Saturday, May 21, 2016

On the road- Days 3 & 4: Of bottles and men

Houston airport, 12:15 pm

    Still processing the second day of my visit -- already day ago. Although I was much less hesitant going through security and much more relaxed conversing with Troy (not his real name), I came out of Polunsky just wanting to unwind. Couldn't get it together to write. I exited the compound under a brilliantly shining sun that made the barbed wire fencing sparkle.  Thinking only of myself, I was in a hurry to savor my freedom.

     There was more activity in the visitation room on Friday than on Thursday. By total coincidence, I ran into the kind TCADP member who had sent me the long, informative email.  She happened to be visitng her friend and was assigned to the booth right next to mine.  She seemed subdued and heavy-hearted. We exchanged a bit of conversation and she remarked sadly that the men there are treated "like animals."  Troy's arrival on his side of the glass pane cut short our chat. My TCADP friend peeked over and waved hi to him. When her inmate friend arrived, Troy said a sideways hi to him and I peeked over and said hi too. He gave me a big smile. He seemed happy. Her visits must be a great source of cheer to him. Troy knew that inmate, of course, and told me his name.  I excitedly told Troy that the lady visiting the other inmate was the TCADP member who had sent me the helpful email. Then we settled into conversation.

     I had requested a different booth in the hope that the telephone connection might be clearer, and indeed it was. This time I felt no awkwardness. It felt natural to be there talking and laughing with  my friend.  As natural as can be expected when you're sitting in front of a pane of glass. A visit totally devoid of physical contact. I keep asking myself: what are they afraid of? Would I slip him a weapon or a razor blade? Or some other contraband? Would he slip me a note? Behind Troy I could see guards leading other inmates to and from visiting booths from time to time. The presence of these stocky, heavily armed guards keeps visitors and inmates properly intimidated. There must be a better way.

     The guard who gathered the snacks that I purchased for Troy couldn't have been sweeter, however.  Wonder how it feels to be a combination guard and take-out delivery employee? Seeing the guards and other prisoners going to and fro behind Troy, I thought of the beverage machine. You push a button and a mechanism behind a glass window locates and fetches the desired drink and drops it onto the shelf below, where only the guard is permtted to touch it. Of bottles and men.

     How does he keep his spirits up, I wonder? And when will we see each other again? And will we ever be able to give each other a hug?

Thursday, May 19, 2016

On the road -- Day 2: Eating yogurt with a spork

   The rain is beating against the window of my hotel room overlooking US 59. It's so damp and chilly that I turned the heat on. Not what I would have expected for Texas weather during the month of May. But then, it's been an unusually cold and rainy spring back home in PA too.  Just can't seem to escape the rain.

   As a couple people who have been to Polunsky Unit promised, the personnel were all very friendly when I visited today. The visitation room is kept spotlessly clean. The floor was shining. However, the dilapidated fixtures, worn or peeling paint, and generally Spartan institutional decor contribute to an overwhelmingly depressing atmosphere. The visiting booths look like something out of a 1950's TV crime drama.The telephone connection was staticky and I sometimes had difficulty understanding Troy (not his real name) when he spoke. The bathroom, although kept very clean, is in serious need of renovation. At the very least, prison admin should consider replacing the door. Sitting on the toilet you can read the sad, desperate musings etched into the surface on the interior side by family and friends.

    I found it hard to see that Troy was handcuffed as he was being led into the visiting booth. I gave him a big smile and a two-handed wave, and even the guard smiled along with him as he removed the cuffs. He reached for a telephone receiver on his side of the window, and I reached for one on my side. The first few minutes were awkward. While we have spoken before, (during periods when he was on bench warrant in another county and could call me -- no telephone privileges at Polunsky), that was awhile ago. I was touched that his first words were to ask about one of my family members who was recently ill. I was entitled to a "special" four-hour visit (as opposed to a usual two-hour visit), because of the distance I had come.  We chatted --and at times laughed-- about this and that for the first couple of hours, and then he asked if I wanted to eat.  Sure, I said. Troy had really been looking forward to this culinary treat, lunch from the famous visiting room vending machines. Says something about the daily grub he gets, I suppose.

    The procedure for purchasing food for the inmates is cumbersome to say the least. You take your friend's order. Then you call over the guard.  She comes with a brown paper lunch bag on which she has noted the number of your booth and follows you from machine to machine as you make each purchase. You deposit your quarters, make your selection, and the item is delivered. Or, in the case of a  refrigerated item such as a salad or sandwich, you slide open a little door.  But you are forbidden to touch the item. The guard retrieves it and places it into the paper bag. The process is repeated until all desired items have been purchased. Finally, the guard delivers the bag to the inmate. Just like ordering take-out, right?  When you buy a salad, it comes with a napkin and little plastic spork. Same for yogurt, as I discovered when I purchased some Yoplait for myself. Consuming a creamy comestible with a spork has a most unnatural feel. It's almost as though the entire experience has been calculated to be as unnatural as possible. Even as a visitor you feel you're being punished.

      Troy ate his lunch with great relish as we continued our conversation. Seeing him enjoy his food gave me at least the illusion that I was doing something for him. However, I know that he is totally vulnerable and at the mercy of the system, his only hope the unrelenting efforts of the pro bono attorneys. May the Spirit guide their work.

     Well, at least the great unknown has been dispelled. When I return tomorrow I'll be more familiar with security procedures and visitation culture. Maybe I'll even master the fine art of eating yogurt with a spork.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

On the road - Day 1


OK, I've got this. Packed my suitcase in a reasonable amount of time last evening. Could have packed lighter, but...what the heck.

Philadelphia International Airport - TSA security check didn't take as horrifically long as the news reports are depicting. Perhaps I was just fortunate this morning. My flight is listed as on time.  Just purchased a Subway hoagie (as we call them here in Philly) to eat on the plane. Settling in. Going to write and read some.

Feeling peaceful. This is a trip I'm led to make. Comme une évidence, as the French say. No big deal. No grand convictions. Just going to visit a friend. Who happens to live on death row in Texas.

10:00pm - Livingston, TX

Not a bad drive from Houston airport to my hotel in Livingston. Found a nice tex-mex restaurant nearby for dinner. Took a dry run out to Polunsky, located not very far from where I'm staying. It was starting to get dark.  Lit up and viewed from a distance, the huge compound had an eery feel. Back in my hotel room, as talking TV heads dissected Donald Trump's newly released finances (must be nice being worth $10B), I reread the helpful advice from the kind TCADP member. Take only my ID, car keys, my bag of quarters for our gourmet vending machine lunch, and a sweater. Leave everything else in the car. Lots of gates to pass through. Feeling afraid I'll get lost somewhere between security and the visiting room. Counting on the Light to show me the way.

Anticipating our first meeting.  Through a glass...but not darkly.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Mother's Day

Mom is buried far away
I need to make a pilgrimage
caress the family headstone
feel the imprint of her name
  and my grandparents’
  and my uncle’s
  and my father’s
trace with my finger
the dates of her birth and death
and place fresh flowers
in the accompanying vases

I need to remember
lighthearted days and sad
her face when young
  and when she was very old
recall how my hand felt
in hers
when she was strong for me
  before I became strong for her
how she cared for me
  before I cared for her

I need to see again
her eyes alive with laughter
  too soon vacant
  with dementia
I need to see her walk, stroll
  before those days
  of wandering zombie-like

She died a shell of herself
  my eyes affixed
  to her last exhalation
body spent
soul intact
Mom still

Thursday, April 21, 2016

What ninety-eight years buys

Ninety-eight years should buy you more
than a motorized chair
a room
three meals a day
and bingo games

Ninety-eight years buys you
not of your choosing
and entertainers
of dubious talent

Ninety-eight years buys you
one-hour visits
from family and friends
more biscotti
than you can eat
and an undesired Kindle

Ninety-eight years should buy you
lingering last hours
under your own old roof
where memories
come sit in easy chairs
to reminisce

Ninety-eight years should buy you
a fridge
that slows down
to your pace
and dishes that chip
but don't break

Ninety-eight years should buy you
a well scuffed table
and photos
that talk back

Ninety-eight years should buy you
the right
to slip into eternity
any way you want

Friday, April 8, 2016

Fly, Mariposa, fly!

“I tell you that in the same way 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

...At least, that’s what I think he said, the Nazarene, the one who had nowhere to lay his head and whose dined with outcasts... the one in whose name we righteous folk sentence sinners (today we call them offenders, inmates, and such) to decades-long, sometimes lifelong imprisonment and prolonged solitary confinement. But then again, we’re also told that his own family thought he was crazy. Anyway, I’m trying to figure out why, in our Christian country, we don’t give those who have broken the law a chance at Christian repentance. Lock them up and throw away the key, people say. Because we refuse to recognize their common humanity and cannot be bothered helping them put the pieces of their lives back together.

My observations are prompted by the one-woman play Mariposa & the Saint. I saw it last evening on Haverford College’s campus. Julia Steele Allen and inmate Sara Fonseca—a 33-year-old mother of two, nicknamed Mariposa because of her butterfly tattoo-- have crafted the text of the play together, basing it on excerpts from letters Mariposa has written to Julia over the years. The play writing has been done completely through correspondence as well. Mariposa has never been to rehearsals or performances of the piece that she’s co-written. She hasn’t even seen photos of her friend Julia in the title role. That’s because Mariposa has been confined to the Security Housing Unit (the SHU) of a California prison since their collaboration began three years ago.

   The 45-minute monlogue is nonlinear, alternating between the present time and flashbacks to various periods in Mariposa’s life. The staging is sparse. Piles of white and off-white fabric blocks are the only props, and Mariposa pushes them closer and closer together in the course of the play to depict the increasingly suffocating atmosphere of a solitary confinement cell. The action opens on a very animated Mariposa, dressed in a white prison outfit bearing with the upper-case letters: S, H, and U. Although she shares how much she misses her young son and daughter, we sense a strong life force within her, something that even the criminal (in)justice system cannot dampen. She recites the Native American tale of how Wit’-Tab-Bah the Robin got his red breast and whistles, imitating a robin’s song. However, we come to understand that Mariposa’s life has been as disjointed as the narrative... a child constantly moving from one location to another with her mother and repeatedly raped by her mother’s “tricks”... a young, single mother herself, evicted from the room where she was living with her baby ... a prisoner, separated from another inmate whom she had come to love as her wife. The monologue is punctuated by hand-clap commands from the C.O. (played by an actor in a nonspeaking role) and a couple of popular songs. Little by little, Mariposa grows lethargic, paranoid, agoraphobic. At the of the play, when she is just a month away from being released from the SHU, we learn that she has thrown a glass of cold water in the face of a male nurse, an act that earns her another four years –four years!—in solitary. Mariposa is serving the rest of her time in solitary in the prison's psychiatric section.

  The performance was followed by a 45-minute discussion led by Julia, as well as the play’s director, Noelle Ghoussaini, and members of Decarcerate PA and Reconstruction Inc. We discussed the inhumanity of solitary confinement, especially the lack of contact prisoners have with their own children, and we talked about how difficult it is for those released to find work. We ended the evening by signing petitions to our state representative and senator for reform of the PA prison system. And we were offered an addressed post card to send to Mariposa, who is  elated to receive these from so many persons around the country.

  You will fly again, Mariposa!

Another review of the play:

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Very honored to have been chosen memoirist of the month by Smith Magazine:

I mean, who can't write six words? It's easy and so much fun that I've racked up over 2,000 memoirs to date.

Gonna keep on sixing!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Happy 2016!

Haven't posted yet this year.  To kick off a (hopefully) more active blogging year, here's a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson


Hast thou named all the birds without a gun;
Loved the wood-rose, and left it on its stalk;
At rich men’s tables eaten bread and pulse:
Unarmed, faced danger with a heart of trust;
And loved so well a high behavior
In man or maid, that thou from speech refrained
Nobility more nobly to repay
O be my friend, and teach me to be thine!

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Note: pulse - edible seeds (in case the word was unfamiliar to you too).

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: