Whatever Works

 

When I learned that Nelson Mandela had found great strength in Invictus, I made copies of that William Ernest Henley poem and mailed them to two men I correspond with, currently behind bars.

Nice gesture, right?  But pointless. I see that now. Somehow, mysteriously,  a Victorian, “stiff upper lip,” Brit poem (i.e. language of his oppressors) spoke to Mandela. He discovered that rereading “I am the master of my fate” every day reminded him that his strength was with him. He chose that particular poem; he let it speak to him. Through him. And it worked.

Each of us has to chose our own Invictus. One poem can’t fit all. But whatever works for you, oh Lordy, I hope you’ve found it, find it!

Here’s what’s working for me these days: a cheesy* version of “How Can I Keep from Singing?” It sounds an echo in my soul, indeed!

*A word about cheesy: From an interview with Patty Jenkins, director of “Wonder Woman” (New York Times, June 1, 2017):

This may be a cheesy question, but what do you want people to take away from this movie?

Did you say cheesy? Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that’s what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis.

I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind. I believe in it. It’s terrible when it makes so many artists afraid to be sincere and truthful and emotional, and relegates them to the too-cool-for-school department. Art is supposed to bring beauty to the world.

“Something Close to Love”

What I love about this picture: it perfectly illustrates its accompanying excerpt from WellingUp.net. Check it out! (Keywords: Prison, Light, Green/Exercise Yard)

What else I want to say this picture: Those rusted bars only hint at the horrors of incarceration. But my intention for using this dangerously-close-to-prettifying photograph is to illustrate a prison conversion story—I am not trying to educate the general public re prison conditions. So, reluctantly, I chose what I chose out of thousands of gritty, heart-breaking, online choices.

(But, must say, I will be writing to my prison pen-pals with renewed care and tenderness from now on.)

 

 

 

The View from Here

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Saturday night, the Cambridge Bail and Legal Defense Fund hosted its first-evah silent auction. A needed, organic offshoot of Friends Meeting at Cambridge’s Prison Fellowship Committee’s ministry, the Fund supports those in need—with an additional, deal-breaking criteria:  People on Prison Fellowship must know these potential recipients.  People who come to our Wednesday night sharing circle—another PF initiative—or people our members visit in prison, or people our members drive so those folks can visit loved ones in prison, or people known or recommended to PF by greater Boston allies* also working on criminal justice reform; all are eligible for Fund support.

Because PF had never hosted a silent auction before and because we only had about six weeks to pull this thing together, we kept the event small and simple. In-house.  So there were a couple of moments Saturday night when the commodious Friends Room felt a little echo-y. Despite the less-than-optimal attendance, however, the Fund raised almost twice its goal! (In lieu of showing up, several people simply mailed us checks—much appreciated!)

Some examples of what was donated: To teach up to 4 people how to make a flaky-crust, amazingly delicious apple pie (my husband donated this so I KNOW all about his pie skills). Or 3 hours of gardening work. Or advice and support re de-cluttering.

Here’s What I Want To Say:

As point person for the auction, I interacted with the (mostly FMC) people who’d donated goods and services. Their generosity was deeply touching—especially those of modest means who nevertheless gave. Equally touching were donors who bravely offered something that involved some personal risk—but offered, anyway. So I have come away from this experience with such gratitude! To have witnessed such generosity, such trust—and faith—has been an enormous gift.

Because the Fund hoped to refill its coffers, the silent auction came from a place of need, offering a few,  selected-carefully “big ticket” items (in the hundred$, not the thousand$ range, I hasten to add). The comfortable and the well-off would, basically, have no choice but to bid for these $150 to $300 items, in other words. But the next time we run a silent auction, it’ll come from a place of community-building. We’ll have lots of $5 items. People can just show up on the night of the event with whatever they want to auction; the more stuff the better! We’ll do extensive outreach and publicity. We’ll fill that Friends Room!

Most important: The next day, pretty exhausted, I attended an FMC meeting for business. One agenda item elicited much discussion of “the invisible wall,” i.e. the barrier between our privileged, white, faith community and the rest of the world. “Why aren’t we running a soup kitchen,” someone questioned by way of example.

And I realized that my meeting does run a soup kitchen every Wednesday night at the sharing circle. My FMC entails weekly worship and communion with people of color. My FMC is teaching me the wisdom of Mother Teresa’s commentary: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” My FMC is building connections with others in greater Boston doing prison ministry, re-entry support for ex-offenders, criminal justice advocacy et al. My meeting overwhelms me with its generosity and love.

I say these things, not out of smugness but, like the blind man and the elephant, because I only know my own experience, what I, myself, have touched or been touched by.

So, maybe, PF’s outreach needs to begin with FMC?!

 

* Like the Committee of Friends and Relatives of Prisoners

Cops as Case Workers?

 

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Last Thursday, I “showed up”* at the Cambridge Police Department to attend a strange (and potentially wonderful) meeting.

The cities of Somerville, Cambridge and Everett, funded by a grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, plan to “reduce crime and improve safety . . . through a coordinated and sustainable intelligence-driven model that identifies the most prolific repeat offenders that impact all three jurisdictions and disrupt their offending through focused deterrence.” [from the meeting’s hand-out.] A second section explained: “The effort is coordinated by an interagency working group involving federal and local police, probation, prosecutors, and community resource personnel.” (That last bit; that’s me, apparently.)

Basically, “focused deterrence” means two things: “We know who you are.” and “I am a Somerville or Cambridge or Everett cop and I’m referring you to a drug treatment program because you need help.” Wow.

Prompted by the Annie Dookhan Situation, this initiative, called Operation RASOR (Regional Analytics for the Safety of Our Residents), elicits, not surprisingly, a schizoid response from me: “Oh, great! Big Brother and hassle and surveillance for ALL of us.” (If the police are to keep track of targeted ex-offenders, who else are they watching?)

and

“Great! Maybe this is how the paradigm, aka The War on Drugs, shifts.” Because if, for example, the police do begin to refer long-time drug users and dealers (the men and women they’ve been arresting since 1971, the year that hopeless yet devastating War began) to drug treatment centers, they will discover what re-entry “community resource personnel” already know: There ain’t enough. Ditto, finding a job in Massachusetts if you have a record. Ditto, in greater-Boston, finding an affordable place to live.

Maybe, just maybe, if men and women in blue join the re-entry conversation, something different can happen.

I believe it’s possible.

 

*To be present, to witness, to publicly identify as a Quaker.

Branded # 4: “Trust the process.”

 

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[Our apple-cheeked Friend rests on a Bible; beside him are a couple of others: Tim Wise’s White Like Me,Wendell Berry’s The Hidden Wound, Cornel West’s Race Matters.]

I had jury duty today, the first time I’ve been asked to serve in the thirty-four years I’ve lived in Massachusetts.

In the deliciously long silence of meeting for worship this past Sunday, I had plenty of time to reflect on this lofty, civic duty. I was already pretty clear that, unlike some Quakers, the raising of my right hand and swearing to uphold—whatever—was not going to be an issue. (I already knew that the “Place your hand on the Bible” thing doesn’t happen any more.)

More deeply, however, I realized that, in truth, (or as my mother used to say, “deep down inside”) I’d prefer not to put my life on hold, thank you very much. And realized that I’d been imagining that my Quaker principles would somehow automatically exclude me from selection. But realized that, really, short of magic-markering “I am a Quaker” on my forehead, there wasn’t any real way, no space on the “Juror’s Confidential Questionnaire” form to declare my religious affiliation. (Which is as it should be, right?) Further, I realized—with alarm and embarrassment—that actually, I’d been planning to use my principles to get out of jury duty!

An interesting challenge: How can I be a person of integrity and truth-seeking without using those principles to avoid something inconvenient?

I prayed over this for a long time. And it came to me: Trust the process. Two weeks ago, for example, as I watched the jury selection process for another case [see “Seeking That of God”], one of the questions those jurors were asked to respond to was, basically, Do you trust the testimony of the police over the testimony of someone else?

Hmm, I thought, anticipating today. Now there’s a question I’d have a hard, hard time simply acquiescing to.

So on Sunday, I decided that I would simply trust that were questions such as this raised, I would answer truthfully.

And they were and I did and was promptly dismissed.

Driving home, I had second thoughts. Maybe I should have kept quiet so that someone with lots of experience cheering and supporting defendants could have served.

But that’s not exactly “fair and impartial,” is it?

So I think I did the right thing. Do you?

 

 

 

October 25, 2012: “Don’t Blame Me . . . “

So, here’s the first op-ed piece I submitted to The Boston Globe:

“Don’t Blame Me . . . ”

            Remember those heady, “Don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts” days? Remember, post Watergate, post Nixon’s cringe-worthy “I am not a crook,” how proud we were to tell the world we lived in the only state Tricky Dick didn’t win in 1972? That George McGovern, principled, fierce opponent to the Vietnam war and Nixon’s Democratic opponent, died on Sunday at the age of ninety recalls those smug bumper stickers—when hailing from Massachusetts was something to brag about.

These days? Not so much. Sure, MA progressives can crow about our same-sex marriage first-state-in-the-nation record. And we’re tickled pink that Massachusetts’ health care insurance reform law (aka as Romneycare until it wasn’t) inspired Obamacare. But a recent, shameful scandal worthy of Watergate sullies our state’s we’re-not quite-the-rest-of-you reputation and may ultimately prove that, indeed, Massachusetts is exactly like Texas or Louisiana.

This is not about our hapless, 69—93 Red Sox. This is not about The Whitey Bulger Affair (The title of a 2004 MA House Committee on Government Reform report, “Everything Secret Degenerates: The FBI’s Use of Murderers as Informants” perfectly sums up that scandal.) This is about our very own drug lab scandal.

60,000 tainted samples, 34,000 affected cases; such numbers grant First Class scandal status. No one yet knows the full impact of this criminal justice nightmare yet one thing already seems clear: thousands of cases will be thrown out and thousands of inmates will be released. So re-entry, i.e. finding an affordable place to live in a safe neighborhood, a decent job, and, if applicable, staying clean and sober, never easy in the past, just got that much harder for all of Massachusetts’ former inmates.

Early days, as this scandal unfolded, it was tempting to wonder: “Why should I care? I don’t deal drugs. Neither do my friends. What’s this got to do with me?” When a possible link between a drug lab employee and a Norfolk County prosecutor surfaced, however, this scandal became everyone’s story. Prosecutors are a key part of our criminal justice system. Even the whisper that the Bay State’s system has been co-opted affects us all.

A 2009 Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) study explains why:  “Prosecutorial misconduct is an important issue for us as a society, regardless of the guilt or innocence of the criminal defendants involved in the individual cases. Prosecutorial misconduct fundamentally perverts the course of justice and costs taxpayers millions of dollars in protracted litigation.”

Further, The NCIP report stated: “Those empowered to address the problem—California state and federal courts, prosecutors and the California State Bar—repeatedly fail to take meaningful action. Courts fail to report prosecutorial misconduct (despite having a statuary obligation to do so), prosecutors deny that it occurred, and the California State bar almost never disciplines it.”

In their July 2, 2012 report, “Wrongful Conviction and Prosecutorial Misconduct,” John Floyd and Billy Sinclair concluded: “We strongly suspect these alarming NCIP findings, suggesting the lack of disciplinary action in cases of prosecutorial misconduct, will be similar in the remaining 49 states.” Like Texas. Louisiana. Massachusetts.

Every day, of course, from the Berkshire Superior Court to the Falmouth District Court, honorable prosecutors ably perform their jobs. But this possible link between Annie Dookhan, who allegedly tainted those 60,000 samples and George Papachristos, who has recently resigned, is a flashing red light.

Let’s not ignore it. Let’s contact Attorney General Martha Coakley and David E. Meier, appointed by Governor Patrick to investigate this scandal, and let them know that we demand a thorough and rigorous investigation.