After the Purge

Change/Transformation, Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Life, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

Sitting down to write this post took an enormous effort of will.  I finished an online creative nonfiction course a few weeks ago and I stopped writing regularly as soon as my final essay was complete, so it’s been maybe two months of unexpected and welcome relief.  For the last two years, writing about my experience in the prison has been a release of sorts.  It helped capture my thoughts and feelings, although it’s unclear whether it helped me release either but probably not.  Nothing short of a complete separation would have accomplished that feat.

Today, I’m close to eight months away from my last day at CCCF.  Most of these last eight months have been spent de-toxifying from my time there, and learning how to operate as a normal human being again.  Those years, combined with the years of stress and uncertainty preceding them had turned me into an anxious, brittle, and fearful woman.  I had some success hiding just how anxious, brittle and fearful I had become, but I was never able to hide it from myself.

Those years ate my light; they consumed everything I knew of beauty and grace and joy and spirit.

Lately though, the writing has been pressing on me, memories lingering in my consciousness.  The stories of my time there, my relationships with the women I taught, and observations about the system constantly break the surface, jarring me with their presence.  I can shove them back under, but they are still there. I’ve asked the non-intellectual part of my being to grieve and celebrate this enormous transition and it’s been thrilled to comply, so I’ve been processing mainly through art these several months.  But as much as I love exploring drawing and illustration for emotional release, I cannot tell these stories through that art.  Words are my medium, and the words are softly demanding my attention.

I just don’t know how to start again.

Being away from all that pain and suffering makes it less immediate, and reduces the feeling of urgency.  That voice that demanded, constantly, that I let people KNOW and do my part to change the system has quieted.  It rouses occasionally, but it is lackadaisical, at best.  I’ve stepped away from all the information sources that used to stimulate my awareness,  deliberately choosing to set all that pain to the side.  It is a position of privilege, but I cannot bring myself to feel shame or guilt about this choice.

I feel light and happy and safe. Work doesn’t feel like much work, it’s a delight to do something less fraught, where a mistake won’t mean drastically increasing someone else’s suffering.  This new path is a great gift, and all I want to do is enjoy the days, do art, and drift.  Even thinking about writing that story feels hard.

I’ve realized that almost all the writing I do is somehow related to suffering – to trauma and oppression and the misery of the world.  When I think about writing a memoir, whether it’s about CCCF or not, my thoughts focus on the sad and miserable things that brought me to where I am today.  How do I write about all of those things – feelings, events, circumstances, choices – without putting myself back in that grueling, grunting space?  It’s not a matter of self-judgment, it almost feels like self-preservation.

How do I stay connected to this precious gift of light and space and relief if I’m writing about those pain-soaked years?  I know they are part and parcel of who I am, but I’m ready to write a new story about myself.  How do I hold this new facet, and gently touch and release the old?

Figure vomiting words

Give It Up

The Basest Discourse

Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Leadership, Obstacles/Challenges, Power/Privilege, Reflection, Uncategorized

Even taking remarks made by the Democratic candidates with a giant teaspoon of salt, I am saddened and disheartened.  Although it’s almost impossible to know what was actually said, or to trust the media at all, it’s glaringly obvious that Trump’s candidacy has already done incredible harm to our country.  Among Trump’s multitude of attributes is his ability to bring out the absolute worst in anyone and anything.

It’s like a +500 Miasma of the Monstrous – a soul-crushing, anti-decency superpower.

He brings out the basest, crassest, and most fear-riddled primal instincts in those who agree with him, but that’s not the worst.  He also brings out the most disgusting, reprehensible aspects of those of us who disagree with him.  I’ve watched the endless parade of blaming, shaming, nose-picking, name-calling, schoolyard insults rolling across all of my social media feeds, and not all of it is directed at Trump.

It’s as if his presence, in and of itself, has poisoned the entire well, rendering all of us incapable of decency or civility.

In no way am I saying that he is qualified to lead this country, in any way that would make us or the world better.  In no way is he qualified, capable, or even interested in such a task.  He is interested in controlling as many people as possible, making them jump, watching them race around after their own tails, and we’re all obliging him.  It would be easy to blame it all on the media and every media outlet in this country bears a significant share of the blame for giving him the attention he so desperately craves.

But “the media” doesn’t make the memes and videos and “the media” doesn’t come up with all the coarse jokes and bathroom humor we’re throwing around.  We’ve allowed ourselves to be pulled into a giant shit pile, and we are wallowing with abandon.  Democrats are railing at each other in the same awful way they’re railing at Trump, to the point of threatening to sit out an election if their Chosen One isn’t selected as the nominee.

Where we choose to focus our attention matters.  What we choose to accept as important, as significant, matters.  How we choose to interact with those who disagree with us matters.  How we conduct ourselves, especially as we select our leaders, matters.  That the rest of the world is watching us, speechless at our reckless, thoughtless, and immature behavior matters.  That we are causing increasing harm to our identity as a nation while this man chuckles himself to sleep every night, matters.

We are human.  One of our greatest gifts is our freedom of will, our freedom to choose to be better, to treat each other with dignity and respect, even when we are afraid or angry. Using tactics of hatred and aggression to tear down Trump and his supporters will only result in a nation full of hatred and violence, regardless of who is elected.  I know it is hard to consider courtesy, or kindness, when emotions run high, but I see a grim future if we don’t at least try.

kindness

The Myth of Expectations

Blergh, Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Rants, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

I recently read a post from one of those “mindful” dating sites.  The author was writing about the “myth” of dating difficulties for people over 40.  She abruptly found herself dating at 45 and, despite all her friends’ dire predictions, was having an absolute BLAST! And you know what she claims is wrong with her friends?  They just have the wrong expectations!  If they would clean up their emotional bullshit and change their expectations, all the chum they’d been attracting would disappear and they’d suddenly have their pick of ridiculously awesome people.

I’m here to call bullshit on that entire perspective, and the implication that I’m just not doing my personal work well enough, that I continue to attract bad things to myself because I’m not working fast enough to unload my baggage.  This effectively makes every sh*tty thing that happens MY FAULT.  Because I’m not doing a good enough job being better.

Seriously?  I’m not doing good enough AT BEING BETTER?

Despite years of messaging about “creating my reality,” I have come to understand that most things that happen that are out of my control.  I get to control my responses and reaction and choices, but I’m not responsible for the fact that so many people in their 30s and 40s are hot messes.  Or that I get coffee with them.  Or that I lose my job, fight with a friend, or face ageism, or racism, or misogyny, or all that other crap that REALLY TRULY EXISTS.  Simply putting on my ruby slippers, clicking my heels, and breathlessly exclaiming “everything is wonderful, everything is wonderful, everything is wonderful” DOESN’T MAKE EVERYTHING WONDERFUL.

One of the hardest things to learn is that there are many, many things I HAVE NO CONTROL OVER, regardless of how much work I do on myself.  I still have to deal with bad dates, difficult co-workers, aggravating family, and a world that seems like it’s going to somewhere bad, really fast.  It’s not helpful to keep blaming me because bad things happen to me, in my life, and in the world.  In fact, it’s that message – that I can somehow magically control everything in my life that has led to bouts with anxiety, depression, and shame and guilt, all things that add to the already heavy burden of being human.

It’s true – I do need to do my work, address my issues, and be the best person I can be.  It’s true that I do need to check in on my expectations, ask for feedback from friends  and professionals, and realize that sometimes I do make bad choices.  But sometimes, a bad coffee date or fight with a friend is just that, and blaming me for somehow creating the situation because I’m not an evolved enough person is truly, truly unhelpful.

unhelpful

Working the seams

Change/Transformation, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

Since I’m on a Seth Godin roll, I’ll mention that his blog about seams struck a chord.  It resonated because we try so desperately to hide our seams.  Major life transitions – unemployment, aging, death, marriage, childbearing, illness – they’re all seams, ruptures in the glassy, smooth life we envision.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’m in one of those big transitions, and struggle with how to feel and how to present myself publicly.  I often wonder how different our lives would be if we could acknowledge the seams more openly, not feel shamed or embarrassed that we’ve hit a rough patch, or a season of change.

Octavia Butler, in Sower of the Talents and Parable of the Talents creates a religion (Earthseed) based on change.  Its premise is that change is the only sure thing.  The central verse of Earthseed is given in the following:

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Consider: Whether you’re a human being, an insect, a microbe, or a stone, this verse is true.

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

(Parable of the Sower, Octavia E. Butler)

The central paradox of Earthseed is:

Why is the universe?
To shape God.

Why is God?
To shape the universe.

(Parable of the Sower, Octavia E. Butler)

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While I don’t ascribe to any religion, I find these verses comforting.  Accepting change (and death) as the only constant can be useful.  Cultivating flexibility, resilience, and curiosity in the face of surprising events is the best strategy I’ve seen for managing change.

Pema Chodron talks about how the sticky nature of the unexpected can be a tar pit when we fasten ourselves to a specific vision or result.  I’m not Buddhist, and I don’t claim unattachment to outcomes.  Outcomes do matter to me, no matter how much I wish they didn’t, and I find myself struggling with the tar more often than not.  I believe the best I can hope from myself is to work to create several outcomes, even if I prefer one over another.

The verses say that god exists to shape change, but they don’t give us a definition of god.  I like to believe we are all extensions of the living awareness of the Universe, which means we are all part of that life, however you conceive it to be.  So shaping change is part of who we are, part of our work in being.  Some days, remembering that is helpful, some days, not so much.

change-alone-is-unchanging-quote-1

Taking turns

Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

Seth Godin continually reads my mind.  Today, I woke feeling the depression and anxiety pressing in closer and closer.  I don’t mention this to my friends, don’t post about it on Facebook, and haven’t written about it publicly because it’s not useful for me.  I don’t want a bunch of likes or stickers or eAdvice or virtual condolences.   So why am I writing this post?  Because Seth wrote this one about whose turn it is and it made me cry.

Sometimes, all I want is for someone to acknowledge that the continuing to do the work, whatever it is, is hard when it feels like it’s never my turn.  I don’t want anyone to try and cheer me up, admonish me for thinking negatively, or tell me how great I am; I don’t need a cheerleader or a counselor or a conscience, or someone telling me “it’s not about turns,” or “think of all the things you have to be grateful about.”

Sometimes, I need to be sad and depressed and feel like my whole life hasn’t been my turn, or that I’ve let all my turns slip on by.  There are days where nothing helps. The best I can do is use my brain as a tire iron, jack my body out of bed, and find somewhere to sit and pretend to write or fill out job applications, check job boards, or read my Twitter feed.

I woke up to my life so late, took so much time figuring out the most basic things about myself that I can’t help but think that maybe my window closed, and the best I can hope for is to watch through someone else’s.  The desire to be significant, to matter, to be someone of consequence is overwhelming, and all I can think is that I haven’t done enough to create a turn for myself.

I’m not looking for comfort or reassurance or support, I’m writing to get this out of my mind so I can put  my brain to work elsewhere.  Seth is right.  Regardless of how I feel, I can keep making choices as if it is my turn.  The critical thing is to keep doing the work, creating art, being open and responsive, and the turn will make itself.

At least I’m not a bullet.

bulletfired

Conversations with Life, #3

Hard Stuff, Life, Obstacles/Challenges, Peace/Conflict, Social Justice, Uncategorized, Writing

Life,

It’s M again and today, I want to kill someone, or die.  No. Neither of those is true, but I’m consumed, eaten with rage at another round of mass murders, this time impacting people I know and care about.  All these mass gun murders deeply touch my soul, but this was in my home state, in my college community, and it punched me in the heart.

I consider myself a reasonable person, compassionate, and willing to see all sides of an issue, but I’m done.  I’m done trying to understand the perspective of people who seem to not care that guns are used daily to murder and terrorize hundreds and thousands of innocent people in this country.  I’m done with the bullying and threatening and open-carry intimidation when legislators and citizens try to get even minimal gun control laws on the books.

There is no reason here.  There is no attempt to meet in the middle, no attempt to understand suffering, or even agreement that sometimes, sometimes, an individual’s right to carry a weapon is trumped by another individual’s right to simply live.

How do I move forward so gorged with hatred and fear?  All I feel capable of doing is violence.

Dear M,

There is no reasoning with fear.  And there is no way to understand another person’s particular, personal terror.  There is also nothing that says you have to try.  It is your choice to try or not, and there are consequences either way. Your ability to move through this time may feel compromised and it is up to you to take the necessary steps to help yourself cope in a way that aligns with who you are.

You are not hatred. You are not rage or fear or abject, gibbering terror.  None of you are but many of you don’t remember that.  Many of you live in that profound, unconscious state of terror every day.  It is exhausting for every single one of you living on that planet, but that is the nature of the human condition, and your greatest individual challenge.

Remembering that you are NOT a being made of fear, cowering in a darkened cave is the hardest act and the greatest.

Always,

Life

Graging?

Change/Transformation, It's Personal, Laughter, Life, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

I’ve been trying to think of a word that combines aging with grace, and came up with the post title – graging.  Now that I see it, it could also be a combination of “rage” and “gray”, which are also part of aging, although not exactly what I had in mind.  It’s a weird word, a fake word, clumsy and ugly.  Maybe it’s the perfect word to describe how most of us increase our years, and all those moments when we say to ourselves “Is this what it feels like to be X yrs old?  I don’t feel X yrs old.”

Isn’t is amusing how the only people talking about the process of aging are those of us who are “of a certain age?”  When we’re in our twenties and thirties, we are most definitely NOT thinking about our upcoming years of graging, except in terms of retirement funds.  I know this is true because I’m close enough to my thirties that I can remember NEVER thinking about what my forties would be like!

I think it’s a psychological development.  We hit some level in our biological development and bam!  we’re suddenly pondering the nature of life, our contributions and legacy, our vulnerability, and what the end of our lives might be like.  It’s a curious paradox that our society and culture disregard our elders, fetishize youth, and yet every. single. one of us will grow old and die.  It’s one of the very few absolute givens in human existence – we, you, I, will grow older and eventually die.

I’m writing this piece more as a way to inject some humor in this process for myself, because I can’t even describe how vulnerable and alone and afraid I feel sometimes.  I can’t because thinking about it too much crushes my spirit and darkens my light, and I need a way to acknowledge my fears without letting them own me.  So maybe the word “graging” will now symbolize those parts of growing older I find both familiar and uncomfortable – the fear and anger, loneliness and uncontrollable changes – things we all struggle with most of our lives.

Naming a thing makes it less scary, in part because it makes it more real.  Perhaps the real key to growing in grace is realizing and accepting that all of these parts are inevitable and unavoidable, and that the best I can do is be kind to myself when they show up.  Kindness and grace don’t combine easily into a fun word, probably because they’re both so deserving of separate attention. There are no shortcuts to either of these states – they take courage, work, heart, and intention.

I feel better now.  Graging over.

Graduation Day

Change/Transformation, Corrections, Life, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

This is a long post, but Graduation for my students is a complex, rich experience and deserves significant reflection.

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I find that I am often befuddled when people remark, with surprise, on the poise, clarity, and eloquence of my students. I am befuddled until I remember that they don’t see them as I do. They may have only seen them, for years, in their darkest places of mind and body. They likely have never seen them at their best as mature adult women. And that’s what I see from the beginning – I see not only the possibility, but the reality. I see it and I hold it for them, until they can see it and hold it for themselves. Graduation is an opportunity for their friends and family to see that person, to see the person I see.

The three months leading up to the big day are often the most stressful for me. We’re not only trying to finish all the coursework, I have to oversee the planning and creation of whatever decorations they want, handle all the security/event details, and begin the process of recruiting a new class.  All those things combine into a slow-cooking stew of tedious detail, frustration, an ongoing effort to maintain patience and find ways to keep myself healthy and sane.

By far, the biggest source of stress is the students.  By the time we’re planning graduation, they’ve been in the program for about 12 months.  They’re tired, ready to be done, and starting to hit the “ending is in sight and holy shit, what next?!” phase.  There’s a real risk of self-sabotage for some – I lost one this year just six weeks before she would have finished.  There is a lot of fear of transition and change – of endings, a new routine, different supervisors and co-workers.  They’ve built a strong, safe community in this room and there are no guarantees about what they’ll face elsewhere.

I am able to help a few get other positions, program graduates are usually in high demand.  They’ve proven themselves trustworthy and reliable, and they have good, solid transferable skills.  Some stay with me as clerks (three or four usually), some are going to treatment or are releasing in the next few months, so they take whatever jobs they can get.  But even with all their learning, support, and new skills, they are aflutter with nerves, and with good reason.

For most of them, this is their first significant accomplishment.  Ever.

You read that right – most of them have never completed anything important, or even truly given anything a focused, concentrated effort.  Some have – there are a few high school completers (they all have at least a GED), fewer still who have some college success.  Most have held crap jobs off and on, but few have held legitimate jobs outside of fast food, waitressing, or low-level service work.  The majority of them have survived however they could – all types of illegitimate goods and services, prostitution, theft/burglary/robbery, gambling – you name it, they’ve done it.

Completing this program, for them, is a statement to themselves and their families that they are doing everything they can to leave that world behind.  This may be the best they’re going to be for a while, and they have every right to be proud, accomplished, nervous, and afraid.  None of us ever knows when we are going to fall short of our expectations of ourselves.  We are rarely prepared to fail – especially on a grand scale, and we spend far more time punishing ourselves for our failures than anyone else ever would.

But for women (and men) who have been incarcerated, the fear of failure exists at a whole new level.  Until this moment, their lives are a testament to failure, and society incessantly reminds them of those failures. They have failed as daughters, women, wives, sisters, mothers, employees, citizens, lovers, and humans.  They have wreaked havoc on themselves and those they love, extending that damage far and wide to innocent bystanders, property, businesses, and the community. Incarceration is the ultimate symbol of failure, one that seems impossible to ever shed.

Because they have done so much damage to their relationships, success in prison often comes with a price.  Families, full of rage and pain, demand that they live in a state of constant self-punishment.  “Why are you smiling in that picture?! Are you happy to be in prison?” they ask.  Or “Why should we come to graduation? You want us to be proud that the only place you can finish something is in prison?” Or “We won’t bring your children, they don’t deserve to see you locked up” and innumerable other thoughtlessly cruel statements.

I don’t hold judgment on these families.  While they all have their own broken dynamics, it is impossible to deny these women have done great harm.  While the family itself may have put the girlchild’s feet on the wrong path, the choices were ultimately her own, even if they all pay the price.  It’s not my place to say that a family shouldn’t be angry, ashamed, disappointed, broken-hearted, they have a right to feel however they feel. But the weight of all that pain and anger is a heavy burden for my students to bear, and adds to their already extraordinary levels of anxiety, heightening their fear of failing yet again.

I had a student collapse in my office sobbing, in part because she was ashamed at the pride she felt in herself for completing the program.  She cried and cried while she tried to reconcile her feelings and her desire for her family to celebrate her success.  How much worse to fail again after such a glowing, exciting success? How much worse to let yourself and your family down again, after making such a concerted effort to create a different life?

The risk they take in claiming success, in attempting to trust themselves again, is enormous, as is the amount of courage necessary to take such a risk.

In this program, inside these walls, they are at the top of the heap.  They are in a position of privilege, they have credibility, they have the trust of staff and security, they trust themselves, they can see and measure their success and accomplishments, and their confidence grows.  But once they leave, they go right back to the bottom, and that plummeting drop is enough to drain the courage out of anyone.

They are now faced with freedom of choice and action, they have to pick up the burdens of daily living, supporting themselves and their children, finding healthcare and childcare, and often dealing with aging or sick relatives.  They are expected to make amends for their past sins, make endless reparations, and successfully navigate the roadblocks and obstacles society puts in place for those with a criminal background.

Their successes inside the walls become meaningless to everyone but them.

And that’s the ultimate fear:  that it wasn’t real, that they haven’t truly changed, that they won’t be able to hold onto this new self.  It’s hard enough to carry a strong sense of self-worth and pride, even harder with the weighty legal and personal burden of past mistakes. What if they can’t do it?  What if they can’t maintain their sense of self-worth and dignity?  What if all they are is what they’ve always heard?  What if the new person they’ve struggled so hard to become is just a mirage, with no lasting substance?

None of these questions have answers because the answers are different for every student, for every human being. These questions aren’t even specific to them, although they take on particular weight for this population.  These are questions we ask ourselves, all the time, or should be asking.  “Am I good person? Am I a person I can be proud of?  Am I making the best decision for myself and others?”

That they now not only ask, but care deeply about the answer is one sign of fundamental, personal change.  If they can keep asking the question and caring about the answer, that’s as good as most of the rest of us, and better than some. That’s the weight of graduation day for us – a symbol of accomplishment that simultaneously carries enormous risk and hope.  It is worth the work, though, for them to experience themselves as successful, proud, confident, intelligent, and valuable, for as long as possible, and to share that new self with their families.

It is a new path forward for all of them, a chance to walk forward together, in a different direction.

When things get worse

Corrections, Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Power/Privilege, Social Justice, Systems, Uncategorized

This is a long post.  It is a recap of a situation that arose with a student and its unexpected resolution.  It is long because some of the nuances are unusual and specific to corrections. In order to convey the importance of the more seemingly mundane details, I have offered more explanation than I normally would.

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One of the worst things about working in a prison is that I see the direct, immediate impact of systemic limitations on real, living people all the time.  I had a student (I’ll call her Martha) who, like most of them, had a terrible history of abuse and trauma. But Martha’s was worse, I think, because it involved child abuse from a family member, multiple court appearances and testifying, all concluding only a short time before her incarceration.  She had another family member pass from a drug overdose around the time she started my class, no mother or father, and two other siblings still using.

When Martha started my class, she had no history of counseling for any of these issues, no treatment or programming, no cognitive or emotional management training, nothing.  She was somehow getting through her days, although I couldn’t say how.  Martha had incredibly high levels of anxiety around academics and testing, as most of my students do, and it took her a while to settle.  About the time she started to relax, I realized she would be eligible for treatment and grew concerned.

Treatment is hard inside the razor wire.  It’s hard outside, but it’s a different type of hard in here.  There is no safety, no privacy, the “peer leadership” model means that the sick are tasked with trying to lead the sick, and there is no option to escape or leave that doesn’t come with significant consequences. There is little therapeutic support, which is highly problematic for people who have such desperate need for therapy.

Add to those fundamental problems that most of these women have suffered trauma and abuse, and that predators and prey are expected to physically co-exist and support each other, and we have a recipe for a toxic, potentially dangerous environment.  The cherry on the sundae is that the women are all expected to behave as if this is a safe, supportive community where they’re all working to help each other, even though the opposite is more often true.  The women compete, sabotage, act out their extensive range of dysfunctional coping mechanisms, and prey on each other mercilessly. That some women are able to learn from the experience and deal with some of their thinking and behavior is miraculous.

Knowing this and knowing a bit of Martha’s history, I contacted two colleagues and expressed my concern.  It was during that conversation that I learned that our therapists are tasked (almost exclusively) with crisis management (using DBT), and almost, but not quite, forbidden from engaging in clinical therapeutic practice.  It may be different in the Medium, but that’s what happens in the Minimum.  The end result of the conversation was that there was little we could do except know that putting Martha in treatment could backfire and that it would be risky for her.  She still wanted to try, so we accepted her decision.

I need to clarify that I believe that this lack of clinical therapeutic practice is a simple function of resources, i.e. money.  Even on the Medium side, they have limited spots in the more intensive mental health treatment programs, and those spots are saved for those with the worst of the worst mental health issues – regardless of whether the treatment could help them be okay outside prison or not.  Taxpayers simply don’t want to fork over more money to deal with people who are incarcerated.  Or maybe the money is there and legislators don’t want to give it to DOC for the same reasons.

Corrections is a giant sinkhole for cash, in part because the population has giant, overwhelming, seemingly endless needs.  DOC is tasked with using not enough money to deal with a bottomless well of need, and clinical therapy is one of the areas that never has enough of anything.  It’s possible there are regulatory or legislative mandates preventing more intensive therapeutic practice, but I don’t know.  In any case, the upshot was that Martha would receive no additional counseling if her past trauma started coming up in treatment – she’d have to figure out how to get through it with peer support and what little staff support we could provide.

Her treatment experience had a rough start.  Her start date wasn’t clarified so we had to juggle for a few weeks so she could continue in my class and, as we found out later, she was shifted from one counselor’s caseload to another.  She and I spoke several times because I could see that she was having a hard time, but she was sort of managing, and there was nothing else I could do.  It’s a delicate issue to even appear to question treatment staff, especially based on the word of an inmate.

Even if I’m trying to clarify something I was told, it can be easily misinterpreted as a critique of staff, allowing an inmate to triangulate staff against each other, or believing an inmate over staff.  Whether real or imagined, those are all serious breaches of etiquette and, if true, can be a problem for any staff person found “guilty.”  So I do the same thing that the counselors do – help students manage crisis and look for ways to navigate a fraught, toxic, confusing, and often frightening environment.

I’m also not a mental health professional and, even though I know them fairly well, I only know them through one aspect of their daily lives.  One of the hardest things about my job is realizing that what they show me – no matter how positive – is only one face and maybe not their primary face.  I try to believe that the people running the treatment programs do have a plan and know what’s best, but it’s rarely easy. I spend so much time with my students, and I have to actively work to stop myself from believing that I know what’s best because I’m the expert on them.

In Martha’s case, it all came to a head over the course of a few days.

On a Monday, Martha decided she wanted to sign out of treatment.  That has a variety of consequences, all of them punitive, regardless of whether the decision is best for her or whether her reasons are valid.  Unless she’s so bad she can rate an administrative removal (i.e. she needs to be put in the mental heath unit in Medium), she’ll lose good time, lose any privileges, won’t be able to get a decent job for months, and have to go back to living in General Population and try to deal with her stress there.  It’s a shitty, shitty system and doesn’t support (at all) people who have valid reasons for not being able to stay healthy in that treatment environment.

Martha couldn’t be in that environment and maintain her stability.  When I was asked to speak with her that Monday night, she was still able to hold herself together, and we came up with a plan to help her get through until Friday.  She agreed she could wait until then to sign out, and that it would be good for her to have more time to make sure she was making the best decision.  She did admit to suicidal thoughts, and that she had a history of physical aggression, but felt confident she didn’t want to act on them.

Tuesday brought a series of update emails, and me asking why she wasn’t being considered for an administrative removal.  The answer I got wasn’t very satisfying as it amounted to “she’s not bad enough yet” but, again, nothing I can do.  There is almost no room for true proactivity in here.  Even the most proactive responses can only happen *after* things have gotten bad.  I’m suspicious that one of the reasons treatment allows so few administrative removals and such harsh punishment for signing out has to do with keeping the beds filled, but I have no proof of that and suspicion means nothing in an atmosphere of mistrust and clouded motives.

Martha degenerated rapidly over Tuesday and Wednesday and we were looking at a possible worst-case scenario:  She’d be booted out of the program and sent to segregation, a move almost guaranteed to cause her to try to hurt herself.  Even though she’d been trying to get out of the program and avoid this very thing, having to stay in that environment was making her much, much worse.  After 15 months of working with her and seeing her thrive and stabilize, this was like a fist in the gut.

I felt helpless.  Although I was being included in the decision-making, I felt much more like part of the problem than the solution.  I knew going to treatment was going to be risky, I’d voiced my concerns early, but no one followed up, and now Martha was being dragged under by her internal demons – unleashed by programming that was supposed to help her.  I felt culpable, somehow, as if I’d failed to protect her, or sound the alarm early enough.  Now, in addition to trying to beat back her personal nightmares, she was also in danger of being subject to undeserved punishment for actions brought about by our inability to offer the support she needed.

Wednesday afternoon was jammed with the usual stuff, on top of a series of meetings to discuss what needed to happen with Martha.  By great good fortune, there were several of us advocating for her – that she’d been stable and cooperative, eager to participate and wanting help, until recently.  Although none of us knew exactly what had set off the recent chain of events, it was obvious that her current state was much much worse and she was acting out of fear and desperation.

After much staff discussion, checking with other inmates (some of whom were accusing Martha of aggressive behavior and statements), and consideration of her history, we settled on an administrative removal.  She may also have gotten a conduct order (based on her reported aggression and, in my mind, unnecessarily punitive) but I’m not sure.  That our normally reactive security staff would come to this decision and take time to understand what was happening was a goddamn miracle.  Even if they did hand out a punishment slip, I didn’t care.

Administrative removal meant she was going to go to Medium for at least a few days, to get help de-escalating and calming down, maybe a bit more support in the process.  Given the alternative, there wasn’t a better solution in sight and I’m quite grateful this was the result.  Once I heard this solution was on the table, I left. Martha was waiting in the common area and I sat down to talk with her a bit before going back to the classroom.

Her fear and panic were palpable.  She was barely able to keep from crying as we sat there, and she had obviously lost whatever composure I’d seen earlier in the week.  She knew she was in a bad place, she felt trapped, and even though she didn’t want to lash out, she couldn’t envision anything else.  I couldn’t relieve any of her fears at that moment, but simply sat with my hand on her back, trying to help her feel better for a few minutes.  Even the best-case solution had its consequences, because that’s how the prison system works.

There is almost no room for complexity or nuance.  What people need can be considered, but the solution almost always has to come from a predefined set of offerings – regardless of how well they fit the person as an individual.  We can almost never create something tailored to an individual person, but have to try and fit them into the same solution as everyone else.  DOC does this because it can’t be seen to be favoring one person over another, accommodating some needs and not others, to do something for X without doing the same for Y.

It’s why this system is a failure, and hurts everyone involved.  We’re forced into using tools that don’t fit the job – over and over and over.  We make our best efforts and the fact that some are helped is a credit to our determination and commitment. That more people are damaged and made worse by their time in prison is an ongoing statement about our desperate need for an alternative.

On Guns

Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Peace/Conflict, Power/Privilege, Social Justice, Systems, Uncategorized

I have refrained from writing about guns because it’s hard for me to think about the topic without intense emotion.  Intense emotion can be helpful in writing, but it can also be alienating, resulting in people shutting down and disengaging.  But I need to say these things because I cannot continue sit by and say nothing.

Yesterday, I posted a facetious meme about gun control.  The meme was more about the fallacy of the “ban it” argument than gun control, but someone close to me took to the FB to respond with the “ban cars because drunk people drive them” argument.  I have thought long and hard about that argument, but I couldn’t think of any way to respond productively because it’s an argument based on so much denial and willful blindness that it’s hard to find a common path to discussion.

Let me be clear:  I despise guns.  I hate them, I’m afraid of them, and I wish they had never been invented.  That said, the reality is that they exist, people own them, and there’s nothing I can do about that.  In the interest of a free society, and free will, I understand that there are freedoms we protect even when we don’t agree.  So I won’t make the argument that we need a blanket gun ban, or that individuals shouldn’t be allowed to have them.  It’s not reasonable to expect and impossible to enforce.

But something has to change and using the analogy “ban cars because drunk people drive them and kill people” to argue against the problem of gun violence is ignorant and dismissive of a serious, deadly problem in our country.  Consider the following:

  • A man did not take 26 nooses into an elementary school and hang 20 children and six adults.
  • A man did not drive a car into a theatre and run over people sitting inside.
  • Another man did not drive a car into another theatre and run over more people sitting inside.
  • A man did not take a knife into a church and stab nine people to death.
  • A man did not build a pyre on a military base and tie people to the stake.
  • Another man did not take poison and put it in the water at another military base.
  • A man did not take a baseball bat and beat people to death in a Sikh temple

One of the reasons we have made no progress in coming to a reasonable solution on this issue is because federal funding for research into the causes and impacts of gun violence has been blocked by Congress for the last 20 years.  Even though funding was restored two years ago, the CDC is still tentative and Congress refuses to budget funding.  If we had more information on the causes and impacts of gun violence, maybe we could start to work on solutions, but that isn’t happening.

For me, the comparison between cars and guns isn’t legitimate because cars, and all the other possible weapons listed above, serve a variety of purposes.  That they are temporarily repurposed as weapons isn’t an argument in favor of getting rid of them.  That people get drunk and drive is an argument for people exercising better judgment, more treatment options for people with serious problems, and so on.  It’s not an argument about cars because people who get in a car usually don’t think about it as a weapon, or intentionally set out to harm or kill others.

But all the men who murdered people in the horrific acts mentioned above DID pick up a weapon.  They picked it up, they did it with intention, and they knew exactly what they were doing.  There was no possibility they made a mistake because guns serve no other purpose.  They are designed for killing or harming – it is their sole function and reason for existence on this earth.  When someone picks up a gun with intention to use it, there is no mistake – their intention is to harm or kill.

Their reasoning or motivation for that action may justify their choice and that’s something we must always consider.  But the gun itself may hasten that choice, simply by its nature.  Without having more information on why people decide to pick up a gun, we are presented with the false choice that’s dividing our country.  Responsible individuals are angry and afraid that their rights are being taken away, and other responsible individuals are afraid to go see a movie, go to temple, or simply walk into a church and pray.

The first step in moving toward resolution is acknowledging there is a problem. Guns are a problem in our society, and we need to find a way to work together for our collective health and safety.

Trump, the ultimate male fantasy figure

Blergh, Hard Stuff, Obstacles/Challenges, Power/Privilege, Social Justice, Uncategorized

As many of us have (more than I would have guessed, according to polls) I’ve been thinking about Donald Trump, and this startling wave of publicity he’s riding.  He’s always been one of “those” people – in the news for various things, none of them very positive, most seeming pretty slimy.  His wealth certainly represents one aspect of success, and I’m sure many people see him as a powerful man, but those things don’t explain, for me, why he’s suddenly the front-runner in the GOP’s pack of nominee hopefuls.

So why?  How can a man who is almost a caricature of himself suddenly capture the minds and attention of millions of people?  I think one answer is that he is the ultimate white man’s fantasy persona.  He does and says whatever he wants to – regardless of its impact on other people – and reaps no significant consequences.  He appears to need no significant relationships, have no important emotional attachments that are impacted by his behavior and words, and we know he has all the means he would ever need to support himself.

In short, he’s the ultimate loner and mythic hero figure, at least in the minds of some; a “man’s man” who doesn’t have to be “politically correct” or cater to the needs and whims of all these namby-pamby weepy types who populate the world.  He’s free and able to say exactly what he thinks, do whatever he wants, have whatever women he wants, and buy anything his heart desires.  But where a hero is usually deeply connected to a quest, often a quest to make life better for people who are suffering somehow, Trump only wants to make life (even) better for others like him – über wealthy, privileged, entitled men whose power means they (seem to) answer to no one.

I believe that the men who support him are men who, like him, are terrified of the changes they know are coming.  They see the power structure that has benefited them starting to shift, and they’re having trouble coping (as anyone would). When they hear Trump saying all the vile, hateful, angry things they’re thinking – they’re relieved.  Someone else feels the same way, and someone is actually saying all the things they think but won’t say. I use the word “won’t” deliberately because I think not saying those things is a case of will, not a case of ability.

On some level, I believe many of the men who are so enamored of him right now know that the statements he makes are wrong.  That they are mean, vindictive, hateful, and largely inaccurate.  It’s the difference between being pissed and having a crazed rant inside your head, then getting your shit together and dealing with the problem in a mature fashion, or just standing around calling the other person names, or threatening to punch them in the face.  It’s much easier to just rant and rave and ignore any significant work that needs to be done.

Thinking with nuance, from a variety of perspectives, and acknowledging multiple opinions and needs takes a lot of work and effort.  Screaming angrily about what you don’t understand or care about, the unfairness of it all, and that you don’t want things to change is much, much easier, and Trump is the master of that rhetoric.  He’s the poster boy of the entitled, privileged white male who simply doesn’t acknowledge that all those other water-filled meat sacks are actually human beings.

He seems to just not care.  And that’s why he won’t last.  Because most of those white guys who fantasize about doing what he does know, on some level, that it’s wrong.  Many of them have women they care about, they have friends or colleagues of different ethnic backgrounds, religious affiliations, sexual orientations, and so on.  Most of those men care about hurting someone’s feelings, even if they aren’t aware of that care.  That’s why they don’t actually *say* those things, but live out their fantasy through Trump and men like him.

Even though people are often greedy, petty, and oblivious, I just can’t bring myself to believe that Trump represents anything other than a fleeting moment of vicarious excitement.  I have to believe that the majority of people do care about the feelings of others, even if that care is deeply buried.  I have to believe that mean and spiteful men like Trump don’t truly represent the men (or women) of this country.

GOODFELLAS, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino, Joe Pesci, 1990

GOODFELLAS, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino, Joe Pesci, 1990

No accountability, no consequences.

But, it’s so GOOD for you!

Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

I learned about meditation, over a dozen years ago and kind of practiced regularly for a couple of years.  When I started grad school in 2004, I practiced occasionally and didn’t entirely stop until four or five years after that.  And then I stopped completely, and couldn’t bring myself to continue.  It didn’t matter that I knew it was beneficial, that it would help me feel better and bring peace of mind.  None of those logical things mattered.  My aversion to meditation, or any type of meditative practice was irrational.

I think now that I simply couldn’t (and still can’t, really) bear to be fully present.  I was, and remain, too frightened of the feelings I’ll face.  I’m terrified of all the sadness, exhaustion, depression, anger, grief, disappointment, and bewilderment I know are lying in wait.  I can’t face them more than I already do and have.  Note – please don’t tell me about your “amazing” experience with meditation, how you had the same fears, etc, and how relieved you were that it wasn’t really like that – I don’t want to hear it.  I know my fears are irrational and illogical, but they’re mine and they’re real for me right now.

I’m not sure what my expectations were about what kind of life I would live, but I’m pretty sure I’m not meeting them.  How do I know that?  Because I feel [insert above list of emotions here] all the time.  Those emotions, according to so much of of what I see and hear, are not the indicators of an expectation-meeting life.  Those emotions are giant indicators that you’ve screwed up somehow.

Even though my logical mind knows that thought for the bullshit it is, I can’t stop myself from thinking it.  Even though my life is meaningful and fairly rich, there are still layers of unconscious, unknown expectations I feel like I’m not meeting.  Even writing about it feels ludicrous.  What would I say to someone who came to me with these feelings?  I would say “I hear you and I have many of those same feelings myself.  Would you like to talk?”

Lost threads

It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

I’m so frustrated right now I could [insert action indicating frustration here]. June was a bad writing month.  I did get some good writing, but it was sporadic and scattered.  What I’m discovering is that if I don’t write regularly, I lose the thought threads that bind the larger story.  It feels impossible to sit down after three weeks away and do anything constructive in 30 minutes.  Hell, doing anything constructive in 30 minutes seems impossible anyway, so I don’t know why I bothered.

I just feel pissed at myself.  Pissed because I let a month slip away and the feelings of urgency, of “this needs to be in the world NOW!” are crowding out all my other thoughts.  Even when I schedule out writing time, I’m lucky if I can get a good 60-90 minutes, which seems so little.  When I read about artists and writers who spend hours and hours daily working, working, working, I feel small and cowardly – as if I’m not making a big enough sacrifice for my art.

I imagine I’m not the only one who feels like this, though.  Those of us who have day jobs, families, obligations, etc etc, probably struggle with this to some degree, but it sucks.  I can feel this piece of work trying desperately to get out, and I’m just not doing it the service it deserves today.

Twitter-fied

Change/Transformation, Feminism, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Peace/Conflict, Social Justice, Uncategorized, Writing

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I feel confused most of the time.  This constant confusion is a result of an ongoing and bewildering mixture of wondrous, joyous, human decency with stomach-churning vileness, and moments of deep, personal sadness.  I find it impossible to determine whether I’m merely “having a rough few days/weeks/months” or if (as the beautiful, late Stephen Covey put it), I’m simply experiencing the “permanent whitewater” this shapes our lives in this time.

I believe that most of my bewilderment comes from a mental picture of my past as a more calm and stable period but I also know that probably isn’t true.  Even if it were, it all began to change in 1998 (17 years ago, almost a third of my life now) and hasn’t been “calm” since.  Everything I read tells me that most people experience some amount of upheaval throughout their 20s and 30s, and that shit really gets tough in the 40s.  But I can’t shake this nagging suspicion that somehow, this is a result of me making wrong choices, that I’ve somehow brought it, whatever “it” is, on myself.

So that’s  my personal baggage, this belief that I’m simply incapable of creating some idealistic, perfect, shining life where I make only the best decisions and experience only the best outcomes.  And yes, as I wrote that, my eyes nearly rolled out of my head.  It’s astonishing sometimes, how writing down the words in my head highlights their obvious silliness.  But….onward.

Today, despite my personal griefs and hiccups and grouchiness, looking through my Twitter feed brought my feet, head, heart, and hands into a smiling, happy place.  All the posts about the two recent SCOTUS decisions, big wins for Obama and the citizens of the US, rainbows and hearts everywhere, more scorchingly incredibly quotes from the Notorious RBG, the incredible bravery and grace of Bree Newsome taking down the Confederate flag, reminded me that things are not always going to hell in a very, very small container.

Today I am reminded that people can be brave and generous and kind and loving, at least for a few moments.  It is true that there are many, many people who feel the opposite about all of these events but for the moment, I’m not thinking of them.  I’m thinking about all my dear friends whose marriages will now be recognized in the entire country, all my students who will be able to get and afford healthcare after they parole, the women who look to Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1993), Sonia Sotomayor (2009), and Elena Kagan (2010) as glorious role models and shining feminist spirits, and now, to Bree Newsome, whose act of nonviolent civil disobedience helps mark our ongoing struggle to address the deep wounds of racism in the US.

Thank you, Twitterverse, for making my soul lighter and my day better.

CIhPMuzUMAEgtxQ

For my black friends

Change/Transformation, Hard Stuff, Obstacles/Challenges, Peace/Conflict, Power/Privilege, Reflection, Social Justice, Systems, Uncategorized, Writing

The names of the victims:  Clementa Pinckney, 41, the senior pastor at the church; Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, an assistant pastor; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Ethel Lance, 70; Susie Jackson, 87; Cynthia Hurd, 54; Myra Thompson, 59; Daniel Simmons Sr., 74; DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49.

There is no good way to write something like this. Everything feels wrong and awkward and pandering, none of it feels quite on point. I grew up in North Carolina, with a few years each in South Carolina and Virginia. Make no mistake, NC and SC are both southern states, with many of the attendant  attitudes, ignorance, and hatreds.

I keep going over what I want to say and it doesn’t get any better. Apologies mean nothing if the same brutal acts keep happening. I can’t keep my black friends and loved ones safe, they can’t keep themselves safe, and a significant portion of our population deliberately pretends not to see the reality of racism, hatred, and domestic terrorism that’s happening.

When President Obama simply mentioning that the suspect had a gun and that, again, access to guns has rendered a terrible result, has a whole chunk of people are angry and screaming about their violated rights. When another group of people simply refuse to acknowledge this hate crime as racially motivated and instead insist that it was an attack on Christians, and proof of the pesecution of Christians, and I am left with my mouth gaping open, jaw swinging in the wind. When these things happen, I am ashamed and embarrassed that I share any human biology with these groups of people.

We just watched the trial of the remaining man involved on the Boston Marathon bombing. We immediately agreed that he was a terrorist, and that his was an act of hatred toward people simply because they were US citizens. He targeted them based on something they couldn’t control, some portion of who they are.

Why are we so fundamentally broken that we won’t even acknowledge this fact in this case? That white man was radicalized and groomed, then sent on a suicide mission to terrorize and kill the people in that church. That he is still alive is almost irrelevant, it’s a physical state only. That depth of depravity can’t leave much alive inside his mind and heart, there is probably only a black, bleak wasteland of hatred and isolation.

There is no way I can apologize for this, no way I can comfort, or reassure, no way I can see to promise it won’t happen again, or that you and your family will be safe. I can continue my work of being an ally, of addressing white people’s issues, and transforming our minds and hearts, but that is cold comfort in moments like this. I have long been in awe of the black community’s capacity for moving forward, and aware that there is so much that, as a white woman, I don’t know and will never know. Maybe one day that will change, and the world will be safe enough for us to share more deeply.

Shite happens.

It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Rants, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

tangle-of-wires

Unfortunately, it seems to be all that’s happening.  I’ve been distracted for the last couple of weeks, writing minimally, attention on other things.  It’s shocking how quickly that slight shift in focus has torn up my writing rails, twisting them into and out of recognizable shapes, drops, detours, and giant iron cobbles.

I assume this is part of the process, this disgust with my thoughts, words, inaction, distraction, and disorganization.  Perhaps I’m being rendered, fat and proteins separated into sloppy, sloshy piles for me to paw through, when I eventually re-orient toward….something.  Let’s hope the end product is better than a can of pet food.

Worlds collide

Corrections, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Relationships, Uncategorized, Writing

I just completed our required three days of DOC In Service and my ass may never be the same. I don’t remember the chairs being so hard last year, but maybe they were. This is my third In-Service and it was less terrible than the other two, for which I am quite thankful.

But I’ve noticed something unexpected, now that I’m back in my office and with my students. After spending three days with DOC folks (Medical, Security, and BHS), I feel oddly disconnected from my students. It’s almost as if the collective DOC aura rubbed off on me, building an invisible barrier and forcing me to see them as inmates, not students.

It’s a strange sensation, a kind of double vision. I see my student or clerk working or talking to me and, at the same time, there’s a faint overlay of “Inmate” where there wasn’t before. I don’t like it, it feels uncomfortable and disorienting to suddenly have this imposed vision of “Other.” These are my worlds, colliding, and it doesn’t feel good.

I always know my students are inmates (or Adults in Custody), but I don’t give that label priority billing. I work within the rules and boundaries, but their primary identity is themselves, not their inmate-ness. Today, their inmate-ness is more present, and I know it’s a result of three days of hearing others refer to them in that way, being in the mind-fields of those people, knowing that my approach and relationship with my students is so much different than theirs – as it should be. I assume that if some of them saw how my program works, they’d think I was crossing all kinds of boundaries and making lots of mistakes, but they would be wrong.

I just operate differently, the women relate to me in a different way, and I see them first as people and women, not as inmates. I hadn’t realized what a difference it makes, that it makes working here bearable for me. If I had no option but to treat them always as inmates, I couldn’t tolerate the work. It’s good for me to be reminded of the mindset of so many of my co-workers, but that’s not a path I want to walk.

Policy or pet peeve, who knows?

Corrections, Obstacles/Challenges, Power/Privilege, Rants, Systems, Uncategorized, Writing

Taking pictures in the facility is always a gamble. We’re supposed to avoid including doors, windows, building lines, and big pictures of the facility from the inside.  It’s a useless exercise, because a simple Google image search on “Coffee Creek Correctional Facility” brings up dozens of images of the inside and outside, including the satellite view. But I’m always careful to frame my pictures to include only the students, or equipment, or whatever.

Staff alone are allowed to freely use cameras (still photos only), the only inmates allowed to use the camera (even under staff supervision) work for LifeSkills. They take photos at events, yard photos, and so on.  But my department has a couple of cameras and I take class pictures at the beginning of class and again close to graduation.  Recently, I realized I hadn’t taken the first set of class pictures and we’re about a year into class!  Long overdue, we scheduled pictures, everyone got dolled up, and we had a lot of fun with getting people to pose and smile.  I have to admit, I gave anyone who struck a “prison pose” a hard time, but that only made us all laugh harder.

After we take pictures, but before we can let the women see or purchase them, the captain of the facility has to approve them.  She takes the camera and reviews each picture and decides if it’s “ok” or not.  She reviews the background, the poses, how close the women are to each other and whether or not they’re touching, their clothing, and anything else that might be suspicious.  If this sounds ridiculous to you, I don’t know what to say.  I suppose having the top level of management review individual photos taken by staff (who are supposed to know what is appropriate and what isn’t) could be considered an effective use of time, but that’s not my decision to make.

I took the camera to the captain and she started looking through the photos.  Almost immediately, she began scolding me because some of the women had their t-shirts untucked.  That’s right, she was scolding me because of how they were wearing their clothing.  She then pointed at one person and asked her name.  I told her and she said, accusingly “her shirt is too tight.  Why is she wearing a shirt that tight?  She must have modified it. Why is she wearing it?”

I was completely dumbfounded.  Did she expect me to have an answer?  Did she somehow think I was responsible for my students’ clothing?  What the hell was happening right now?  I said “Well, do you want to call her unit officer and tell him?”  She said “No, she needs to come see me.”  She wanted to scold this woman in person.  The captain of the facility thinks it’s a good use of her time to individually scold an inmate for wearing a shirt she thinks is too tight.  Still incredulous, I ask “do you want me to send her over?” and, of course, the answer was yes.

After all the complaining and scolding, she graciously allows me to keep all the photos and I leave.  I’m pissed.  Seriously pissed.  My students are supposed to know the rules and policies and adhere to them, whether I micro-police them or not.  I discreetly send the offending shirt-wearer over to the captain and dismiss everyone else for lunch.  When they come back, I give them a fairly stern “I don’t like being scolded for you wearing your clothing the wrong way, what the hell were you thinking?” lecture.  Not too stern, not too angry, didn’t call anyone by name, but unhappy enough.

When I finish, J raises her hand and says “In all our other pictures, we’re allowed to untuck our shirts and it’s not a problem. We didn’t know.”  And bam – I now feel like a complete a$$hat and someone who speaks before thinking or investigating.  I feel like that for a couple of minutes as I re-orient and try to make the best out of a bowl of shit soup.  I attempt to spin it as “Okay.  Going forward, make sure that you follow the ‘professional’ dress code in any pictures you take that aren’t in a casual environment” but it felt stupid and weak.  I knew they understood that I’d been given this information by the captain, but now I was caught between what the captain was saying in this instance, and what they’re allowed to do on a regular, ongoing basis.

Was the captain correct, and the untucked shirts against a largely unenforced policy?  Or are untucked shirts a pet peeve and she was acting as if her personal wish were policy when it isn’t?  What is true?  And who, if not the highest ranking security officer in the facility, could clarify this for me?

The answer is no one, and this extremely minor incident highlights one of the thorniest problems in this institution:  The inconsistent and arbitrary nature of rule and policy enforcement.  The rules and policies themselves highlight the even bigger issue of balance between maintaining safety and using power/dominance to micro-manage and control every single aspect of people’s already limited lives.  I mean, is someone having their socks turned down really a threat to the safety and security of the institution?

The fact that I even tell myself “well, maybe somewhere, something bad could come from that” makes me feel like the insanity of normalizing this environment is only a short distance away.  Having to constantly evaluate every piece of information to determine its accuracy and relevance, and not being able to trust the people who should be the authorities is nerve wracking, especially since it’s rarely clear when safety really IS the issue, not just power and control.

Mental illness or unchangeable habits?

Change/Transformation, Corrections, Obstacles/Challenges, Uncategorized

One of the most confusing and troubling aspects of my work is differentiating between what I can work with and what I can’t.  This shows up most often when students are starting to struggle and I have to determine whether it’s learned behavior, or something deeper and more serious.  If they are running into old, dysfunctional patterns of self-sabotage, there’s a solid chance I can help them, if they’re willing to do the work.  If it seems that I’m dealing with undiagnosed or untreated mental illness, there’s often nothing I can do until they self-destruct.

The level of ambiguity and lack of clarity in these situations is jaw-dropping.  I often have nothing to go on except my knowledge of the student, and my intuition.  DOC is extremely limited in what it can do, or offer, with regard to mental health and illness, and I have access to none of that information.  If an inmate isn’t an immediate danger to herself or others, they are treated as if they are “stable”.  If an inmate doesn’t have a previous mental illness diagnosis, the chances of getting one while incarcerated are almost nonexistent, which means no treatment.

DOC offers little cognitive therapy and that only to the most severely mentally ill inmates. Those who can get mental health services (a minority of inmates) are largely treated using DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), not cognitive therapy.  This means their counselors help them deal with their immediate situation – strengthening their coping and rational thinking skills.  While this is necessary, it does nothing to relieve the underlying reasons why they continue to make bad decisions, or the chemical and biological causes for depression, mood swings, and erratic behavior.

About a year ago, I had a student in her early 20s.  She’d gotten caught up in some shady stuff her mother was doing and ended up getting a seven-year sentence when she was 18 and a first time offender.  Her mother got only five years, but that’s another discussion.  I accepted this young woman into my program late, when another student dropped.  The New Student (NS) had to do a lot of work in a short period of time to catch up and she did – we were all excited and pleased because she was off to a good start.

She managed to maintain herself for a while, but then we (my program clerks and I) started to notice a cycle of behavior.  She consistently had trouble with acting out while under stress, even with extensive coaching and new tools, and about every six to eight weeks, she’d have a major blow up.  We’d have a debrief, a big discussion, create a plan with specific goals and steps, and discuss consequences.  This happened maybe three times and when the cycle began again, I knew something had to change.

I don’t remember exactly what happened, but NS was headed toward another blowup and, hoping to stop the cycle, I brought her into my office to talk.  Because she’d started the program late, she was still finishing up the first module after the rest of the class had graduated and gone.  She was the only student working, and we were prepping for the next class and finishing up interviews.  She only had another three to four weeks max until she’d be done with the entire course, and I had hopes we could help her hold herself together long enough to finish.

One of my clerks was with us, and the discussion progressed.  This time, though, something was different.  NS had a harder edge, was more aggressive than she had been and before I knew it, she had slammed her head backward into the wall.  It wasn’t hard, but it was on purpose and far, far beyond the norm of acceptable behavior.  I immediately called security and two officers came.  One, a calm woman who has since retired, stayed in the room and the other, also steady and calm, stood right outside.

I continued my conversation with NS, hoping she would de-escalate and pull herself together, so I wouldn’t have to see her walked out in handcuffs.  She managed, but not until I told her she could either throw herself on the floor and have a real tantrum, or go back out and continue working like a grown adult.  I was not sure what choice she would make and almost expected her to throw herself on the ground and start punching the floor. She decided to go back to her seat, so I let her and left further conversation for another time.  I didn’t feel that anything was resolved, but I hoped her choice was a good sign.

It might have been, but making one right choice wasn’t enough to stop her from completely sabotaging everything she’d worked so hard to build.  Within a week, she’d gotten into a serious fight with one of my newly chosen students and both were taken to Medium, to Segregation.  She was lucky she wasn’t beaten more badly, and I suppose I dodged a bullet with the incoming student.  But the whole incident was horrible and it felt like all that work with her had just swirled down the drain, mixed with the blood running from her cut face.

To this day, I don’t know if her behavior was a sign of a mental illness, or an attention-seeking behavior so deeply ingrained she just couldn’t pry it loose.  I’ll probably never know, but it drove home for me that every single person I interact with has a complex, hidden self that I know nothing of, but that influences and permeates every interaction, choice, and behavior.  While this behavior seems shocking, it isn’t.  Teachers all over the world have to deal with students who are violent, aggressive, sick, mentally unstable, and mentally unwell all the time.

For me, this is another demonstration that these women are human beings.  They work and find ways to deal with the issues that come up for them because they feel they have no choice.  To give in and act out in their old, self-destructive ways isn’t an option for most of them any more, so they manage, then take another step forward. Given their limited access to resources in such a stressful and negative environment, I also believe they have the strongest desire to change their lives that I’ve ever seen.

Yesterday’s boot

It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Power/Privilege, Systems, Uncategorized

Yesterday, at work, one of our programs received devastating news – DOC has decided to withdraw its funding.  They have until December 31st to close up shop.  Our department is keeping this news confidential so the program coordinators can break the news to the women, and so DOC can release the news on its own timeline.  I’m staggered, as I think we all were.  I knew there had been some funding withdrawn for part of the program, but never thought they’d pull the whole thing.

The program’s focus was on rebuilding connections between women and their families, especially their young children.  70% of women in our prison have children, maybe more.  I have witnessed the profound change that takes place when they start to see themselves as good parents, rebuilding their relationships with their children and their caregivers.  I hear, so often, that much of their regret centers around having been such terrible parents, and in putting their children through so much grief.

Even though this program has been incredibly successful (almost non-existent recidivism rates for participants), it’s extremely expensive.  DOC is looking for low-cost, low-recidivism, and high-cost, low-recidivism programming is a plum ripe for the plucking.  Management made it clear it was a budget issue, so that money will be re-allocated elsewhere, maybe to the women, maybe not.

I feel useless in the face of what feels like a cold, calculated decision.  How do you quantify the benefit to the community, both short and long term, of having stronger, more healthy families?  How do you calculate the cost of keep children out of foster care, off assistance, and out of the justice system?  How do you calculate the cost of breaking the cycle of incarceration, especially in poor and minority families?

Writing this post made me realize that I had to speak up, somehow, so I emailed my state representative.  I don’t have any hope that he’ll do anything, but I can’t not speak up and try to make something happen.  I also broke the request for confidentiality, which I’m tempted to interpret as a request (or demand) that we NOT say anything publicly until the decision is officially announced (i.e. a done deal).

The fact that the process and decision were all done without any input from staff (I asked if I could write a statement of support or write a letter and was told no) makes me think DOC doesn’t want anyone from the outside looking at the decision.  They don’t want anyone making waves, or asking how they arrived at their conclusion.

I may just be suspicious and paranoid, but these are my friends and treasured colleagues and I can’t not try.