What I find most disturbing is that, as a nation, we have bought into the callous philosophy that it's OK just to throw human beings away. Toss them into the dumpster and forget about them. While we constantly assert that ours is a Christian society, we reject the Master’s teaching that “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent" (Lk 15:7).  Priding ourselves on being just and law-abiding, we really resemble those reproved by Jesus for “load[ing] people down with burdens they can hardly carry," while we "will not lift one finger to help them” (Lk 11:46). The  released prisoner is also our neighbor...but we don’t want him (or her) in our backyard. 

     The representative from The Pennsylvania Prison Society (founded by Benjamin Franklin and other Enlightenment humanitarians) shed a ray of light and hope on the discussion, reminding us that the tide is turning. Both Democratic and Republican legislators are beginning to coalesce around the issue of criminal justice reform. She urged us to track and support proposed legislation, such as PA Senate Bill 166, sponsored by Senator Stewart Greanleaf. If enacted, this law
would allow individuals who have served a sentence for nonviolent third and second degree misdemeanors to petition the court for expungement of their criminal records after at least seven years without a new offense.
“A low-level misdemeanor in one’s past is often a barrier when seeking employment, long after they have completed their sentence,” said Senator Greenleaf. “A number of states are expanding their expungement laws to reduce the period during which a minor criminal record can punish people.”
This legislation is expected to help counter high rates of recidivism, relieve an overburdened pardon system, and provide more opportunities for ex-offenders to join the workforce.
    However, as someone once said, no one ever lost an election by claiming to be tough on crime.  Concerned citizens must also oppose legislation that heaps more financial burdens on those incarcerated, such as PA House Bill 1089 entitled "In sentencing, further providing for collection of restitution, reparation, fees, costs, fines and penalties."  This proposed law would allow for the confiscation of money from a prisoner's trust fund to pay for fees and other items.

     Finally be sure to watch the VICE special report,  Fixing the System too. We watched it last evening. Because we just can't get enough of this stuff :-)

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Jesus Cures My Paralyses

 This morning this Gospel passage came to mind during silent worship:

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home.  So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them.  Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them.  And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay.  When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts?  Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’?  But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic—  “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.”  And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” Mk 2: 1-12 (NRSV)

    That's quite a dramatic scene.  Jesus "speaking the word" to the crowd when suddenly this mat with a man lying on it starts to descend in front of him.  (Jesus didn't notice some bits of mud falling on his head? Or maybe he chose to ignore it.)  And the first thing Jesus says to the paralytic is "Your sins are forgiven."  Why?  Maybe because back then people considered illness and misfortune as a result of sinful behavior?  Or perhaps Jesus read into the man's heart and knew he was troubled by past sins and wanted to assure him of the Father's forgiveness. Either way, this healing is highly charged with symbolism. I often feel paralyzed -- if not by some current dilemma or inability to decide which course to take, then quite often by the memory of part wrongdoing on my part for which I am still berating myself. Jesus' assurance that I am forgiven, that the Father is not waiting to reprove or scold or punish me is a powerful gift that cures my paralysis.

   Picking up the mat is also a detail rich in meaning.  It signifies taking into my hands that thing I was leaning on, the bad habit or other false consolation, the excuse for not doing what I've been prompted to do -- taking it into my hands and purposefully putting it aside. I will lean on it no longer.

   "Go to your home."  Stop hanging around, wasting time where you don't belong (physically or mentally).  Go to where you need to be, accomplish the things you were meant to accomplish.

   I see a similar symbolism behind the stories of Jesus' restoring the widow's son and Lazarus to life. Jesus conquers the lifelessness caused by unrelieved remorse for past sins and restores my spiritual and psychic vitality.  I can move, act, experience life in all its fullness and be a companion and collaborator with others.

    "Your sins are forgiven."  Again, that central and most important message of Jesus' ministry. The Father doesn't hold grudges. He's not the great Scorekeeper in the sky. New beginnings are possible. I can move on.

Image source:

Thursday, April 2, 2015

There's no loneliness where she's gone

The five of us graduated together from the same master's program...back in 1977. We've all stayed in the same area, although life events would cause us to drift out of touch now and then. Still, every once in awhile, we'd have a reunion at a restaurant and catch one another up on our happenings. More recently, we made this a ritual a couple of times each year, especially on birthdays. So, although we were not very, very close, we were in touch and cared about one another. That's what makes it so difficult to understand why she never told any of us about her breast cancer in 2008 or its more recent recurrence. This week we all got a phone call from one of her relatives letting us know that she had passed away. The funeral had already taken place. The family wanted to keep it private.

Did we fail her in some way, I wonder? Why did she feel she had to go through it all alone? Perhaps she was very depressed and --in a downward thought spiral-- believed that even we wouldn't care. We would have.

I cannot imagine her pain and loneliness. But I believe that there is no loneliness where she now dwells.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Just One of the Usual Suspects

This past week has been so hectic that my Megabus journey to D.C. seems like ages ago.  Before too many more day pass, just want to record my trip to our nation's capital to celebrate   protest the 13th anniversary of the arrival of the first detainees at Guantánamo Bay. Despite the recent release of about a dozen prisoners, 127 still remain, most of them held for over a decade without criminal charge. WAIT!  JUST IN-  make that 122, as 5 more Yemenis were transferred out this week. 

   There was a great deal of focus on Shaker Aamar, the last remaining UK resident detainee, who remains in Gitmo although twice cleared for release.

   I've been doing this twice a year for the last five years or so. It's gotten so that I know many of my fellow human rights activists by name: Jeremy, Matt, Beth. I'm proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them.

Heard Andy Worthington speak passionately about the moral imperative of closing Gitmo and the disgraceful, outrageous facts revealed by the Senate's recent report on CIA torture.  Other speakers included Debra Sweet of The World Can't Wait, Rev Ron Stief of National Religious Campaign Against Torture, and Noor Mir from Amnesty International.

    Witness Against Torture has created a video collection of the speakers' remarks here.  I can only echo what they say and add my heartfelt wish that this be the LAST Close Gitmo rally!

Saturday, January 10, 2015


They went to buy food
     how could they possibly know
     Death was in the bag?

Attentats : les noms des victimes de l'épicerie casher dévoilés

Wednesday, January 7, 2015


Scribblings in the sky
    bleed red. On earth pens, candles   
    held high...sad, defiant

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Our country's torture policy explained

Thought I'd start the new year out right by sharing my enhanced understanding of our country's EITs (or enhanced interrogation techniques).  Thanks to Vice President Cheney's Meet the Press interview of 14 December, I am much clearer regarding our country's torture policy.  In addition, I thoroughly comprehend now why a majority of my fellow countrymen/women are totally down with it.

Here's our policy, simply stated:

1. Our country does not torture.  Our country will sometimes use techniques that stop short of our definition of torture: the physical pain "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death."  In other words, we only "torture" (quotation marks required), but we never torture.*

2.  We "torture" to save our asses.**

3.  If "torture" cannot save our asses, it's at least worth a try.***

4.  If we sometimes torture innocent people, well, it's an honest mistake.  Besides, those guys have brown skin and Arab names, so they don't count.****

5.  We can "torture" because we're the good guys.*****  No one else is permitted to torture or even to "torture."

Stellar statements

* "We were very careful to stop short of torture.... All of the techniques that were authorized by the president were, in effect, blessed by the Justice Department opinion that we could go forward with those without, in fact, committing torture."  Transcript of Meet the Press Interview

**"Our objective is to get the guys who did 9/11 and it is to avoid another attack against the United States."

*** (excerpt of Senate Torture Report) "A review of C.I.A. cables and other C.I.A. records found that the use of the C.I.A.'s enhanced interrogation technique played no role in the identification of Jose Padilla or the thwarting of the dirty bomb or the tall buildings plot."

 ****Chuck Todd: "25% of the detainees though, 25% turned out to be innocent. They were released...Is that too high? You're okay with that margin for error?"  Mr. Cheney: "I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective."

*****"Chuck, if you look at it and you look at what the people running the agency said and what Jose Rodriguez said who ran the program, he's a good man."

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Tortured haiku

Pain inflicted on
  foreign bodies, not human
  Bring the cleansing rain

Muscle, sinew, soul
   torn, punctured, quashed. Is there no
   Balm in Gilead?

Haiku of the season

Scent of evergreen
  pepperminted chocolate
  Now just need a hearth

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Italian Hypertype Hit Parade

  I’m concluding a Coursera course entitled "Latino Popular Culture for the Clueless." The instructors, Frederick Luis Aldama and Paloma Martinez-Cruz, are from Ohio State University and they're really fantastic. Aldama has written over a dozen books, many of them in the collection of the library where I work.

  To sensitize us to ways that Latinos are stereotyped in the media, the instructors have us doing assignments about stereotypes of our own ethnic background.  The last assignment was a “hypertype”  -- in other words, a super souped-up stereotype.  We had a choice of submitting an image, a poem, or a sound file.  So I put together clips of stereotypical Italian songs.  Ironically, some of them are sung by Italian-American singers, like Louis Prima and Joe Dolce (who emigrated to Australia).  We had to write an essay too, talking about how the elements of the hypertype express our identity and also our “otherness” with respect to the dominant culture.

  I also learned about the website, where you can upload sound files and also search and download others.

   While I've learned a lot about Latino pop culture, this course has really been an opportunity for me to spend time reflecting on my own feelings and relationship to my own Italian-American culture ...reflections that I've avoided for quite a while, as some of the experiences are painful. There are Italian-American writers whose works I've also bypassed for the same reason.  However I now feel ready to approach them without fear.

Track 1 - Tarantella - traditional
Track 2 - Where Do You Work-a, John? sung by Louis Prima
Track 3 - Shaddup-a You Face - Sung by Joe Dolce
Track 4 - That's Amore - Sung by Dean Martin
Track 5 - C'e la luna mezz 'u mar - Sung by Jimmy
Track 6 - Theme from film The Godfather - composer: Nino Rota
Track 7 - La Bohème, Act 2 Finale - composer: Giacomo Puccini

The Italian immigrants that came to America at the end of the nineteenth century originated principally from the regions of Abruzzo, Molise, Campagna, Basilicata, Apulia, and Calabria, located in central and southern Italy, as well as Sicily. My maternal great-grandmother came from the town of La Fara San Martino, a town in Abruzzo known for the De Cecco pasta factory. My father's family came from this region as well.

This hit parade is an expression of that is often a love-hate relationship with my Italian heritage. The hit parade starts, of course, with a traditional tarantella. Track 2 (with echos of the tarantella in its introduction) and Track 3 hold a great sense of identity for me, as they remind me of my great-aunts and uncles who spoke English with a strong Abruzzese accent. I have my doubts about the affections of Tin Pan Alley composer Harry Warren who wrote “Where Do You Work-a, John?” And the scolding Italian mamma is --well-- something I know too well. So I sort of feel that it exposes family secrets to the greater public. However, when sung by Louis Prima and Lou Monte, songs like these strike me as inside jokes. Children of immigrants, these performers felt secure enough in their American identity that they could laugh affectionately both at and with their elders.

On the other hand, I feel the “otherness” in the memory of the menial jobs Italian immigrants held when they came to this country, and I think of Latinos currently supporting themselves and their families at low-wage jobs. My grandmother and her sisters and brothers worked in the garment factories of Philadelphia. They did piece work, and my grandmother told me how she would limit her trips to the bathroom so as not to miss the next shirt coming down the assembly line. While I have fond memories of their accented English, I also know that it is a stereotype evoking lack of education and a lower socioeconomic status. Dr. Aldama reminds us that Latinos do not all come from Mexico or Puerto Rico, but from other countries of Central and South America as well. Many Americans also do not realize that Italians who have emigrated more recently come from the northern regions and have a very different accent when speaking English.

“That’s Amore” (Track 4) evokes the Italy of romance and the stereotype of the great Italian lovers, like the Latin lovers mentioned in one of last week’s videos. Dean Martin, of course, projected this stereotype, as did Rudolph Valentino, Rossano Brazzi, and Marcello Mastroianni. By the way, take a moment to savor the mandolin and the tambourines –the stereotypical Italian instruments-- in “That’s Amore.” “C’è la luna mezz ‘u mare” (Track 5) is sung in Sicilian dialect. I found many interpretations on the Internet, but I liked this one the best, although I have no idea who the singer “Jimmy” is. This song is sung in one of the early scenes of the film The Godfather and is associated with Italian weddings, although few people know that it is full of double entendres. My grandmother, who learned to understand many Italian dialects while working in the garment factory, told me that “it was fun” when this song came out. The lyrics are a conversation between a mother and daughter. The moon is full and shimmering on the surface of the sea (c’e la luna mezz ‘u mare), and the girl is feeling romantic. She tells her mother she wants to get married and her mother starts to tick off various suitors... commenting on the sexual appetite of each. The reality is that the Italian immigrant milieu of my grandmother’s time was very strict and sex was not a subject of polite conversation. This song was fun because everyone got the double meanings and could share a knowing laugh.

Track 6, the theme from The Godfather. This is the most difficult song for me to discuss. I abhor the stereotype of the Italian as Mafioso, an image similar –perhaps—to the bandido, as described by Dr. Martinez-Cruz. I have seen only the first film of the Godfather trilogy. While I must acknowledge Coppola’s cinematic talents, I am appalled that there are Italian-Americans who find the Mafia a source of pride. I have not bought into the dynasty of Mafioso products spawned by the Coppola series, nor have I watched a single episode of the TV series The Sopranos. (OK, end of rant.)

Giacomo Puccini hailed from Torre del Lago in Tuscany, not my family’s place of origin. However, my first exposure to Italian opera was through 78-rpm Victrola recordings that belonged to my grandfather, and it was love from the first scratchy earful. Since La Bohème is my favorite work, I thought I’d bring this love-hate hit parade to a close with the rousing Act II finale.

I'm grateful for the insights I've acquired in this course. Learning the meaning behind the Dia de los Muertes and the Quinceañera celebrations has helped me understand and appreciate the lived experience of Latinos/as.

Grazie for listening and reading!


"C’è la luna mezz ‘u mare.” (Traditional). Sung by Jimmy. mp3

Dolce, Joe. “Shaddup-a You Face.” mp3

“Harry Warren.” Wikipedia.

“Napoletana Tarantella.” (Traditional). mp3

Puccini, Giacomo. Act II, Finale. La Bohème. Thomas Schippers, Conductor. Opera d’Oro, OPD-1143. 
       1969, reissued 1998. CD

Rota, Nino. Theme from The Godfather, 1972. mp3

Warren, Harry. Lyrics by Jack Brooks. “That’s Amore.” Sung by Dean Martin. mp3
Downloaded from Amazon

__________. “Where Do You Work-a, John?” Sung by Louis Prima. The Wildest 75. mp3 downloaded
from Amazon