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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

NEWS FROM PRISON (Chapter Two)

In the very short time I've been here so far, I've already learned a great deal.

The contrast of my time in the "hole" - the freedom I had before I came, and the relative freedom of the camp itself- was striking.

It focused my attention in particular on the importance of non-physical human needs.

In the "hole" all of my basic physical needs were taken care of– food, sleep, shelter, hygiene. But it is still horrible. The reason is that it strips you of a number of other critical needs that are every bit as important as those physical requirements.

A sense of control over your life. Having even the modest control over my time in the camp makes it qualitatively better than the lock-up.

A sense of structure in daily life. Everyone in the Camp says the best way to get through this is to create a routine or structure to each week and day. The "hole" provides an undifferentiated sameness that makes daily life incomprehensible. A sense of structure is a key element allowing you to feel a sense of control.

The need for community and human interaction. In the "hole" I had one very good companion, without which the experience would have been infinitely worse. But in the Camp the sense of community and the structure of interaction make life infinitely better. Jan's visit – and contact to work and friends by phone -- make it much better still.

The need for intellectual stimulation. The boredom of the "hole" would be unbearable over long periods. The Camp library, TV, Radio– the trees or sky, are so important to happiness.

The need for a sense of purpose and meaning. There are so many people here who are – or have been – incarcerated for years or decades. The central thing that gets most people through here is the hope that their lives will still count– have some purpose. A lot of them seem much more religious, or make elaborate plans for release- or devote themselves to their appeals.

On the other side, a guy just returned to our unit who had been put in the "hole" for 87 days- locked down in a 15 x 8 foot room for 3 months with a slit of a window and 45 minutes of daily recreation in a 25 x 15 foot room down the hall. The guards in the "hole" treat prisoners as if they are totally insignificant. I'm sure that after a month or so it would be easy for the strongest person to come to share that view. (I'll tell you, it really put Nelson Mandela's ability to maintain his clarity and sense of purpose for 27 years of similar imprisonment into perspective.)

People really need a sense that they matter- and that comes from being able to commit themselves to something besides themselves and their own needs .

Anyway, so far this experience has served to really place into sharp focus the importance of non-physical human needs and self-interests. It sheds a great deal of light on the question: "How in the world can people in the poorest counties in Ohio vote Republican?" To build a progressive majority over the long term, we have to address both the physical (economic) and non-physical needs of voters. Progressives have to broaden our understanding of self-interest.

The Senselessness of Mandatory Minimum Sentences and the "War on Drugs"

My second observation to date is the critical necessity of reform for the Federal sentencing, parole, and prison system. I've become friends with a 28-year-old African-American guy from Chicago who was sentenced to Mandatory Minimum of 10 years in prison for selling 3 grams of crack cocaine.

In high school he had gone to military school on scholarship, and he did a year of college. He quit college because he could make $10,000 a week selling drugs as part of a gang. As a young guy he never thought about the downside of 10 years in jail. He has a wife and 2 kids.

He thought it was a good thing for him to go to jail for a while. He's turned his life around, plans to go to work organizing to change the things that lend to disaster in poor communities when he's released. Because he's in the Camp he doesn't have to worry about continuous involvement with the gang in the Minimum and High Security Prisons.

So far sounds good, right? The problem is the Federal Mandatory Minimum drug laws required that the Judge had no discretion in sentencing him to at least 10 years in prison. He has 7 more years to go.

And it doesn't matter that he could make a huge contribution to the community now, because Congress did away with parole- there are no parole hearings .

The entire correctional system had about 550,000 inmates in 1985. Today, it has 2.6 million- mostly because of mandatory minimums and no parole.

The cost of the system has gone from $9 billion a year in 1985 to $60 billion a year today.

And the recidivism rate is 67%. Two thirds of Federal inmates will return to prison after being released.

The education program for inmates is horribly under-funded. The teachers here are fellow inmates-- some of whom are good-- but there is not a serious commitment to prepare inmates to return to society with radically upgraded skills or education.

There used to be programs to provide certified trades for many inmates-- no longer. There is a requirement that anyone without a GED be prepared for the test- but not a real commitment to upgrade skills.

Many of the inmates here could excel at a college program if they were offered- including my 28-year-old friend. But instead of leaving here with a college degree, he will be in storage for 7 more years.

The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world today and we are wasting the potential of millions of lives- costing ourselves billions to support them in prison- and endangering our communities' safety when they return.

After all, if a person's only options are a minimum wage job or taking a risk on $10,000 a week selling drugs-- many will take the $10,000 gamble.

There is a bipartisan movement on this issue in Congress; the time may be getting ripe for change. It must come soon.

Well, for right now, that's all the news from Terre Haute.

Only 21 weeks remain.

Thanks for your friendship,
Bob Creamer

Robert Creamer, a lifelong political activist, is serving a five-month sentence in federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

NEWS FROM PRISON

Dear Friends and Supporters:

This is the first in a periodic set of reports and observations based on my experiences being a guest of the Federal Prison System. Like anything, you can read about something until you're blue in the face-- but you have whole different appreciation when you experience it firsthand. Even though I've only been here a week, I think (at least I hope) the worst is over. I reported Tuesday to the medium security federal prison. The complex also has a brand new High Security Federal Prison where there have been two murders over the last several months- and a stabbing a week- luckily I am not there.

But still, my first two days were no fun. They put you in the "hole" for the first 48 hours. The "hole" is a segregated lock up in the Minimum Security Prison. You share a 15 x 8-foot cell with another new inmate for at least two days. The cell has a small shower, a toilet in the middle of the room and two bunks. Food is delivered through a slot in the door– not gourmet.

The stay in the "hole" – which is also used to discipline inmates – is intended to allow them to read a TB scratch test before you're allowed with the general population. It's also used to make the point that it makes sense to do what they tell you.

Luckily, my roommate in the "hole" was a wonderful guy from Louisville, Kentucky and was very interesting and a great Democrat.

Thursday --to our great relief– we were released to the Camp. The Minimum Security Camp has no fences. It's set up like a very crowded, somewhat primitive dorm with rooms of 16 people. There are 450 nonviolent offenders. The population is a mix of white-collar offenders (30%) and nonviolent drug offenders (70%).

By and large the inmates treat each other with respect and are eager to help each other– and work hard to keep each other's spirits high. My five-month sentence is one of the very shortest here, however. It was put in perspective by the orderly on our wing in the "hole" (also an inmate) who introduced himself by saying he was almost done with his sentence. He said he would be out in 2010 (only 4 years left on his 16-year term).

Everyone has to have a job. I've applied to teach in the small education program. Don't know yet what assignment I'll get.

Daily life is punctuated by a series of "counts" of the inmates in the quarters or work site. The main cardinal rule is to be where you're supposed to be for the count– or back to the "hole".

There's a fair amount of opportunity for exercise– a gym, softball diamond, soccer field, track, etc.

Haven't yet been able to use the commissary or get a phone card (can make 300 minutes of calls out per month). Hopefully get this next week.

Jan came to see me on Saturday– which was a huge relief. The six-hour visit flew by.

The food is ok– then again I have a very bland palate– much like my Golden Retrievers that I very much miss.

As you might imagine, customer service here is not great. As my lawyer Ted Poulos warned me, "In their view the customer is always wrong."

There is a 72-year-old Franciscan priest here named Father Jerry. Father Jerry is here (along with a young companion) because he did civil disobedience to protest the School of the Americas at Fort Benning in Georgia. This is the outfit that trains military personnel for many Latin American countries– including Columbia and Guatemala. Many of their graduates have been accused of human rights abuses and murder.

On Friday, the mild-mannered Father Jerry talked back to a particularly difficult guard (she is notorious here) and was sent to the "hole" as punishment.

That’s it for now, more in a few days…

Bob

Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Stroke


by Josh Powell

The heat.


That is what it must be. The heat, he thought to himself. The constant
leaping of the right leg pushing off the gray pavement, dusty from fine city
dirt, coupled with the left leg catching his body. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
It must be the heat.


It must be the heat he thought again, because someplace deep inside him he
knew that there was no earthquake but the idea of one was the only thing
that is keeping the fear a bay.


The fear.


Another tremor and his legs buckle. How he falls. It is slow and yet he is
unable to catch himself and negotiate the space between the street and where
he was an instant ago.


He crashes hard on his knee into what seemed moments ago a smooth path on
which to race. He feels a piece of road gravel push into his patella - the
knee cap - he feels the skin rip.


Then the elbow.


It is so slow.


His head hits next, but between the time spent when the elbow collided and
the moment when the head struck the ground he tasted metal, odd he thought,
but not for too long, he had no time.


His head bounced off the ground and made a strange, hollow thud.


His teeth rattled - he thought he felt them move. The pain was electric,
horrid and terrifying. Oh this was no earthquake he thought as he laid on
the warm tarred street unable to move his left side and not wanting to the
move the right.


The metallic taste and then in the precious little time before his pupil
blew open wide. He let the fear in and it was only then that he knew without
a shadow of a doubt that there was no earthquake and by then, to him, it did
not matter.

Friday, August 11, 2006

To Those Who Fought


by Val Haynes


Brothers,
Where there is derision
No ribbons, no wreaths, no rewards
No red, white and blue confetti, no medals of honor—
Stand up
Stand up against the war mongers of the world
Who are greedy, self-congratulatory and self-made
In history books.

It’s been decades
Of anguish, Agent Orange, lost limbs, lost children and joblessness
There have been long lines to stand in
Forms to fill out, flatten and pile. A flattening and piling up
On street corners and stoops.

But there remains huge power in your breath between
The flattened piles
Small strengths
The scent of forgiveness


And nothing needed to prove with a gun.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

"The Mayan Philosopher"


By Dilys Sun

During my graduation trip to Mexico, I talked with a Mayan philosopher on the beach of Puerto Morelos. He sat on a dead, damp log, and chain-smoked with me. I did not smoke often, so I had to borrow cigarettes. He provided “luxury” ones, called Nat Sherman.

Mayans are the majority of this small Mexican town near Cancun. It has Cancun’s beauty but not the overwhelming number of American tourists. That’s why I loved it so much. The water of Puerto Morelos is clear and turquoise – the real Caribbean color. I didn’t see turquoise that night with the philosopher though. We were on the beach at around eleven; the water was black as if it had long been dead.

He was not a local. He was my Caucasian friend who might have discovered the wisdom of the ancient Mayans. Why else could he teach me such philosophical lessons? “Cup your hand around the cigarette so that it won’t burn out so quickly,” he told me. He was right. I barely smoked any of the first one. The second one lasted a whole lot longer.

“I don’t like talking when I sit like this.” He whispered into the wind, not looking at me at all. I nodded and mumbled, “I understand.” Then we were both silent for a long time. The silver moon shined on the water, revived it a little by giving it a shimmering veil. The water was still very quiet. It made me nervous.

A few Mexicans crowded under a streetlight on a concrete platform. They were laughing and shouting, far away but still visible and audible. I looked at them every so often to ensure myself that I was not swallowed by the darkness on the beach.

“Does not the ocean always make you feel a sense of greatness? It makes you happier and less restrained.” It was cliché, but I really felt that way, so I said it truthfully. However, my philosopher never answered the question. Like all philosophers did, he preferred asking new ones, “Have you ever wondered who is on the other side of the water?”

No, I had never thought about that. The sea always reminded me of nature, and conventional thinking encouraged me to think that way: sky, air, and ocean – the greatness of nature. “Why Cuba, of course, or Florida.” He answered his own question and chuckled. I nodded: yes, this Yucatan town would face Florida or Cuba, two neighboring but drastically different places.

The answer couldn’t be so simple. Why bother asking when the answer can be easily found on an atlas? “What is that person thinking right now?” Another question came out of him. I looked up to think about some kind of answer, instead I found a sky of star.

"Ever thought about who’s up there in the universe?” I wasn’t referring to any alien. I wished for another human being, one who would think like us. That question killed our conversation because we then started talking about physics instead of philosophy. Everything started to get an answer. We soon got up and left the sea.

When I was walking back to my hotel, the question still vibrated inside my head like a ringing bell: who is on the other side of the water? What is that person thinking, what is he like? What were the Mayans and Toltec thinking when they abandoned their glory in Chichen Itza? What are the Cubans like, for real? What is the true freedom of the Americans? Asking questions is always easier than coming up with answers.

Briefly, before we left the beach, I saw some silver dots on the water vibrating in a line. They were supposed to be from fishing boats. Instead of looking ordinary, they looked like the celestial stars. Maybe, I thought, humans are mimicking the glory above. Maybe there is some connection between these two places. Maybe that person up in the sky is asking the same question my Mayan philosopher just asked: who is on the other side of the water?

Dilys Sun, who grew up in western China, moved to San Francisco four years ago at the age of 15. She studied at the San Francisco Waldorf High School and this fall, she joins the class of 2010 at Stanford University.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Writing a Novel?


If you are looking for solid feedback on your novel-in-progress in a workshop setting, you might want to consider joining a small group of writers who will gather at the Rondaxe Novel Workshop, to be held the week of October 1, 2006 at a peaceful lakeside home in Old Forge, New York.

The conference is limited to six writers. Novelist Karen Novak, an Ohio-based writer whose books include Five Mile House, will lead the workshop. In addition to round-table discussions, Novak will meet one-on-one with each writer for an in-depth evaluation and critique. Novak has been teaching a similar novel-writing workshop for several years at the Chenango Valley Writers Conference, held at Colgate University.



The conference schedule includes writing each day, open readings in the evenings, and plenty of socializing (cocktails on the dock, cooperative dinner preparation, etc.)

Only two openings are available. For more information write to Karen Novak at karennov1@aol.com.

Friday, August 04, 2006

He and Me, Part Two

The Beginning of the End

We gave that fat cat everything he wanted, and especially all the food his heart desired.

Raising a kitten that way, as we learned, will create a monster that will destroy everything in its path. He ballooned up to 22 pounds in about a day. Just kidding. It was more like a year, but we thought that was normal for a cat. Well maybe it was, for a cat growing up on the African plains somewhere, eating gazelles and wild dogs, but not for a house cat in Harlem.

After my sister Ari and her husband moved down to Orlando, my parents moved down there with them. I was in my third year of college. Our little apartment in Harlem was empty, except for my brother and Mac.

I came back home for Christmas of 2002. That January, Macaroni got real sick. For 12 years he had had the asthma, the diabetes, but something else wasn’t right. His face looked slightly off-kilter. It looked a little ‘puffy.’ For a few days, he seemed normal enough – stealing food and just being himself, but with a fat face.

Then he started not to eat as much. When Mac didn’t eat, that was a red flag. My brother refused but I thought I should bring him to the vet.

The End

After waiting nearly an hour, I was called in. The room – which I have seen a dozen times over the years – looked smaller than ever. As usual, the shiny, cold looking metal table was in the center waiting for me to lay Macaroni down. I did. Slowly petting him, I knew that whatever was wrong with his face was serious. The vet didn’t disappoint.

How my mother ended up on the hospital room phone is kind of blurry. All I know was that Mac needed to be put to sleep. He had developed cancer.

“Can you do it, honey?” my mother asked.

I nodded my head into the phone, not realizing she couldn’t see me.

“Andy, I know it’s hard, but we all know he doesn’t deserve to live like this anymore. He’s suffered for so long.”

She was right. There was no question about it. Mac wasn’t that old, but his body had been through it all. But now, it was different. Still, I didn’t actually think that I’d be the one to have to kill my cat.

The vet handed me over the papers to sign. “I can’t do this,” I thought to myself, as I tried to keep my hand steady. Tear drops fell and penetrated the layers of the carbon-copies.

I handed the papers over to the lady in the white coat, and she glanced over them as if she had done this millions of times. She reached into a drawer and pulled a butterfly-shaped instrument with a long tube connected to it. She entered the point of the butterfly needle into Mac’s leg and at the other end of the tube, entered a syringe.

Macaroni looked at me and tried to meow but nothing came out.

"I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” I kissed him. “Mac, I’m so sorry.”

I called Mommy back. I was bawling. Mommy kept trying to reassure me that he was going to be OK. But I only heard bits and pieces of what she was saying. And whatever she said didn’t matter, because I was the only one there.

No Mommy.
No Daddy.
No Matthew.
No Ari.

It was just he and me.

The voice on the other end kept reassuring me that he was going to be ok.

“Andy. Andy, listen to me. He’s in a much better place now. He’s not sick anymore. He’s not cramped up in that tiny apartment. Believe me - God will take care of him.”

“I know. I know.” And that’s all I could say to my mother, who was a thousand miles away in Orlando.

“I’m sorry, baby.”

“I know.”

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Art for Peace: Calling all Young Artists!

Calling all young people!

The Railroad Street Youth Project is asking for submissions of artistic expression from young people around the world. These works of art will be displayed at a special art exposition to be held at the United Nations on September 21, 2006.

The group is calling for submissions of artwork in any medium. The project's aim is to ask young people to take some time to think about what peace looks like. What it feels like, in color, or in black and white. In sculpture, in painting, drawing, collage, photography, beadwork, or any other form of expression. The point is, how do you define and represent peace, either on the local or community level, or on a personal or global level?

The exposition will be part of the International Day of Peace celebration on September 21st, a worldwide movement to create a global ceasefire and day of peace and nonviolence. For more information about the International Day of Peace, go to www.internationaldayofpeace.org.

Meanwhile, you can contact Lannie Moore at the Railroad Street Youth Project at www.rsyp.org. Submissions of art are due by September 1, 2006.

At a time when the world seems overshadowed by war and carnage, isn't it wonderful that young people are taking the initiative to call for peace through ART?

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

"He and Me"

By Andrew Davis

I am pleading with him to stop, but he just ignores me and continues to knock over everything he passes – CDs, plants, picture frames, and whatever else is within reach. The more I scream at him, the more aggressive he becomes and it begins to seem as if there’s nothing I can do. Suddenly, though, he stops and begins to walk in my direction. There’s nothing to knock over where I am, so why is he coming over here? Oh my goodness.

“Leave me alone,” I shout, but my plea falls upon deaf ears. He quietly sits on my bed and I notice his eyes – they tend to become glassy when he gets like this. Then without warning, and with incredible speed, he leans over, bites my cheek, jumps on the floor, and begins to lick between his legs. “Alright, alright you fat-behind cat…I’m up.”

He is Macaroni, and He was my cat. His entire life revolved around food.

Mornings always started this way in the Davis household. No matter what we did, there was no stopping Mac. Some mornings I would wake up cold and uncomfortable because, without realizing it, I had thrown both my pillows and blankets at him trying to stop the destruction.

He took to his morning rampages when he realized that a simple meow would not get us up out of bed to feed him.

The first time I saw him on the war path I was lying in my bed. It was early one morning and I happened to wake up in time to catch him pacing back and forth, apparently thinking about how to get us up.

All of a sudden he jumped on my sister’s dresser, where there were piles of CDs.

He put his fat head down and just pushed the CDs off as if he knew exactly what he was doing. At the time I doubted that he did. Then I watched as he jumped to her adjacent desk and knocked all the picture frames down to the floor. It was the funniest thing I had ever seen in my life. It was like I had my own personal Discovery Channel going on in my bedroom. But instead of watching a chimpanzee learning to use a twig to fish for termites, I was watching a really fat cat force his owners to wake up and feed him.

OK, so when I say fat, I mean FAT.

Macaroni, or Mac for short, weighed in at 20 plus pounds.


That’s right. I said 20 pounds. That is fat. Just in case you didn’t know, cats, on average, weigh about eight pounds.

But then, Macaroni was never any average cat. There was a simple, but rather humiliating reason why our cat grew so big. I’m ashamed to say it’s because of how stupid we were when we first got him. Wow, we were stupid. We figured that since humans eat three times a day, cats needed three meals a day too. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Why not? How could a cat make it through a day eating only once?

That seemed downright inhumane.

So we gave that cat three squares, or should I say, three rounds, as in three cans of cat food a day. That’s right, one for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Could we have been more stupid? And on top of it, we fed him table scraps as if he were a dog. “Here, want some spaghetti? How ‘bout some Apple Cinnamon Cheerios after you finish that chicken leg?”

Very sadly though, Macaroni Ignacious Alloicious Davis (his full name) developed health complications from this overfeeding routine. He was still only a kitty when we found out that he had asthma -- and no he didn’t use a cat inhaler. When he reached eight, he developed diabetes. For four years, up until he was twelve, we had to give him a shot of insulin each time he ate, and some medicinal drops to prevent asthma attacks.

He was the sickliest cat I’ve ever known – with all his ‘human diseases’ – but he was still the happiest. Food was his life and he was constantly scheming about how to get more. Asleep or not, he was thinking about his next meal. And we always knew he had scored when we would wake to overturned garbage, or when we found a loaf of wheat bread that had holes in the bag. Yup, Mac had broken in, once again.

Stay tuned for more…

Andrew Davis grew up in Harlem. He has learned a lot about cats. Maybe the most important thing he has learned is that he will never love a cat quite as much as he loved Macaroni. This story is dedicated to Mac.