Being Present

For months I’ve been in hibernation mode. No writing. No major projects. Just getting by.

I feel guilty about that. Some deep-held pattern tells me my worth is determined by what I do and produce.

Rather than beating myself up I’m trying to learn to make peace with this place.

Mitch Ablom, who wrote beautiful, tragic works about losing first his mentor and later his adopted daughter, talks about the value of each day. He remembers and values the mundane as much as the extraordinary.

How often are we living only for the future? How many moments do we take for granted? How many moments will we want back one day?

Grief, terror and awesome beauty break through our automatic conditioning, bringing us into the now. So too does conscious attention.

So rather than judging myself for not doing something extraordinary I can be a better friend and better neighbor. I can be kind to myself. I can be present with whatever I do and know that it is enough.

An Ounce of Prevention

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. This has never been more true than when we look at the issue of crimes, prisons and rehabilitation.

Virginia spends $1.3 billion per year on the Department of Corrections. That’s $1.3 billion not going to schools, roads and public services.

As the DOC budget has grown, community service boards and schools have seen their budgets shrink. Yet education, treatment and opportunity are the very things that keep people out of prison. Shortsightedness will cost the state money down the road. More than that, it will cost human capital. Crimes will be committed, people and their property will suffer, lives will be thrown away because young men and women will not receive the help they need. Hurt people hurt people. Those who see no legitimate path forward will take an illegitimate one.

For years, I have volunteered in a mental health treatment unit here at Buckingham Correctional. I teach classes, facilitate programs and work one-on-one with guys here at the prison. Often the first message I struggle to get across is that each life has value. Most have been told, for a lifetime, that they are nothing, will never be anything. That’s powerful programming to overcome. I believed I would be a lawyer or counselor when I grew up. Most guys believed they would be dead or in prison by 18.

In conjunction with mental health staff, we provide support to address specific mental health issues. The remainder of our services address addiction and trauma, teach coping skills, build positive habits and work to lift hopelessness.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is a successful treatment modality. Consisting of mindfulness, emotional regulation, distress tolerance and interpersonal communication skills it addresses the whole of a person. The lessons can greatly help those suffering from addiction, mood and personality disorders and those just struggling with existential pain.

There is specific treatment for addiction and 12 step programs are available. There is also a focus on trauma, healing old wounds and rebuilding broken relationships.

The point is that all of these classes and services could be made available before prison. By expanding education and treatment services, kids could be prepared to navigate the challenges of life and given a chance rather than receiving treatment only once they have come to prison, caused great harm and become stigmatized.

Many people have argued that this is outside the purview of schools or governments and should be addressed in the home. That’s great for those who have healthy, loving homes to return to. After years of watching grown men cry as they recount being starved, molested and abused by parents and guardians I cannot believe we should leave this to families.

The playing field is not level. Some people have little chance to begin with. Failing to address those needs and issues throws away lives and hurts everyone by continuing the cycle of poverty, crime and incarceration. Not showing up for those in need means suffering the consequences one day.

Even if it was modestly successful, this shift could be huge. There are 37,000 men and women in Virginia’s prison system. If early treatment could keep just 10% from offending that is 3,700 individuals not committing crimes, at least 3,700 victims not suffering and $111,000,000 per year available for schools, treatment services, roads and emergencies.

So, as budget cut talks begin just remember, saving a penny now will mean paying a pound later. Cutting school budgets and public health services will mean condemning another generation to make mistakes and condemning everyone to suffer the consequences of those mistakes. Mental health treatment and programming in schools will prevent crime. Let’s fund programming and training for families and individuals. Let’s give those in need a chance and save everyone a lot of headache by doing so.

Becoming Part of the Solution

I will never know the experience of being a person of color in the world. I have, however, known the experience of being a minority, in prison.

In 2006 I was one of six white men in a sixty-four man housing unit. At times it was profoundly uncomfortable, mostly because of a particular individual who made his racism toward whites well known. It was the first time I wondered if this was how a person of color feels everyday in America.

I was the first time I realized even a fraction of the privilege I had lived with for my entire life. I had never once felt afraid or uncomfortable because of the color of my skin.

In 2007 I moved in with Patrick. He wasn’t the first black man I lived with but he was the first man I started to open my heart and my mind to on matters of race.

Patrick told me about his experience. He was black, he was also huge – 6’6, 260 pounds. I thought he must feel strong and powerful. I never suspected he had felt angry, afraid and ashamed.

Being big meant, as a kid, no one would fight him. They would hit him with a bat or jump him. Being big and black meant people locked their car doors when he walked down the street. White men and women would cross the street to not cross his path. Cops always drew their guns when they pulled him over or stopped him on the street. One woman threatened to mace him when he asked if she needed help with the groceries and stroller she was juggling.

Patrick invited me to the Pan-African group he attended. He wanted me to listen. He also wanted me to share. He said guys looked forward to talking openly with a white man about race.

I never went.

I called Patrick my friend but wouldn’t take an hour out of each week to listen and share.

When Colin Kaepernick took a knee I supported his right to do so, but it didn’t mean anything to me.

I thought not being racist was enough.

I was wrong.

I am sorry I didn’t take the time to listen and share. I am sorry I haven’t spoken up when faced with racism and injustice. I am sorry that by not being part of the solution, I have been part of the problem.

I Start With Myself

The last few days have stirred up a storm of memories and emotions. I have felt angry. Sad. Powerless. Lost. Haunted by the times I didn’t step up to confront racism and injustice. Haunted by trauma I have endured. Haunted by trauma I have inflicted on others.

At 16, I went to a protest I didn’t even understand. Angst and hormones and I wanted to burn the old order down. I can’t imagine how the oppressed and disadvantaged man feels.

At 18, there were warrants out for my arrest. Someone yelled that cops were outside. I ran out the back door of the upstairs apartment and right into a line of SWAT officers with assault rifles.

“I will shoot you dead, boy.” One of them said. “Hands in the air. Walk backward down the steps”

My hands shot up, throbbing as blood struggled to keep flowing through them. Adrenaline buzzed.

The stairs were covered in ice and snow. I looked back, hesitated, looked toward the cops. One raised his rifle higher.

When someone puts a gun in your face there is no cocking sound like in the movies. Instead, the barrel seems to grow larger, like you could walk forward into it.

I stepped backward and slipped. Another few steps and another slip. At the bottom my arms were grabbed. I was put in cuffs.

I was guilty of crimes of violence. I needed to be arrested. I don’t want to see an innocent man or non-violent man be called “boy” or have his life threatened.

I have felt a knee on my neck, holding me down, making it hard to breathe. I have had to jump back from a lunging attack dog whose handler loved to hide around blind corners to scare the shit out of prisoners. I have been told “cuff up or else” by men itching to do violence. I have choked on pepper spray.

I don’t want to see an innocent man or a non-violent protestor endure the same.

I want to see a different world. Today I start with myself. I have committed crimes and done great harm. I have failed to step up to racism. I have harbored resentment and prejudice.

I seek to heal where I have harmed. I seek to give where I have taken. I seek to forgive. I seek to do better. I hope our system can somehow do the same.

We Need to Unite for Progress

I am writing this as a prisoner serving 32 years for robbery and unlawful wounding. Also as a man who was living in a drug-fueled insanity 18 years ago, sure to be dead or to have hurt more people had I not been arrested.

George Floyd’s death was disgusting. It was depraved indifference, therefore murder. It was perpetrated by an officer with a track record of violence toward suspects. It was supported by a system that treats suspects differently depending on their color, income and zip code.

The system is broken. There is something wrong with the idea that any suspected criminal act, no less something non-violent, should be met with violence.

The system must change. Stricter standards for hiring and evaluation must be put in place. A paradigm shift is needed.

That will not happen by espousing hatred and violence toward the police. Police officers rightly arrested me when I was a danger to myself and others. That day and many others they did their job to keep the community safe. The services they provide are essential.

I have seen a great many people scream hatred. I have committed violence and seen many men do the same. Never once have hatred and violence resulted in the other realizing the error of his ways. Instead they only deepen the prejudices and broken ways of thinking that caused the problem in the first place.

If there is a way forward, it cannot be a war. Wars divide. They destroy. They kill. We need to find a way that builds. That unites. That gives life rather than taking it.

I don’t know what to do with the rage. I don’t know what to do with the tears. I just can’t stand to see hatred and indifference beget more hatred and pain.

Freedom to Choose

Someone once told me, “I don’t care what you do in your life, whether you choose to be a carpenter, a doctor or a bum. I care that you have as many tools as possible so that you are free to choose.”

Though I lost my way and made terrible mistakes, I am still shaped by those words because wisdom has no expiration date. It was waiting for me when I became ready to listen.

It makes me think about the men I’m incarcerated with, about their opportunities, or lack thereof.

Some were like me. They had choices and futures but got stuck in a bottle or a bag of dope. Lost their moral compass in animal craving and spiritual darkness.

Others seem cursed. Born addicted. Burned with cigarettes. Bones broken. Bodies violated. Spirits shattered. Shuttles from one foster home to the next. Starved of food, comfort and love.

Most were somewhere in between. Limited opportunities and bad choices led them here. Not inevitable but certainly understandable.

I grew up believing I would be a lawyer or counselor. Many grew up believing they’d be dead by 18.

I have been blessed to find teachers, inside and out, who helped me take responsibility for my choices, discover my options and grow into the man I am today.

In turn, I have been grateful to teach, mentor and share my experience. I have watched men blossom and change. Others have been unable or unwilling to depart from long-held habits. I can’t control their choice. My hope is to help them see they have one.

There are days life feels like a tragedy. Other days a comedy. A joy. Working with others reminds me I’m not the center of the universe. It keeps self-pity at bay and gratitude near.

Life is not fair. The playing ground is not level. I don’t know how to change that. Each day I wake up and try to share the love, support and wisdom that have been so freely given to me, so maybe one day we can all find the freedom to choose.

A Prayer Answered

For years I have started each day on my knees with two prayers. The first essentially says “Thy will, not mine, be done.” The second is a prayer for the people I have hurt.

I’m not sure what I’m praying to. I’m not sure if anything is listening. I am sure that my selfish will and best thinking landed me in prison for 32 years with a mile-wide wake of destruction and a long line of people I had hurt.

Starting the day on my knees is a reminder that life is not all about me. I am not in charge. I am here on this amazing planet and I have the opportunity to be of service rather than live selfishly.

It has been a struggle to live that first prayer lately. I have been afraid. Being locked in a concrete and steel box with Corona Virus running through the institution, hospitalizing and even killing guys is difficult to accept. I want to go home. I want to be somewhere else. I want all sorts of things that are not in my control.

The classes I teach are cancelled. The guys I work with are locked in their own boxes. Meetings are cancelled. The ways I find peace and offer service have been limited.

I have fought with the way things are. I have lost.

Then today, after weeks locked in the cell, we were allowed outside for an hour. The sun warmed my skin. The breeze cooled it.

In the fresh air I found acceptance without thought or question. I was able to be present and grateful and OK.

Testing in the Middle of the Storm

We’re locked down here at the prison so time doesn’t matter much. Without a schedule I find myself rising with the sun. Something primal wakes me up. I watch out the window as a distant mountain slowly turns purple. Orange and yellow spread into a blue sky.

At 9am yesterday the main door opened with a clink. I walked to the window in my cell door to see. Habit these days with so little going on. I had been up for hours but wondered if I was still dreaming.

A group in full hazmat suits and sealed respirators walked in. A gruff-looking Sergeant type in full camo with a face mask was directing things. The National Guard had arrived.

Our Covid-19 outbreak started two weeks ago. Six, then eight, then twelve men isolated. Four ended up in the hospital.

A week ago mass testing for affected units was done. Prisoners herded onto the rec yard to wait for hours. Finally tested in a long line. A whole day affair.

But something went wrong. None of the tests came back. Or they were lost. The stories vary.

Without results, the infected were not quarantined. Thirty two men in the honor pod live in single cells. The other more than 1100 men live in double cells the size of your bathroom. Cells with shared ventilation. Blowing nearly 40 years of dust and mold. No way to social distance.

So someone called in the National Guard. I always thought that was just a line from the movies. Or something that happens with hurricanes and tornadoes. Now we were in the middle of our own storm.

One by one they called us out of our cells. I was disappointed when I could hear them clearly. Had expected a Darth Vader hiss and distorted voices. The young Guardsman told me to lean back. That he would insert a swab two inches into my nasal cavity. It might be uncomfortable.

I laughed. Told him my nose has been uncomfortable since I destroyed it with cocaine 18 years ago. He laughed and swabbed away.

That was it. Back to the cell as they tested down the line. A few of the Guard working. Most standing around. Talk about getting all dressed up for nothing.

The idle Guardsmen and Guardswomen looked sideways at us. Not judging. Just curious. Men locked in cages were as alien to them as young men and women in hazmat suits were to us.

They left and we went back to the new normal. Locked doors. Lots of reading and writing.

Sometimes it’s scary. More often boring. Today it was at least exciting.

Sorry and Grief

It has been a week of grief. A scene on tv. A new smell. A passing memory. It all sends me near tears. Like forgetting a burden until my knees buckle.

I don’t know why. I just know there is a need behind the sadness. Something to be heard and honored.

Crying is a great hollowing out. Sometimes gentle. Sometimes violent. It washes away resistance to what is. Ushers in room for acceptance. Sometimes we have to accept terrible truths because terrible things happen.

Twelve years ago the man I call my grandfather lost his son to suicide. There are no words for that suffering. As much as we have talked and shared, I cannot begin to imagine his pain.

He would never be the same. A piece was lost forever.

But something grew in him. That hollowed out center now holds space. For love. For compassion. Even, eventually, for happiness. Not a moment taken for granted. He has done something beautiful with his pain.

I think of my grandfather when I cry. I thank him for showing me how to live, even in the face of the great and terrible.

Facing the Pandemic in Prison

Guards in Tyvex suits lead a diaspora of prisoners carrying trash bags with their meager belongings. They file onto the rec yard and spread out to claim a corner. They flee an enemy that cannot be seen.

These men live in units where the outbreak began. They walk, knowing their fate but clinging to hope they will not soon fill the gym. If the rec yard is a refugee camp, the gym is a field hospital.

They await test results. Marched through cramped hallways. Locked in cells breathing the same air. Cleaning the units after an outbreak is too little too late. The prison holds double the men it was designed for. Already inadequate ventilation has collected dust and mold over almost 40 years.

Virginia is projected to face more than $1,000,000,000 shortfall in its budget.

The Department of Corrections costs taxpayers $1,300,000,000 each year.

Staff and guards are underpaid, the turnover rate is as high as 90%.

Virginia abolished parole in 1995. There are no second chances for prisoners who turn their lives around.

Judges have complete discretion. One defendant can receive six years and another forty. Sentencing guidelines are regularly ignored.

Victims have few rights and regularly fail to receive compensation for their losses.

The system is broken.

The only hope is that, when we restart the country we take a hard look at things that weren’t working. We don’t have to go back to a broken way of life. Stopping means the freedom to start off in another direction.