Do You Hear What I Hear

Collaboration is when you are not going into a meeting to show what you know, but going into a meeting to show what you don’t know yet.” – Bevin Bell-Hall, puppeteer

This could also be described as an attitude of unknowing. When we listen to people to form a response, then we are not truly listening. When  we listen to learn, we enter into a mutual agreement that uplifts all.

In peacemaking circles,* often the parties that are interacting with one another are at entirely different parts of their journeys. The person-who-did-harm and the harmed-one may not be at a place where they can sit together without their own brokenness hurting the other people in the circle. In those cases, rather than leaving either party behind, I would suggest that each party have their own circles until such a time that they can unite and repair the breach between them. I think that would be the peacemaking way. It is also the time-consuming, hard way. Of course, the parties have to want to work towards healing. This also means they need to recognize that they have done harm or have been harmed.

It is hard to see yourself as a victim in need of healing. It is hard to see yourself as a perpetrator of harm. Nobody likes these labels. In the broader scheme of our national identity, racism, sexism, transphobia, and homophobia, it becomes even harder because some people say, “I see all people the same.” And then they support policies and politicians that make it harder to exist. They don’t acknowledge the cry that is, “Please just see me.” If we truly saw each other. Listened to each other. Healed with each other. We would be in a different place. If we could see the person in front of us as a whole person that fits into a system that goes towards healing for all, then we could say, “Your life matters.” In order to do that, they would have to admit that they do harm. Are an oppressor. Come from a system of oppression. That is work harder than a march in the streets.

This is the failure of our religious institutions and largely the Christian Church in the United States. It is the system that I am intimately familiar with and love. And if we can’t critique our own systems, then we should not be willy nilly critiquing other folks’ systems.

Until recent years, the church and the USA have walked hand-in-hand together. Proudly. That is where the nationalism and patriotism and idolatry of the church has grown. The church has identified with creating an idealized version of society while holding apart healing. Women have been told to stay in abusive relationships because that is their place (and this still happens). Couples have been told to not marry because they were not of the same ethnicity (this still happens). And lovers have been told not to marry because they were not of the right gender (this still happens.) This still happens. Good grief. It still happens.

What if the church, as an institution that has been shadowing the growth of the US, stood apart and declared itself a place of healing? That embraced the victim and the oppressor? That held them in healing until they could come together? That said to each life, “You matter!” And then brought them together to say, “We matter. Together. We matter.”

Well, I suppose I dream a dead dream. Sometimes it feels that way. But I don’t believe that. We who strive will keep striving. And in the Peacemaking Circle way, the only person you can change is yourself. So if I become more peaceful and more peacemaking, that is all that can be expected.

And so it falls on the shoulders of those of us with eyes to see and ears to hear.

Listen to each other.
Listen with love, in your heart.

Seek peace.
Peace with listening, in your heart.

Find love.
Love with justice, in your heart.

Be just.
Justice with mercy, in your heart.

Offer mercy.
Mercy that listens, in your heart.

Peacemaking Circles are certainly one way to offer this healing to one another. Only in that it embraces these principles. Finds the way that brings healing. Creates “communities of peace where everyone belongs and matters.”*

What will you see or hear today?

Onward!

Peacemaking Circles come to me via Saroeum Phoung who was taught by the Tagish Tlingit people. It is a tradition very similar to group Spiritual Direction.

King County Peacemaking Coordinating Team vision: Creating communities of peace where everyone belongs and matters.

-© 2017, Terri Stewart

Justice in a New-Old Way

Today, we sat in the King County Youth Service Center lobby that had been turned into a courtroom for the sentencing of one of the youth we have been working with. I am a member of the King County Peacemaking Coordinating Team (PCT). We apply the principles of Peacemaking Circles, an ancient process taught to us by the Tagish and Tlingit First Nation people to modern court cases. A new-old way.

Today, we heard from the judge, the prosecution, the defense, the PCT…and then the respondent (person who did harm) spoke. And then the victim’s mother spoke.

We were all blubbering and sniffling by the end of it. But not because it was hurtful. The tears were because of the witness of transformation and hope. To see a genuinely healed person extend their hand to honor the victim. To see the victim’s family stand up and say, “Do more of this.”

There are some flaws to work out but that is because we are human. And this process is all about becoming more completely human.

In this particular case, the respondent had committed felony harassment. This charge on a juvenile record could irrevocably alter his future. It would limit his housing, loans, educational opportunities and more. I don’t know if we really understand what we do to juveniles when we hang felonies around their neck during a time in their life when their brain is not fully formed. But I digress.

I remember the mother of the victim looking at the respondent and saying (paraphrase), “It is so good to see you this way. Before, all I had as an image of you was the threat on social media where you had a gun and were threatening my boy’s life. You were scary. Now you are human.”

During the Peacemaking Circle process that took about 8 months, we discovered how similar the respondent and victim were. They were both from homes going through divorce. They both loved photography. They were both kids being sunk by the social systems around them. One responded by acting out. The other by withdrawing. In this case, working towards healing the family systems healed the crime. It helped everyone remember that they were human. And that we are all human.

I share below with you the recommendation from the PCT and the joy in a complete dismissal of charges against the respondent. (I’ve removed the names of the young people involved).

Can I get an Amen?!

Summary and Final Recommendations for Referral #4

July 7, 2017

Good afternoon, my name is Safia Ahmed and I am a member of the King County Peacemaking Coordinating Team.  I have the honor of speaking on behalf of the team to share the work that has been done in this case and our recommendations for sentencing.

To begin, the Peacemaking Coordinating Team would like to honor and thank the victim and his family who gave their courageous support for this case to be referred.  Their support and willingness to participate was instrumental in this restorative process to promote healing and partnership between King County, community based organizations, faith based communities, and the youth, families and communities of King County.

We received a referral for the respondent’s case on October 11, 2016 from Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jimmy Hung.  A home visit was conducted with the respondent and his family to determine the suitability of this referral for the Peacemaking Circle process. In addition, a home visit was also conducted with the victim and the victim’s family to share an overview of the Peacemaking Circle process, answer any questions and gain an understanding of what level of participation in the Peacemaking Circle process they may want to have.

After completing both home visits, the Peacemaking Coordinating Team accepted the case. The following summarizes the work done since accepting the case in December 2016 until July 1, 2017.

  • Five Healing Circles with the respondent, the respondent’s family and community members who wanted to show support. Each circle was on average 3 to 4 hours long.  These circles were to promote healing, peace and reconciliation and as preparation to meet with the victim and the victim’s family since they indicated their openness to actively participating in the Peacemaking Circle process.
  • The respondent and his parents participated in an all-day community circle with King County Executive Dow Constantine and other King County leaders on March 11, 2017.
  • The respondent’s mother attended a 3-Day Introductory Peacemaking Circle Training from April 26-28, 2017
  • One Pre-sentencing Circle and One Sentencing Circle that included the presence of the victim’s mother along with criminal justice stakeholders; friends and family from both parties.
  • Approximately 8 hours of check-ins via phone and text with the victim’s mother and her family, keeping them apprised of the respondent’s progress with the Peacemaking Circle process.
  • Ongoing check-ins with the Criminal Justice stakeholders involved in the respondent’s case, keeping them apprised of the respondent’s progress.
  • One home visit and approximately 20-25 hours of check-ins via phone and text with the respondent over the course of 7 months.

The following outline was agreed upon in the Sentencing Circle as a conclusion to this case:

  • Reimbursement to the victim’s family for 8 of the 12 counseling sessions the victim partook in for self-care and healing work. Each session cost $120 for a total of $960
    • 2 sessions paid by the respondent
    • 3 sessions paid by the respondent’s family
    • 3 sessions paid from funds provided by the community and the Peacemaking Coordinating Team
  • The respondent’s father kindly agreed to show support to the victim and the victim’s mother by offering to pay for a trip as an opportunity to spend time with each other to rebuild their relationship along with having a positive experience coming from the respondent and his family.

In addition the Peacemaking Coordinating Team also recommends the following:

  • 6 months of volunteer work with the Peacemaking Coordinating Team as a way to give back and pay it forward that includes:
    • Attending the Peacemaking Coordinating Team meetings once a month
    • Participate and help lead a monthly Young Men’s Circle in support of other young people who are going through similar situations.

The respondent, with the support of his brothers and parents, has agreed to these recommendations as a way to heal the harm he has caused to the victim, the victim’s family and to the community at large.

The Peacemaking Coordinating Team would like to conclude our review and recommendations to this case by again expressing our heartfelt gratitude to the victim and the victim’s family who graciously permitted the respondent and his family to participate in the Peacemaking Circle process even while contending with the harm inflicted by the respondent’s actions.  It is our belief that their generosity and commitment to restorative practices have given space for the healing process to begin for both families.  We would also like to express our appreciation to the court, our criminal justice partners and the community for the continued support of our work.

Shalom and Amen,

Terri Stewart

Hearing Voices Underground

I am Chris Hoke. I am a Gang Pastor, Jail Chaplain and Writer. This is a story I just wrote for our brother organization, Underground Writing, directed by my friend and colleague Matt Malyon. I am honored to be a monthly teaching-writer with Underground Writing in juvenile detention.

Hearing Voices Underground
We read a poem by Li Young-Lee, Little Father, and in response a fifteen-year-old boy in Juvenile Detention wrote about the time his dad ran over him with a car.


One time when I was like 6 or 7
I got on my bike and finally rode it successfully
and I was riding it around my yard,
but I don’t think my dad liked that too much
because he decided to run me over
because he was drunk

my uncle was in the passenger side
finishing his beer
when my dad was steering towards me
and before I knew it
I was under the front of the car

It took him a second to realize
what happened but he said that
he told me to get out of the way
at least my bike was OK

This was last summer. It stuck with me.

Last month this same teenager walked into our Underground Writing group in the classroom. (Over time, you see youth return, again and again, to this place.) I put him on the spot by saying I still remembered something he wrote a year before.

“Yeah?” Yeah, I told him. Did he remember what it was? He did; he summarized the memory.

I asked him—for the audience of five other teenagers sitting around the two round tables in their bright orange sweats, listening—why he thought I remembered it. He shook his head, eyebrows up, honestly not sure why that lousy memory would stick with the writing teacher. “Cuz it’s f–, uh, messed up?”

Yeah, I said. But more basic than that: he wrote it down, I said, plain, simple, no flowery words. The event spoke for itself. I hoped this would dispel other students’ fears of writing being about getting fancy with our words.

“And because you dared to read it out loud. You shared it with us. Otherwise I wouldn’t have heard that story, or your powerful voice.”

His face was blank. So what.

These youth are used to their voices not being heard, or wanted. They are accustomed to not being seen.

We were not discussing metaphor that day.  But I am now.

Unless we the adults behind the wheel of our communities hear these stories, hear the voices of young lives being caught under the gears of our courts and legal systems, we won’t know we need to hit the breaks.  Or sober up.

In the last year, four of the boys—all between fourteen to sixteen years old—in our Juvenile Detention workshops have been charged as adults in the courtroom across the street. They each face over a decade in adult prison. None of them are white.

I can imagine where they are headed. Because, as an adult prison and gang chaplain, I’ve also been writing letters to a twenty-one-year-old in a solitary confinement cell across Washington State.

He was already one of the highest-violent inmates in the system when I met him. He’d stabbed multiple guards in the face, neck, when they entered his cell. The homies called him Lil’ Saint. Saint was sentenced, age fifteen, as an adult.

But in our letters, I was curious about him. He told me horror stories. Being whipped as a child, locked in the bathroom for days. Through writing, he made the connection between his childhood treatment and current “animal” rage, lashing out, at being caged.

He used his pen, his voice. He was heard, and he had compassion on himself. He’s now reading Steinbeck, ancient Roman histories, and has earned his way off of high security levels.

He never wrote a poem. But his writing I’m most proud of was the letter he wrote our county prosecutor, at our gentle request. He told his story on behalf of a kid in Juvenile Detention he’s never met. He raised his voice so that the man behind the legal wheel in our county might, hopefully, hit the breaks—and see a child about to be crushed underground.

. . . and before I knew it
I was under the front of the car

It took him a second to realize
what happened but he said that
he told me to get out of the way
at least my bike was OK

The prosecutor still has not lowered the charges. I’m not even sure if he read Saint’s prison-envelope letter.  It’s likely he’ll never hear Saint’s voice.

Do we?

May we have ears to hear–the word from above and from below.

Chris Hoke is the CoDirector of Underground Ministries and the author of  WANTED: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders.

Refuge, Reconcilation, and Recidivism

Everything I know about criminal justice and prison / incarceration reform could be written on the head of a pin, with ample room left over to inscribe Tolkien’s complete Lord of the Rings cycle. So the following comments should not be interpreted as any kind of implicit claim to expertise about court procedure, sentencing guidelines, parole criteria, or any related issues.  But in my lifetime, I have learned a thing or two, not about prisons and incarceration, but about Spirit … provided you do not question me too closely about precisely what I mean by the word “Spirit,” a term I will leave discreetly undefined, other than to say I do not mean any monotheistic God, but that Jung’s synchronicity might be closer to the mark. Anyway, perhaps the most salient thing I have learned in my 68 years, even ‘way back when I did equate “Spirit” with “God,” is that Spirit is sneaky, marvelously, incorrigibly sneaky. Not in a duplicitous or malicious, least of all, mendacious way, but subtle, stealthy – and above all unexpected, even un-expect-able. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going … “. One of the places where, for me, the wind of Spirit blows most strongly is a sacred Hawaiian village named Pu’uhonua o Honaunau – in Hawaiian “the Refuge of Honaunau”.

Diane and I first visited Pu’uhohua o Honaunau a couple years after we were married, when we were driving south down the west coast of the Big Island from Kona / Kailua to Kealakakua and toward the Ka’u Desert and South Point, at the southernmost “point” of the Big Island. If the Big Island were a clock face, Kona / Kailua would be between 9 and 10 o’clock, and Pu’uhonua o Honaunau would be at perhaps 8 o’clock. It was – still is – a National Park, and looked interesting, partly because it was a several-hundred-year-old “old Hawaiian” village, but also because I had heard anecdotes about tourists violating the curse of the pu’uhonua (“refuge”, a generic noun), whereby people who take “souvenirs” from the village – shells, rocks, driftwood, etc. – incurred runs of bad luck that persisted until the purloined items were returned to the village, most often by being mailed back to Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, care of the National Park Service, usually accompanied by an appropriately contrite letter of apology. Whereupon the string of bad luck ceased. Did I believe these stories? Not at the time, and not all the time even now … but … well … now mostly yes … and remember, I say that as the Skeptic-In-Residence:   “ … you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going”.

When I first set foot inside the precincts of the pu’uhonua¸ I was struck by a feeling, sheerly visceral, that to this day I find difficult to describe. Remember in what follow that, upon entering, I knew nothing of the pu’uhonua in any discursive, rational sense. But what I felt was – not fear, not intimidation, not “creeped out” in the Salem’s Lot sense, perhaps least of all threatened … none of that – but … Have you ever read Rudolf Otto’s classic The Idea of the Holy? If you have, you have encountered Otto’s no-less-classic description of the experience of the Holy as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans – literally “the Mystery that induces trembling (tremendum) and irresistible attraction (fascinans)”. In fact, like Otto’s generic description of the Holy, my description of the Holy – in Otto’s sense of the “numinous” – must be couched in terms of feeling / affect, not lexical rigor. I felt the Holy, the numinous at Pu’uhonua o Honaunau.  We wandered along the beach, observing and respecting the various rules of the place posted by the National Park Service on signs along the way, not even attempting to find a way inside the kapu (forbidden / taboo in Hawaiian) space of the inner sanctum.  As we were leaving, I picked up a Park Service brochure and read it on the way back to our hotel – and discovered the reason for my feelings and why they were more than justified.

Scattered across the Hawaiian Islands, there are several dozen pu’uhonua – refuges – like Pu’uhonua o Honaunau. They were refuges in the sense that, if you committed a crime, you could escape the secular consequences if you could somehow walk, swim, or otherwise travel to a pu’uhonua and basically throw yourself on the mercy of the priest(s) of the refuge. As long as you were inside that sacred enclosure, the law could not touch you. Then the work began of your making restitution, and of re-integrating you into the society from which your crime had alienated you. This is where my knowledge of old Hawaiian ritual, custom, and religion gets diaphanously, unreliably thin. But, generically speaking, the priest(s) would require that, as the offender, you perform certain tasks, participate in certain rituals – rather like the great labors of Hercules in Greek mythology – that, once completed, would culminate in the slate being wiped clean and your readmission into society as a member in good standing. My understanding is that the labors could require anywhere from a few days to several years to accomplish, depending on the severity of the original offense. But regardless of the time required, this was not seen, described, or depicted as punishment, as recrimination, as retaliation, as retribution, as “You done somethin’ bad to us, so we’re gonna do somethin’ bad to you”. This is where the analogy with Hercules breaks down. The goddess Hera’s purpose was to punish and to torment Hercules. The purpose of the labors imposed on the offender, on the contrary, is restitution and re-integration … in other words, healing of all parties to the offense, the offender no less than the offended.

I will leave to others far better versed than I in the technicalities of prison / criminal justice reform how best to apply some cognate of the pu’uhonua paradigm to issues of the administration of justice, venturing only the commonplace – and common-sense — observation that a system which relies upon mass incarceration to “reform” criminal behavior, and that, instead, transforms prisons into graduate schools of recidivism and criminal technique can hardly afford to condescend and thumb its collective nose at the example the old Hawaiians provide in their cities of refuge. Maybe the old Hawaiians did not do any better than we. But they could hardly do any worse. Instead, I will apply the lesson of Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, not to penology, but to theology. In the history of Christianity, the two are intimately connected. (The first penitentiaries were, as the noun implies, originally religious communities of sorts:  places where convicted criminals were sent to sit in silence and solitude, contemplating their crimes until they experienced some species of Divine visitation that would eventuate in illumination and repentance.) Both disciplines – penology and theology – were predicated on the principle that injury demands retribution – injury to society, and injury to God, each of which is inseparable from the other. That is the essence of Cur Deus Homo, St. Anselm’s 11th-century CE account of how and from what Christ’s death saves us.  Human sin has offended God, much as, e.g., a commoner sleeping with a royal daughter offends the lord of the manor. The lord of the manor – God – demands compensation through the mechanism of retributive justice, i.e., usually the death of the offending commoner, and will not rest until the offender has been pursued, apprehended, and executed. Jesus takes our place, says Anselm, and willingly accepts the punishment rightfully due us as sinners. (Think of any Billy Graham sermon. I should probably note here, in all fairness, that the Anselmian concept of salvation through vicarious retributive justice is no longer the only conceptualization of salvation, except in very conservative evangelical Christian sects. In fact, it was not even the only such conception in the centuries after Anselm, e.g. Peter Abelard.) There is a lot to criticize in Anselm’s account, of course. But for now, I want to concentrate on the idea of pursuit.

So God, as the offended Liege Lord, pursues the sinner. Likewise, in old Hawaii, law enforcement from the offended village pursued the criminal – for reasons St. Anselm would have understood — across land and over ocean, to the pu’uhonua. But within the sacred boundaries of the pu’uhonua, a new paradigm takes over, superseding the paradigm of punishment and retribution. The pursuit ends there. At that point, a paradigm of healing and reconciliation, under the auspices of the gods, supersedes the “civil” paradigm (for so we would call it) of recrimination and retribution. (Of course, in the New Testament, St. Paul also emphasizes reconciliation – but for Paul, reconciliation with God is only possible on the prior basis of the Sacrifice of Christ, for “without the shedding of blood there is no atonement for sin”.) The key principle here is recognition of and respect for boundaries – in the Hawaiian case, the physical boundaries of the pu’uhonua as the physical referent of the moral boundaries of the offender, understood as the willingness of the offender to seek reconciliation. (Absent that willingness, the offender would not have undertaken the arduous journey to the sanctuary in the first place – which, in a way, is the first labor all offenders undertake.) Pursuit ends where the willingness of the offender to submit to the work of reconciliation and restitution begins.  Of course, in the Christian paradigm, reconciliation and restitution are highly desirable, also, but they have no efficacy apart from the violent Sacrifice of Christ (Hebrews 9:12-13). So in the end, in the Christian understanding, we return full-circle to the paradigm of sin, recrimination, and punishment – which is inseparable from the archetype of Pursuit by God. The Pursuit never ends apart from (in some sense or other) sacrifice. From that there is no shelter, no refuge, no pu’uhonua.

I know very well what it is to be pursued, especially as what many would consider a “lapsed Christian”. Being pursued, in fact, is a motif that runs through my experience of Christianity and the Christian God. The only shelter, the only sanctuary, I ever found, I found rather late in life in my marriage, in particular, my marriage into a large and lavishly welcoming / generous extended family of Japanese Buddhists. My wife, and, through her, in-law family, is my pu’uhonua, my refuge. My experience of refuge with them has, over the years, completely top-to-bottom revised and renovated my most fundamental conception of religion and spirituality – very much including Christian spirituality. That is obviously far too long a story to tell here. I have written of it over my years here, here, and here as – the irony is exquisite! – Skeptic-In-Residence for Beguine and them Be-Zine. Suffice to say that it has been a story written in terms of personal moral and spiritual boundaries (re-)established and – this time around – recognized and respected. I no longer feel pursued by God or by God’s agents, like an escaped slave under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This relief from Pursuit and the finding of refuge had mundane but important practical effects, too, like – this is just one example – the mitigation, almost an eradication, of a life-long propensity for panic attacks. (Another story too long to tell here.) It also showed me the dark side of such universally beloved – though no longer by me – works of Christian literature as Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven”, which now, in my mind, bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a county sheriff setting his hounds on the trail in pursuit of an escaped slave as in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. So in an uncanny kind of way, I can understand, on a gut level, how important Pu’uhonua o Honaunau was, many hundreds of years ago, to indigenous Hawaiians who ran afoul of taboos and laws. Being a 21st-century man, my experience is different, of course. Yet on some “archetypal” level the same.

As I said, Spirit is sneaky.

© James R. Cowles

Image credits

Pu’uhonua o Honaunau sacred enclosure … RonPaul86 … Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0
Pu’uhonua o Honaunau … Photographer unknown … CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
With rainbow … Photography by Fenichel Copyright © 1994-2016 Michael Fenichel. All Rights Reserved.
Prisoners … Equal Justice Initiative … Public domain
“Back of the bus … ” … Popular Resistance … Public domain
“Pu’uhonua o Honaunau” sign at entrance … Flickr, Ken Lund … CC by SA 2.0

 

Of Pirates and Emperors …

“Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What do you mean by seizing the whole earth; because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor”. City of God, St. Augustine

In another lifetime, my day job involved working with “special populations.” Initially I taught Welfare-to-Work and Career Development and over time moved on to work collaboratively within our community as a planning unit supervisor, designing and delivering programs that served refugees, at-risk youth, foster youth, and ex-offenders. Such programs are meant to assist in assimilation of refugees and in the transition from foster youth programs or incarceration to integration into the mainstream population.

These programs involved a range of services – General Education Diploma, English as a Second Language, vocational training, case management, mental health counseling and support groups. Because early in my career my work included training, I had first hand contact with clients, including at one point going into prisons to do some preliminary work toward successful transitions and lower recidivism rates. Later, writing grant applications and assisting in the development of Requests for Proposals required hosting focus groups with  stake-holders, which included our prospective clients.

This experience was quite enlightening for a kid who was raised and educated in convent schools. I was equally appalled and inspired: appalled by the ways in which our culture and government and even well-meant social programs can entrap and inspired by the depth of faith and courage I witnessed in people who had crushing barriers to successful and sustainable employment and integration. Many of these barriers were artificially created by ill-informed perspectives and biases and sometimes cruelty on the part of the general population and by lawmakers.

“Every pair of eyes facing you has probably experienced something you could not endure.” Lucille Clifton

There were certainly a lot of clients who clearly had exercised poor judgement or simply (often devastatingly) had no idea of the impact their actions had on the lives of others; but, there were those many whose incarceration was born of poverty, lack of education and opportunity, lack of parental guidance and presence, racism, learning disabilities and mental illness. Among other things, the great lesson  – and the great disappointment – of that period in my life was that the U.S. justice system was rife with injustice. That was true all those years ago and never more so than it is now.

Today, one of the great travesties is the move from publicly run prisons to corporate management and exploitation.  You will often see prison management companies advertise the provision of education, training and other services meant to make the general public believe they act with good conscience. If you review stockholder materials, however, it is blatantly obvious that recidivism rates are a selling point.  Privately managed prisons have a vested financial interest in high prison populations and a high percentage of returns to prison. Hence, the way prisoners are treated IS CRIMINAL. All things considered, this is a modern-day example of the view  St. Augustine’s pirate held: “I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor.”

© 2017, Jamie Dedes

The video below provides an overview of the corporate prison complex.

If you are viewing this from an email subscription, you’ll likely have to link through to the site to watch the video.

Comfort Kits Bring Relief to Prisoners and others in need

Faith communities can put together comfort kit baskets for spiritual and/or mental health that could be given to persons who have been affected by depression and other health issues, such as people in clubhouses, drop-in centers, group homes, hospitals, shelters, halfway houses … and for people prisons as well. For incarcerated community be sure to find out what is acceptable with authorites first.

Materials include:

– Small pocket Bible and/or Book of Psalms
– Journal, pen
– Personal hygiene items, such as soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, comb, washcloth, hand towel, bath towel.
– Snacks like raisins, fruit or nuts.

Different faith traditions can decide what to include in these “Comfort Kit Baskets”. Each faith tradition has devotional materials, books, journals or magazines. Information on the faith community, the hours of worship and a welcoming statement would help persons reconnect to their spiritual life. Especially items that are uplifting, encouraging, educational, inspiring, and much more.

For those of us who feel alone and forgotten in our personal darkness, such a basket becomes a source of hope, inspiration and a link to others who care. These “Comfort Kitz” would be a wonderful way of reaching out to others and something like this could mean the world to someone struggling and could be such a witness in ministering to others!

If a person doesn’t belong to a faith community, then friends or relatives can make baskets appealing to the 5 senses: touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound by giving music, food, books, etc. – use your imagination! For one of my friends that was in the hospital around her 40th birthday, I filled a laundry basket with 40 items (one for each year of her life) that included lots of household things and gift items like scented soaps and candles, towels, etc. She loved it.

© 2017, Denise Fletcher

Room at the Table

 

We have seen how writing and images allow us to penetrate the mysteries of incarceration, justice, and restoration. Music also allows us to do this. Carrie Newcomer and Mark Miller are two of my favorite current justice musicians.

Carrie Newcomer is from the Unitarian Universalist tradition and creates songs that are easy for singing and for memorizing. They can become ear worms! This song is Room at the Table.

Mark Miller is from the United Methodist tradition and creates songs that are on point. I offer a song he wrote to a Langston Hughes poem.

– Terri Stewart

I Can Trust You, a true story

When Manuel lived in Mexico he ate rice soaked in water for dinner with a little sugar added. Manuel is an American citizen. He cleans the juvenile detention center. I’m a chaplain and I’ve been visiting youth for eight years. Manuel says, “Hola, my friend!” each time we see one another—as he cleans the women’s restroom or takes the flag down from the pole on a summer night. His simple greeting lifts me on those dark days when I have heard one too many stories of abuse. One day we sit together in the staff room. I’m waiting for the kids to finish their dinner; he is taking his lunch break. He eats his meal of salad and hot food from the steam table. I don’t eat that food. I bring my organic salad with smoked salmon from home.

Manuel is soft spoken, a small man. He is a devout Catholic who loves his family. He saved enough money to take his family to see Pope Francis in Mexico last year. He was so excited about it. I know he cares about the kids I visit in the jail. His daughter, Guadalupe, was born in California, his son Pedro here in Seattle, at Providence Hospital. Lupita went to Western Washington University. She was an ultimate Frisbee player in middle school who made the college team but they never let her play a game. She quit the team after her freshman year. She quit college after her second year. Manuel asks me if I think she was discriminated against back then. I tell him I don’t know, maybe. She works for the bank now, Manuel tells me, smiling with pride. She wanted to be a teacher, then a veterinarian, he tells me. “She loves animals so much!” She took accounting last year and is doing well at the bank, he says.

His son is still in high school, Manuel says. He studies hard and gets good grades. He’s learning how to drive. He’ll go to the community college and take the aviation program. “Maybe he’ll get a good job at Boeing,” Manuel tells me, his voice a question mark of hope.

Two of Manuel’s co-workers used to watch the TV news during their break. Whenever Trump came on they would say, “That’s my guy!” Manuel told me they talked about the wall Trump promised to build. They said it was a good thing. “Right in front of me. They said that. That really hurt my feelings,” Manuel tells me. His head dips down towards his plate.

When Manuel was first hired some twelve or more years ago one of these men protested to management—he shouldn’t have gotten the job, he didn’t belong here, he wasn’t “one of us.” Manuel told me he stays away from them, keeps his head down. He is afraid of what will come in this year.  After Trump was elected his son came home and said, “Let’s move to Mexico, Dad.” Manuel tried to tell his son how it was when he lived there, to show him how it is now, so much better. “He doesn’t understand. We won’t ever go back,” he tells me.  He points to the steam table. “Some people in here complain about the food. Some won’t eat it. Many people in my village would be so happy to have this food. It would be a banquet to them.” I look at his lettuce, his hardboiled eggs, his chicken and rice, then back at my vegetables and smoked salmon. I take a small bite.

We nod back and forth, talking softly, about how wrong Trump is, how uneducated Manuel’s co-workers are, how hard it is for his people to be accepted here and how hard they work. Manuel wonders why so many kids of color are in the jail. He wants to know how many are African American, how many are Hispanic. “Most are African American, some Hispanic,” I say. “Some are Native,” I add, “and mixed race, Asian and Pacific Islander.” He nods. Not many are white, but we don’t say that.

I wonder about Manuel’s co-workers. Are they afraid of losing their jobs? The black snake of terror is a steel band that chokes their hearts and squeezes and squeezes until hurtful things are said in righteous anger. Held tight by the snake they defend themselves with loud proclamations about immigrants and walls, while the object of their fear stands before them, like Jesus before Pilate.  The snake has become our God, our craven idol, the tool of our new demagogue. It is the evil Manuel prays will not come slithering at him one day, without warning.

We blame all immigration, legal or not, castigating the government and the immigrants themselves. We call for deportation in hopes of wiping out imagined threats from those who look different from us. We don’t know what we are talking about. We are sore afraid.

As we leave the staff room together Manuel speaks so quietly that I can hardly hear him. “I can trust you, you are a good person.” I say he is good too, and yes, he can trust me. We are friends, I say. These are simple truths, spoken to one another in the cocoon of our fledgling friendship. We see each other in the quiet light of connection.  I feel fear for him creep up my backbone at the sound of his whisper. Next week I will eat salad and steam table food with him.

© 2017, Flash Non-Fiction from Juvenile Detention Chaplain, Lisa Ashley

Walking Along the Edge

Walking Along the Edge
Can you ever change and do what’s right?…
–from Jeremiah 13:23, CEV

The Anchorage Correctional Complex lay at the end of a short spur off 4th Avenue. Like the rest of the downtown, its parking lot was still bogged down in snow and icy ruts that passed for driving lanes. This less-than-hospitable environment was the end of the line for the three young men exiting a van from the Point McKenzie Correctional Farm in the early hours of a February morning. They were returning from the low security prison out of town to the municipal jail’s parking lot, ending the journey where they had begun. Each of them rummaged in his plastic bag of clothing for the layers appropriate to the temperature and whatever walking or transport lay ahead of him. Billy, the youngest, unceremoniously stripped to bare chest and re-attired himself in a fresh tee shirt, button overshirt, and a heavy hoody. No scarves, gloves, or hats for a one of them. Pure elation, sparked by freedom, warmed them well enough. Besides, should they choose, they could find what they needed at Bean’s Café and Rescue Mission around the corner. It was with some calculation that the driver had delivered them to this particular juncture.

“Hey.” Thomas’s farewell was curt. He hoped he’d never see these jokers again. Though he could fend for himself on the streets of Anchorage pretty well, his dream was to return to his village to hunt and fish with his uncles.

Thomas walked carefully within the compressed tire tracks to what he hoped was the snow-covered crosswalk. As he waited for a break in traffic, he tapped the envelope of family photos in his inside chest pocket and smiled. Life would be good again.

The farm was behind him, forever, but at least they had kept him busy there. He’d spent the summer in the fields, or in the barn, fixing and then running large machinery. When the season ended, he’d used their computers to complete certifications designed to make him more employable. And he’d written a few letters home. That was the least he could do. He’d caused enough worry.

Thomas crossed the intersection and walked down the block to the Mission, looking for a familiar face in the line of stragglers at the kitchen door.

“Thomas, is that you? Quyana!” The stained teeth and sideways grin of his sister’s husband lifted his heart. The village had come to him.

“It has been a long time since I heard the language of the village, Charlie. Ain’t you a sight for sore eyes.” He embraced his brother-in-law and shared a breath with him in the old way, nose to nose, before he let his arms drop to his sides.

Charlie clapped him on the shoulder, “How’s your dad?”

“Pop’s fine. I got a letter from him last week. He and his brothers are mending the boats, dreamin’ of all the seals they’re gonna catch.” Thomas wasn’t as close to his dad as he was to his uncles but he kept in touch. His dad had moved away from Thomas and his mother when he was still a kid.

“My lovely Martha is visiting your Auntie Marie in Bethel. That girl been goin’ stir crazy in the village this winter. Missing you, I reckon. You two always had a special connection.” Charlie noticed Thomas recoil slightly and changed the subject. “You know, we dun have to stay here. I was just waiting for you. Let’s hike up the road and get you some breakfast at Stella’s Place. She cooks real good.” Thomas knew Charlie meant that she used Crisco and wasn’t shy about serving fish for breakfast. He knew Stella’s. His mouth watered.
They walked through the icy hillocks and berm along L Street until it turned into Minnesota, then veered left at the sign of Romig Junior High’s ten-foot-tall Trojan and entered the low-rent neighborhood known as Spenard. Stella’s was a hole-in-the-wall café next to Mama O’s and the movie theater. They slid into the large booth that rounded a back corner and studied the menus out of habit. They always ordered the same thing.

“Two fish ‘n chips, extra tartar sauce, and black coffees?” The waitress smiled and winked at both of them in recognition. They nodded and watched her sashay back to the kitchen. Some things didn’t change much, thought Thomas. Right now that was a comfort. Sixteen months out of circulation and he picked up where he left off. He cautioned himself to pay attention; some things needed changing and they were totally within his purview. He could start by choosing better company than the Farm had provided him. He shook himself like a dog shedding rain and scanned the dining room.

February’s Fur Rendezvous, or Fur Rondy as the locals called it, drew together a mass of unlikely people to the city of Anchorage: sled-dog racers, fur traders, jewelry artisans, ivory and ice sculptors from the North Slope to Sitka, tourists, and the glitterati of money lenders and office holders who came for the Miners and Trappers Ball. It was a circus. It was a party. Mostly, it was a circus. In this context, the predominance of fur ruffs did not indicate extreme weather as much as photo op or fashion statement, and they graced the heads and necks of native and non-native alike.

Thomas growled to himself when he caught sight of Terry, one of the guys he’d left in the parking lot just an hour or two ago. Trouble. He didn’t need any trouble. He sucked air between clenched teeth, hissing, as Terry made his way toward their table.

“Mind if I join you?” Terry didn’t wait for a response but slumped into the vacant end of the booth.

“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea, Terry.” Thomas glared at him.

“You guys know each other? Small world.” Charlie gave the well-muscled man a look-over and held out his hand. “My name’s Charlie. Pleased to meet you.”

Terry shook Charlie’s hand and flashed a grin of relief. “Terry, my name’s Terry.”

Charlie discounted Thomas’s resistance as momentary on account of his just getting out of prison. Native hospitality was engrained. It wasn’t Thomas’s true nature to be unkind, just a shadow he was living with for a spell, a shadow Charlie recognized. He missed his daughter something awful but he kept the expression of his grief within the circle of the village and his immediate family.

“Hey, Tom,” Terry nodded a curt greeting, “it’s just that with Fur Rondy all the tables are full and my plans to head south are fucked for the same reason; all the flights to Ketchikan are booked.” He shrugged off his jacket and continued his appeal, “Not to mention half the people I need to see from down home will be on the streets of Anchorage for the week.”
Thomas gave him a grudging nod. They were in the same boat, weren’t they? Most of his own village would be here, too, for the crafts or the dogs. He looked away from Terry to scan the room–what the heck?

“Tom, Terry, can you slide over? This place is really packed!” Billy nodded to his fellow “farmers,” previous inmates at Point McKenzie. He, too, realized their common dilemma. “We gotta survive a week of partyin’ with this mob before we can get on with our lives–is this some kinda test or what?”

Resignation and its twin crow, Foreboding, parked themselves on Thomas’s shoulders for a visit. His precious little inner space was getting overcrowded real quick. He looked to Charlie who was methodically drenching each fry in a puddle of ketchup. “Hey, Charlie, you got a place to stay?”

“I ain’t checked yet, Thomas but I stayed at the mission last night so I could meet you at the drop-off. I was planning to call your auntie. You know, the one that lives off the bike trails at the south end.”

“Yeah, but…” Auntie Julie had a nice place. Thomas had crashed on her couch before. He turned to Billy and Terry whose faces had suddenly turned hopeful. Was he really obliged to bring them along? Yeah, he reckoned he was. His auntie would kill him if she found out he left them stranded. “Guys, you gotta know up front Julie don’t tolerate no drinkin’. She’s pretty fierce about that. You dun wanna cross her.” He stared at the two of them until he was sure they had heard him. “And no coarse language, neither.”

“It’s alright, bro, I hear ya.” Terry nodded his assent. “We gotta stay clean anyway cuz there’s no way I’m goin’ back to jail.”

“You got that right,” Billy chimed in.

We’re all in agreement; that’s pretty remarkable, thought Thomas, because they didn’t agree on much before now. Terry was a body builder who got caught using steroids; he just craved putting on more mass. It juiced him up somehow, and it made him mean which was a problem because he had the physical power to be quite “expressive.” Thomas had the memory of a lump or two as evidence.

Now Billy, he was another story. He just did stupid stuff, like swiping his brother’s four-wheeler and taking it for a joy ride across Merrill Air Field—could’ve decapitated himself on a Cessna’s tie-downs, pulled the wing off its struts instead. His brother just laughed, but the owner of the Cessna wasn’t as forgiving. Billy had served eight months at Pt. MacKenzie, just long enough to mourn the loss of his dogs—his ex-girlfriend took the pair of mutts to Palmer–and his other “dogs”, ten pair of Adidas he’d left in storage at his brother’s. Thomas had never known anyone to carry on so much about his footwear.

Thomas saw his own craziness as another flavor entirely, born of shock, grief, and guilt. His niece had drowned on his watch—he had jumped in to the cold water to save her but the current was too strong, too fast. The accident, which he had replayed over and over in his mind the last several months, had shattered his vision of his own goodness. He’d drunk and brawled as if in retaliation to himself. Thomas was slowly putting the pieces together but dark emotions still threatened to pull him under. He shuddered involuntarily and brought his attention back to the table.

“Billy, you gun’ call you brother?” Thomas looked up from his plate, and speared another bite of fish, still carrying a hope of freeing himself from his companions.

“Naw. He’s on the slope till the end of the month and his ol’ lady’s a bear; she don’t like me much. I’ll get my stuff when Ray’s home again.”

“Terry, how ‘bout you? Got any people to help get you through the week?”

“Not sure, but I’m goin’ over to the gym when we finish here. The manager will usually spot me for a few bucks; I’m good for business.” For emphasis, Terry flexed a bulging bicep which happened to be attached to the hand holding his forkful of omelette.

“Easy there, Terry.” Thomas fended off the fork. “Charlie, you gotta phone?”

Charlie handed him his cell. “Your Auntie Julie’s goin’ be happy to hear your voice, Thomas—“

Thomas grunted and excused himself, retreating to the parking lot for quiet and a little privacy to make the call.

“Aieeee! Is that you, Thomas? Been too long, eh? When can I see your face?” Julie’s voice was like a song to Thomas. He pushed down the jumble of feelings stirred to life by his auntie’s voice and murmured into the phone.

****

Thomas returned and stood at the mouth of the booth. “We’re all set. Julie says she’s ready for the challenge. We got exactly one week. Next Monday morning, we gotta scoot. Everyone in?”

Thomas nodded to a chorus of “yeahs” and reached to swig the last of his coffee, tepid and bitter, but a good foil for the grease of fried fish. Though it wasn’t the grease making his stomach flutter.

****

For once, the city didn’t have to import any snow for the dog races; downtown yards were waist-high in the white stuff. Snow removal, slow as it was, left plenty at hand for the sled dogs to get a good start. Thomas threaded his way through the crowd at the end of the street, looking for Lucy or Jack who, together, were handling a dog team out of Nome. He wasn’t sure who was running the team today, but he expected to find their familiar faces somewhere on the deck.

The street was cordoned off to accommodate the two dozen kennel campers fitted to every kind of pickup truck. Shutters or flip-up windows lined the sides of the camper shells, two- kennel-high to fit the whole team. Inside each, a honey-comb of kennels, stash of cold weather gear, extra tack and rigging. The sleds transported on the camper roofs were on the ground now, runners and brakes checked, gear stowed. Racers and family lined up the ganglines and hooked up the teams—the raucous noise of excited dogs bouncing off the towers of the Captain Cook Hotel.

The racers were easy to spot as they were dressed for wind and cold, head to toe. The swish of Gortex and flash of numbers and sponsor logos also helped them to stand out in the crowd. Thomas spotted Lucy leaning over to talk to her lead dog. She was wearing royal blue and the number “59”—he made a mental note so that he could find her in the TV footage later.

“Hey, Lucy!” Thomas carefully stepped around the team of dogs to avoid any sniping. The dogs were generally motivated as a team to run as fast and far as possible, but that didn’t mean they didn’t have issues with one another, territory and supremacy, the top two. Kind of reminded him of prison: the inmates at the farm had their peculiar pecking order, too.

“Thomas? Quyana! I thought you were getting out soon. Stayin’ to watch the start?”

“I was hoping to find you and Jack. Did he come down to help you out or is he back home?”
“He’s home. Tryin’ to save for a new 4-wheeler. We need it for haulin’ stuff to the cabin. I ain’t carryin’ no hundred pound sacks o’ feed no more!” Thomas smiled. Lucy was lean and fit, but older than some of the other racers by maybe a decade. The woman’s experience had taught her what her frame could handle. And she listened to it. Now that was wisdom.

“Mind if I hang out with the team for a while? I could help you get ready–”

“Sure. We got at least an hour before the start.” Lucy was all business now. “Check the booties for me—Ma packed them in the duffle behind the seat. Just make sure I got at least two dozen pair and pack ‘um in the sled. Thanks, Thomas.” Lucy continued her rounds with the dogs, tightening collars and adjusting the harnesses, talking low to her favorites.

Thomas climbed into the pick-up, grabbed the duffle from behind the seat, and unzipped it. Before he started counting, he glanced at the dash pebbled with nicks and one long landscape of a crack that ran from side to side. Given the roads and distances traveled north or south, it was no mystery. Just another Alaskan windshield.

Unlike the Iditarod or the Yukon Quest, the Fur Rondy race offered three days of ninety-minute sprints. Thomas knew Lucy didn’t expect to win because her huskies were bred for the longer races, but she and the dogs would learn more about functioning as a team, tuning out the distractions of spectators and testing the variety of trail conditions—roadways, park trails, and walking bridges. It was a rush to run for speed, even if you weren’t the best.

Thomas felt some of the same tease, a quickening of his pulse, in the rush of finding friends from back home. It made him more anxious to get through the week. It made his heart glad. These were the real people, not because they were native, but because they were family, his family of choice.

****

“Now Billy, if you want to eat, you have to help me cook.” Julie handed the boy a five pound bag of russets. “The cutting board’s behind the toaster. You’ll find a sharp knife in the drawer by the stove.” Julie waited until he had the tool in hand. “Now quarter the potatoes and toss them into this pan. Let me know when you’re done.” Julie wove a path around her “volunteer” and dragged the cast iron skillet to the stove where she browned the stew meat, onions, and garlic. Then she added chopped carrots and celery. Moose stew and mashed potatoes—a proper feast. She had used the nose meat in a soup last month, but the aroma filling the kitchen told her the stew still had plenty of flavor. She would leave it to slow-cook on the back burner till the troops gathered. She figured they were living hand-to-mouth during this transition. She would offer what she had and, in return, they could shovel snow from the driveway and the back deck—or so she hoped.

 

Billy had arrived mid-afternoon, cold, tired, and hungry. He came back to life when she fixed him a chili dog with chips and a glass of root beer. He was about to crash in front of the TV when she pulled out the sack of potatoes. While he continued chopping, she searched the closets and garage for sleeping bags and extra blankets which migrated from one spot to another with the influx and departures of family. Her place was a portal for kin traveling in from the bush. By the time she got back to the kitchen, Billy was asleep on the couch with a hoody for a blanket. She draped a warm down bag over him and stepped onto the porch to call Charlie.

“Charlie? Oh, good. So you’ll be back here in about an hour? And what about Thomas? That sounds great. I’m sure he’ll be along soon after.” Julie could see her breath escape in little puffs of white clouds. The temperature was dropping fast. She looked at her flower beds in the twilight, each raised bed, a labor of love. In three or four months those peonies would thrust through the crust of dirt and nothing would be able to stop them—such a glorious blossom! Her backyard was a testimony to her singular love of peonies, every bed full of them.

****

“Hey, Tom, is that you?” Terry trudged toward C Street from Arctic Boulevard at the Fish and Game building, peering into the twilight at the figure across the road.
“Hey, Terry.” There was no mistaking that hulk of a figure, thought Thomas. He was actually glad to see him. Working with the dogs had calmed his spirit; their needs were easy to comprehend—food, warmth, praise—his needs weren’t so different.

Terry stepped out to the edge of the road. Thomas crossed to meet him. They walked along the edge, wary of traffic, but happy to be out of the deeper snow.

“So what are we going to find at your auntie’s? Think she’ll feed us?”

Thomas laughed. Terry was always ravenous after a workout. “Oh yeah, she’ll feed us, and it’ll be good food, too.” They let the conversation drop as they creaked and shuffled across the frozen surface, Terry’s over-sized zipper pulls jangling a tune, Thomas’ jacket sleeves swishing in response. The thought of warmth and food occupied both of their minds comfortably as they navigated beyond the glare of street lights and into the dimmer light of reflected snow.

As they rounded the corner to Ptarmigan Place, they heard the rhythmic scraping of a snow shovel, or was it two? Charlie and Billy were widening the narrow channel of access which was Julie’s drive. Julie was stepping out the door just as they approached.

“Hey, you two! Take this leash. Coot needs at least a walk around the block.” Julie handed off the black lab to Terry and gave Thomas’s arm a squeeze before she turned back to the house, stomped her boots on the porch, and stepped inside.

Julie believed that everyone should contribute something before they sat down to eat. It made them more grateful and deserving for what they had. She was pleased that all three of the young men had made it back to the house without incident. Ten hours of freedom and they were still in the clear. It all counts, she thought to herself, every minute of success counts, no matter the fall that might come later. This is a moment we can celebrate. And Thomas needs this.

Alone in the big kitchen, she set the table with large open bowls of stew, mashed potatoes rising like floating islands in the center of each. She filled the water glasses and lit the candle. It had been almost two years since Thomas’s niece had drowned at the edge of their island community. Only six years old and gone faster than a shooting star. Thomas had struggled with his survivor’s guilt and made some bad choices—mostly drinking and fighting— but it wasn’t anyone’s fault. He just needed to be around family again to let the healing happen.
Julie slid the candle to the center of the table and carefully guided the hurricane glass over it. She could hear the guys in the entryway, shedding their boots and jackets. She watched them file in, sock-footed. First Terry, then Charlie and Billie. Julie frowned. “Where’s Thomas?”

Charlie signaled with a thumb over his shoulder. Julie walked to the entryway where she found Thomas, one boot off and leaning against the door jamb, his head bowed. She moved forward, quiet as a prayer, and stood in front of him. He looked up, his eyes glistening. She nodded. He took a deep breath and they walked inside together.

© 2017,  Rachel Barton

Comin’

 

It was a mild December Friday, still in the 50s come the second week, but what Jenkins saw gave him chills like a three-night blizzard in a cold water basement flat.

Of course, that’s where he lived, a basement apartment in Plattsburgh, so close to Quebec that some locals sounded half-French. But to find old Mrs. Scheinblum waiting at the stairwell with a cop froze him from heels to hairline. Old habits died hard and getting the business end of a billy club was a habit he’d been trying to break since he got out of Dannemora’s Clinton Corrections Facility in September.

“Uh, something wrong, Mrs. Scheinblum?” Jenkins trained a kind of tunnel vision on his landlady. You develop this the same time you grow eyes in the back of your head in a max joint like Dannemora. The last time Jenkins looked at a uniform-type, even from the corner of his eye, said uniformed-type and eye met at the end of a blue-sleeved fist.

“You had a visitor today, Mr. Jenkins, and I’m letting you now that I want you out of here by the end of the month. I don’t need that kind of riffraff dirtying up my property, do I Ronny…um, Officer Laroque?”

Jenkins felt the chill again, even though beads of sweat formed at his temples.

“You heard the lady, pal. And I think I want you out of here, hell, out of this town, by the end of this weekend. Don’t make me come back to find your sorry ass in my aunt’s place on Monday,” the cop said, stepping into Jenkins’ line of sight, close enough to spit on Jenkins cheek with his North Country-accented “pal” and “place”.

“C’mon, I just got a job at the Bouyea Bakery this week. I’ve been clean and kept this rathole even cleaner since I moved in last month. You can check with my PO,” Jenkins said, as he curled his fingernails into the palms of his hands. That was a painful trick he taught himself his second week in Tryon, the youth detention center downstate, as a reminder and deterrent to his temper getting the better of him. He was fifteen going on 30 at the time.

Laroque pushed Jenkins against the damp brick wall of old lady Scheinblum’s place, his forearm against Jenkins’ neck.

“I said by Sunday, punk. And I’ll be by to check.”

Jenkins’ hand brushed against one of the rusty bars that failed to keep out the irony from his soon-to-be old apartment. He wanted to rip it out and beat the cop’s French pumpkin dome with it, and then stick the old lady’s head between two of the remaining ones.

“Okay, okay, I’m leavin’,” he said. “But can you at least tell me who stopped by that brought all this on?”

“He didn’t give a name, but I don’t need no long-haired, sandle-wearing freaks knocking on my door asking for the likes of YOU. Obviously high on something. Never stopped smiling. So phony with his ‘thank you’s’ and ‘bless you’s’,” the old lady said.

And Jenkins felt a chill again, only it was different this time. The kind he’d get when his grandfather’d come to the house and bring him to the amusement park or a ball game. He was the temporary answer to his prayers. And then the old man died.

Jenkins knew, though. He said he’d come and he’s come, he thought.

“What’re you smilin’ at, shithead?” the cop said, pushing him back once more.

“Nothin’ really. I just wanted to know who stopped by.”

“Well, he better not come by again, understand?”

“You won’t see him,” Jenkins said. His heart was pounding. He could barely wait to run downstairs and get ready.

That night, Jenkins sat at the old kitchen table, picking at the cracked Formica top with his fingernail. It still had blood beneath it from digging into his palm. He jumped at what sounded like a gentle knock at the door.

“Who is it?” he said.

“Time to go, my friend,” came the soft voice he heard on the other side of the door. “We’re waiting for you.”

“Be there in a sec,” Jenkins said, picking up the knife in the middle of the table and slashing once, twice, three times at his right wrist. Then he took the slippery handle in his right hand and carved four more into his left.

The last one was a bloody underline to the long tat he got in Dannemora last Christmas that read: Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

“Comin’,” was the last thing he said.

© 2017, photograph and story, Joseph Hesch

A Child’s Touch

A poem from Juvenile Detention Chaplain Lisa Ashley.

He met his baby niece and toddler nephew

for the first time on that three-day special visit.

Each child was named for him,

the way his brother and sister honored him.

 

His mother wept tears of joy,

her baby son, her youngest child,

her first visit since he was sentenced

six years ago.

 

He’s a grown-ass man now, twenty three,

seven years lost in drab gray rooms,

twenty eight more to go,

all that time no touching allowed.

 

The baby girl grew tired,

fell asleep in the crook of his arm,

her head lolling back,

small feet in white shoes dangling.

 

His slender brown fingers

and muscular arm

cradled her gently

as he gazed into the camera.

 

Deprived of human touch

all the weeks that grew into years,

his body like the dried snake skin

left in the desert sun,

suddenly flushed full

by this flash-flood of child love,

trusting him to hold her

as she abandoned herself to sleep.

 

This moment of gentle touch, soft holding,

deep joy and infinite sadness

mingle in his brown eyes,

caught in the lens.

 

He watched them walk out

the double-locked doors,

standing stock still in the visiting room,

oblivious to the other men and their families.

 

The guard walked him back to his empty cell,

hot stifling air enfolded him.

He sat down on his bunk

missing them already.

 

Walking in the razor-wired yard

he looked up

and watched two eagles

riding the thermals

out there in the Palouse, free

to float where they would.

He wondered what his niece would look like

six years from now.

Would she let him hold her then?

© 2017, Lisa Ashley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© poem, Lisa Ashley

May 8, 2017

 

Full Buck Moon

A poem from Juvenile Detention Chaplain, Lisa Ashley

Native-named orb

of antler-hardening season,

it slow-rises

behind a Mt. Rainier cloud,

etching a snow cone Madrona

in its glow.

 

The bucks begin

their pointed clashes

for dominance,

for the does,

as summer moves into fall, ritual

not often seen or heard by humans.

 

Sipping, wrapped in a fleece robe,

visited by baby raccoon and elder black cat,

breath slow-moving in and out,

moon watching,

trying to let go of her story:

rape, then raging violence and death;

he raped and beat her

before she shot him with his own gun.

 

The moon glimmers in gold seams

inside the rock-mountain cloud

until bright beams burst,

flooding over

white gooseneck in the yard,

lighting up the fragile white butterfly.

 

Did he place his gun on the car seat

before forcing her?

Did she see it shining

in the streetlight?

Desperate,

she grabbed it up

to stop the pain.

 

Charged with murder one,

prosecutor claims pre-meditation.

She is old enough to know

what she was doing, they say.

Just turned 16, to be tried as an adult,

did she pre-meditate his attack?

 

Driven by self preservation

and testosterone

the bucks fight in breeding season,

mounting the does when they are in estrous,

un-witnessed.

Does the doe submit each time?

 

She waits for weeks, alone with nightmares,

in a limbo of fear-filled unknowns

abandoned by heroin-addicted parents

and friends who think they know what happened.

It’s like a surreal movie, she says.

Tears slide down like the setting moon.

 

© 2016, Lisa Ashley

 

the boy in the park

I remember seeing you
that first day sitting in the stink
of the wet flagged floor
of a green walled prison cell.
A young blond haired boy
looking so much younger
than the ten years of age
of the birth date you gave.
And thirty three years
have passed since then.
but you greet me with the same
mischievous narrow lipped smile.
In all the years I’ve known you
that bit of you has never changed
through the visits I’ve made
and all the prisons we name
like some tourist guide
of the broken and lost years.
And you still call me
by my first name
as you’ve always done
“How are you?” you ask
when you shake my hand
with the firm grip of an old friend.
And I have reminded you
so many times over these years
that you are a miracle
to have survived and be able
to tell your tale. A tale
I know you will never tell again.
You ask if the book is written
about you and your friends
the boys out there in the park.
“Not yet” I say. Realising again
I know your story off by heart
if that is the right phrase to use.
For I am the history man.
A man who has reluctantly stored
like a cursed gift the stories
over forty working years of each boy
and each girl, each woman and man
who has shared their secrets at a time
when life for each one had become
too hard, just too hard, and too much,
for each of you alone to bear.
And I have held your stories
in the knowing confidence
of some cloaked priest.
For I am the history man
wishing that I could let go
of all those stories told and heard
of all those stories I know.
But feeling that if I do let go
it would be just another betrayal
in such a long and pitiless
unforgiving list of humiliation.
I ask you about Jason
and hear you say
words I’d half expected
“Oh Jason – he’s ‘gone on’.
And so one by one the boys
in the park take their leave.
Young men who should
by rights have lived long lives
but drugs, alcohol and those memories
that stalked their waking day
and the nights of endless terror
and the trap of silence
inevitably take its toll.
And one of the boys in the park
homeless for fifteen years.
who still greets me each day
smiling tells me his news
“I have a home at last.
A home to go to,
to get in out of this rain”
But the boy still sits in the park
sheltering from the remorseless
disdain of an unforgiving world
lacking in compassion or the ability
to refrain from heaping and piling
on your too broad shoulders.
the unending blame for all
that is wrong with the cruel
virtual selfishness of their digital
shallow flat screen world.
I greet each one of you
I meet pleased to see
that you too have not “gone on”.
For I am the history man.

© 2017, Ron Cullen

Prisoner

To a war
To a peace
To memories

Their hands,
Their eyes,
Their heart.

To this life,
To these walls,
To his fists,
To her tongue.

To this gust.
To this light.
To this dark

To this ocean
To this fire.
To these words.

Justice

Bloodjustice
Skinjustice
Tonguejustice
Blindjustice

Livingjustice.
Breathingjustice
Hopingjustice
Seeingjustice

Deafjustice
Dumbjustice
Loudjustice
Quietjustice

Strongjustice
Weakjustice
Fitjustice
Illjustice

Smilingjustice
Glumjustice
Harshjustice
Subtlejustice

Gentlejustice
Angryjustice
Happyjustice
Wildjustice

Calmjustice
Hearjustice
Tastejustice
Touchjustice

Dyingjustice
Fleeingjustice
Facingjustice
Explainingjustice.

© 2017, Paul Brookes

Oscar Wilde in Prison (Pantum)


In prison, Wilde learned to live from Verlaine and Kropotkin

Once reaching the ultimate achievement of wisdom.

But understanding Christ, he was overwhelmed with chagrin.

Enduring humility, he saw the Holy Kingdom.

Once reaching the ultimate achievement of wisdom,

Oscar found that unknowable was the soul of the man.

Enduring humility, he saw the Holy Kingdom.

Writing to Bosie, inside him ”De Profundis” began.

Oscar found that unknowable was the soul of the man-

”Whatever happens to oneself happens to another.”

Writing to Bosie, inside him ”De Profundis” began.

The pillory replaced the pedestal of the lover.

”Whatever happens to oneself happens to another, ”

But understanding Christ, he was overwhelmed with chagrin.

The pillory replaced the pedestal of the lover.

In prison, Wilde learned to live from Verlaine and Kropotkin.

© 2017, Marieta Maglas; Wilde In the Doc, Illustrate Police Gazette, 4 May 1895, Public Domain

#what more do you expect

i am pleased to say .

that it has been a good day. that i said something when she said we had no money. pointed out that we have food, shelter and heat .

#whatmoredoyouexpect?

 

that we have our comfort and honest work.                           #whatmoredoyouexpect?

 

i am not righteous, though my breakfasts are sad now, by design. the cream is off.

 

limits.

 

i am pleased to say i wrote the book, bought the book, told the story of my life today.

 

#whatmoredoyouexpect?

 

© 2017, poem and art, Sonja Benskin Mesher

.verdict.

. verdict.

seems the punishment is cancelled.

pat says some folk paid the price
already.

we hope he is right. what benefit is
suffering?

there are leaflets to explain. in the
cathedral

&

other power houses.

i visit regular without no ticket.

the formal compaint has not yet
been realised.

it was well over a week ago.
i read daily.

© 2017, Sonja Benskin Mesher

Confrontation

She sits opposite him gazing over the bare table
realizing he’s only the same age as her son
his eyes hold fear beneath the glass that covers
all his emotions, it’s the protective lid he’s
hidden  beneath for years to survive but now
is raised as he faces her and finds she’s like his Mom.

She has one question that he cannot answer
which holds the key to his heart and life
why did he go to that kitchen drawer
before he left for school that morning
why didn’t he take the lunch that he left behind.

James was sitting on the campus bench
quietly eating peanut butter sarnies, muffins
not bothering anyone, alone!  He sat beside
and suddenly stabbed, he took a bitten sarnie

and the cops came as James was dying
and now Sally sits opposite needing
his answer, he mumbles “sorry, I don’t know
he was just there and I was hungry”.

She knows there can never be reparation
for her son will never walk through the door,
she’ll never know his wife, or children
for he’ll never meet her, they’ll not be born

but she’s confronting this boy discovers
why he went to that kitchen drawer
needs to stop him and others like him
from following the fashion of the blade

she’ll know James will live in others
unknown boys who will grow in to men
with futures unscarred by the blade.

© 2017, 
Carolyn O’Connell

The Sacrificial Lambs?

Searchlights strafe the night blocking out the stars
while inside boys search sleep, perusing dreams
that conjure memories of innocent pasts, they’re
back in homes where mothers and sisters danced:

this is but a transient relief – too soon
the dawn slips through window bars bringing
steel’s clang to rouse the day, the stink of men –
no woman comes to bathe a fevered brow.

A judge who didn’t know them, a lawyer duty bound
presided over their futures, turned the page of fate
were they guilty or in the wrong place – no matter?
Now they’re behind walls subject to the system

turning innocence to depravement – no escape
for all around older, wiser know the game
survive by bringing new blood to the flock:
This flock thrives by bending all the rules
the rams impregnate all the new lambs
teach them, turn them into wolves and serve

the new shepherds guiding this interned flock.
All is contained by consent of shepherds whose
duty is to guard, but they are weary of the task
for they know there is no redemption; the stars

are set by race, creed, and class for money rules.
Those without the right profile are sacrificial lambs.

© 2017, Carolyn O’Connell