Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Guys in Green, the end

Wisconsin incarcerates more of its Black population – 4 percent – than any other state in the country. African Americans comprise 6 percent of Wisconsin’s population but 45 percent of the prison population.

The guys in green are, for the most part, men in black skin. Fifteen graduates are Black. Three graduates are White. One of the Black graduates has white skin and black corn rows. Another appears Black, White, American Indian. Even the courts couldn’t decide his race. He is sometimes listed as Caucasian and sometimes African American on his many criminal complaints. Whether he is judged by his race matters little compared to the judgment he faces for his crimes, too many to list, the most heinous of which include incest with a child and sexual assault of a child.

He is outgoing, engaging, and well-spoken. He wears his graying hair in a stiff ponytail that trails the length of his long, slender back. He wrapped up the graduation by singing a song he wrote called “Grandma’s Hands.” I tell him it was lovely, and it was. He adored his grandma, misses her, hopes for a new one somehow. He said the song was a metaphor for the restorative justice program, a strict, caring, wise, ever-present guide. He said he needed his grandma’s guiding hands. I have a hard time believing those hands were very effective.

One of the White guys, who’s had a steady stream of well-wishers, is now sitting alone, wolfing his cake. I wonder if he feels like an outcast among his darker brothers. When he accepted his diploma, he took the microphone like an old pro. Turns out he is. He worked in radio in four states. He says he misses it. “Radio is an addiction,” he said, smiling. He is outgoing, gregarious even, smooth, well-spoken, quick with a joke and a smile, a bit of a showoff. We chat easily.

He used to work in the prison kitchen, but he gained 15 pounds licking out the giant bowls of cake batter. Now he works in the laundry, which is boring, he says, but he is happy to work. He said he had to get out of the kitchen, even though he liked the work. “The guy in charge, he and I didn’t – well, I have bakery experience. We didn’t do things the same way. It was time for me to get out of there, or I’d’ve gotten in trouble. I don’t want that.” He smiled and took another forkful of cake.

There are only about 200 jobs in the prison, and he says he is lucky to have one, even if all he does is lift and load green garb and press buttons. “It’s mind-numbing!” He laughs his easy laugh again.

In a moment, his face flashes anger, then resignation. Although it surprises me, I haven’t for a moment forgotten that this disarming, outgoing guy with the professional broadcasting voice is here for a reason. The reason is 25 years for first-degree sexual assault of a child, causing a child to expose a sex organ, and repeated sexual assault of the same child. He thinks he got a harsher sentence because he was a public figure. He is appealing the conviction. I leave him to finish his cake.

Being among these men is confusing. They are like men I see every day. They don’t look evil. There have no features that distinguish them from law-abiding men. They could be at the grocery store, the bus stop, the bank, in the car next to mine as I drive to school. The guys in green speak of their children, their jobs.

But they are not like men I see every day. Some of their crimes are shocking, frightening, sickening. Some are simply a laundry list of addiction. They have made terrible mistakes and many have made them repeatedly. As a society we have decided they need to be punished for what they have done and separated to keep the rest of us safe. I’m OK with that.

But they need rehabilitation, and the men in this program want it. And they will need help when they are released. It would be sad, it would be foolish, it would be wrong to let them have their 13-inch TVs and their 90 minutes of exercise three times a week and little else. They need to be prepared to re-enter society, and society needs to be prepared to accept them.

When the guys in green receive their diplomas, they are allowed to say a few words.

“This program should be required for all eligible inmates. It would reduce recidivism. People on the outside need to know there are offenders who do wish to repair the damage they’ve done.”

“I’ve learned so much. There’s going to be a world of giving back.”

“I am deeply sorry for the crimes I have committed. Those of you on the outside, thank you for not giving up on us.”

The guys in green are grateful for the chances they have been given to rehabilitate themselves. They want to rejoin society and do a better job of being men. For all our sakes, I hope they can, and I believe at least some of them will.

Part 1
, Part 2

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Guys in Green, part 2

The guys in green fidget in their chairs, eager to begin the graduation ceremony of the 13-week restorative justice program they have just completed. Graduation marks the end of the program and the beginning of understanding what their crimes have done to their victims, the victims’ families, their own families, employers, insurance companies, the criminal justice system, themselves. They begin to understand the physical, the emotional, the financial, the criminal, the punitive, the restorative. But it is only a beginning.

Tanya is a victim, a survivor. She was robbed at gunpoint by two teens who then pistol-whipped her. She limps, her face is crooked, her right arm is unnaturally stiff. When she takes your hand to shake it, she cannot grasp it because her thumb is pressed into her palm and her fingers remain straight.

Tanya taught the guys in green about the aftermath of her attack. “I walked around with a huge chip on my shoulder for about a year and a half,” she said. “Everything was focused on the offenders. The justice system, my friends, even my family talked about the offenders. No one talked about me. I felt like I had no voice.”

She said she got sick of being a victim. “I do have a voice, and I have a right to use it. The restorative justice program gave me this voice.”

She is a strong supporter of the program and participates in restorative justice programs throughout the state. “I take what I learn with me everywhere I go.”

This is the third restorative justice graduation ceremony at Columbia Correctional Institution. There were 20 slots available for participation in the program. Fifty-seven men applied. Two men dropped out before completion. Almost 900 are incarcerated at CCI. Most of these men will be released and reintegrated into society.

I talk with one man who will be released in five years. He wants to start his own business, a prison catalog company. There are four catalogs inmates may order from. He wants to start another. He knows what the customers want, he says, touching his Jheri-curled twists with the tips of his fingers. He would also like to start a restorative justice program of his own, or a prevention program for youth, so they don’t end up like he did – accepting a plea bargain to reduce that first-degree intentional homicide charge to second-degree reckless homicide and hiding a corpse.

He appears sincere in wanting to go straight on the outside. He talks about the ripple effect his crimes have caused. He is young and strong and hopeful. He wants to go to Madison instead of back to Milwaukee so he can start fresh, away from the influences and behaviors that got him in green scrubs behind red bars. He knows he might have to work for someone else for a while before he can start his business. I feel his excitement in doing something worthwhile. I wonder if he knows how hard it will be once he leaves the security of his brothers, the name most offenders give to their fellow inmates.

“Some men leave here and return to their families, their jobs,” said Rev. Jerry Hancock, who oversees the program. “Others will get on a bus to be taken back to their county of residence with their prison clothes on, and that’s it. It is our hope to give them choices. But many of these men have no hope to return to society. The average sentence of the men in this room is 20 years. Some will be here 40 years. They have to learn how to have some hope for their future in this community, this new community in this prison, and that’s what we’re really focusing on with the restorative justice program.”

What choices will a young black man from the ghetto who’s done time for homicide have? Who will give this man a chance? He remains hopeful. I find myself looking away from him. I feel bad for this murderer. I don’t share his optimism. I worry he will not be able to separate himself from his previous life. He won’t know how to do it or where to go for help, where to go to live, and he will fall into the same behavior that put him in prison. I worry that progressive, colorblind Madison will not give him a chance.

I hope I am wrong. I hope the program is effective and there are fewer Tanyas out there sharing their stories. I shake his hand, smile, and thank him for speaking with me, then turn to mingle with more felons.

Part 1, Part 3

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Guys in Green

Double fences topped with rolls of barbed wire surround the Columbia Correctional Institution. The observation tower provides a 360-degree view of the yard, the visitor and staff parking lot, and the green countryside that envelops the double-max prison. All who enter are buzzed in by security through two sets of heavy doors.

Visiting hours are posted below the sign-in window. Small, brown lockers are provided free of charge. Inside there will be allowed: No jackets. No cell phones. No jewelry. No recording devices. No weapons.

There are bathrooms and a payphone. There is a machine to change your bills to coins. There is a photo of the governor above a glass display case that holds examples of prisoners’ toils: teddy bears, books on tape, Braille books, crocheted hats, scarves and mittens for children, wooden bird houses, ancient eyeglasses packaged in ziplock baggies with the prescription handwritten on a white sticker in the corner.

The floor is tile, red and orange. The walls are concrete block, painted the color of an old woman’s teeth. The bars are brick red. The bars cover every window, every door.

We remove our shoes, place our locker keys in a cup, and proceed through the metal detector. Our hands are stamped.

“Don’t forget to get stamped,” says Susan, a prison ministry volunteer. “They won’t let you out if you don’t have a stamp.”

We wait by another barred door. When we are buzzed through, the door slides closed, and the deep sound of metal latching echoes in the tiny room between doors. The next door with the red bars opens and shuts, and we are in. We stride down a short hall and into the visitors room. There are windows at the top of the walls, the ever-present red bars across them. Ahead, chairs are arranged to face a podium. At the rear, small tables have tiny chairs, children’s chairs, on top of them. The wall has Sesame Street characters painted on it.

To the left are the men in green. They are seated in neat rows facing the podium. They smile when we enter. They sit up straighter and watch us. They nod. They look happy, nervous, expectant.

We sit. It feels like church. It’s quiet.

I wonder what got them here. I wonder how long they have been here, how long they will stay. I wonder if I have ever met any of them, if I ever will meet them when they are released, if they will be released at all. I wonder what I will say when I get the chance to speak to them.

I will soon find out.

Part 2, Part 3

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Lily pads in my head

It's funny-strange how one thought leads to the next, how you can be thinking about your clogged downspouts and only moments later, through whatever weird wiring is in your brain, you're thinking about that kid who beat you up in middle school.

What happened to that kid? The one who was a year behind so he was enormous and strong compared to you? The one who would select someone at random and throw them to the ground and laugh? The one who was completely at ease in rounding up 20 of his closest friends and encircling you, pushing you, taunting you, yelling in your face, humiliating you, punching your chin, your gut, holding your face against the ground with his foot while his friends laughed? If a guy can do that to a girl when he's 12, what can he do when he's 38?

I decided to find out, so I went to and looked him up. It appears he's been up to cocaine, drug paraphernalia possession, battery, disorderly conduct, failing to pay his bills and felony drunk driving. This is Wisconsin – it takes a lot to get a felony drunk driving charge here. The first offense isn't even a crime. His current address is the jail in a county north of here. His wife filed for divorce last year. Small wonder.

I escaped him relatively unscathed. He scared me, of course, and I did everything I could to avoid him after his little gathering of friends. I saw him on a bus once years later, and he smiled at me and nodded, flirting. He didn't even remember me. I about had to jump off the bus.

What prompted his ire? One day at lunch recess, he hip-checked me and sent me flying down a small hill, sliding over the snow and ice and landing against a pole. I was mad as hell. He and his friends thought it was hilarious. I was never one to turn the other cheek, but obviously I couldn't hope to retaliate physically. So I wrote something about him on a desk. It was, frankly, hilarious and terribly crude. Whenever anyone read it, they laughed and read it out loud, and everyone in the class would titter. I was pleased.

But he found out I was the one who wrote it. One of his friends said he wanted to see me after school. I said I wouldn't be around. "He'll get you at lunch then," he said, smiling. And he did.

It was the worst I ever had it, and it was a pretty tiny event in the world of abuse. The only thing it's really done for me is make me worry about my kids. I never told my parents. What aren't my kids telling me?

But that's a lily pad I don't want to jump on right now. Eggs. I think I'll have some eggs. Toast. Jelly. Tangerine. Cumquats. Mom. Feet. Saturday night British comedy on TV. Need to pick up that DVD from the library. Canadian. Idaho. Van. Summer.... Lily pads.

Oh! If you go to that link up there to find hardened criminals, you can find me! But I already blogged about that.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Cheerful Hump Day

OK, this picture isn't from today, but I got it onto my computer today. Sunday we got an outdoor kennel for the bunnies to run around in the grass without getting lost or devoured. This is Basil. The big black dude is Raven.

Kayleigh and Kelsey are in the kitchen laughing. I have no idea what they're giggling about, but they are really going to town. Both of them are occasionally laughing so hard they're not making any noise. I bet Kayleigh will get the hiccups shortly. She always does when she laughs hard.

Kelsey had her first soccer game of the spring tonight. It was rescheduled from last Saturday because of rain. She wasn't too excited about going. She likes practice, but she doesn't like games. She has massive performance anxiety. We saw it in dance, plays, her cousin's wedding, even the Christmas music concert at school. But she played pretty well tonight. She paid attention, passed well, even seemed to understand where to position herself some of the time. And she scored a goal, which always feels pretty special. She was happier at the end of this game than most. A little confidence goes a long way.

She lost a tooth yesterday, too. The tooth fairy usually brings coins from foreign countries. Last night's was two pence from England. Or Britain. Something. She has a Euro, a couple of Mexican coins, something from Ireland. When she gets American stuff, it's something wacky like Sacagewea dollars. She said a 50-cent piece would be acceptable, as would a silver dollar. The only silver dollars the tooth fairy has right now are from 1922 and 1923 that she got from her dad, and the tooth fairy doesn't want to part with those yet.

So, we looked up the value of the $1000 coin from Mexico on a currency converter. When I was there in the dark ages, $1000 Mexican was worth about 40 cents American, if memory serves me. Imagine my surprise when the converter said that $1000 coin was worth $95 American. I thought, uh... Mexico must have changed their money since I was there last. Through the miracle of Wikipedia (say what you will), I discovered I was right. In 1993, they revalued their money, and that coin, as well as paper money I still have, is now obsolete ... worthless. But I didn't keep that money with the intention of cashing it in some day. I just wanted a cheap memento. I guess the tooth fairy had the same idea.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Not a clue

I'm sitting here in bed, trying to write a book report. Gawd. I thought I had left that crap behind in fifth grade.

Anyway, my window is gloriously open, letting in the sounds of the birds in the tree that blocks my view of the telephone pole and cars squealing around the corner too fast. Just moments ago, it also let in the sounds of what had to be a teacher. Think teachers have a look? They also have a sound. There was some fatigued shouting in response.

Such sounds are typical after school. We live on a hill – rather steep, long one – and sports teams from many schools train as I sit and nibble a candy bar, watching them sweat and heave and hold themselves.

But it is not after school. It is not yet noon. It would be unusual for a gym class to come this far, but not unheard of. Anyway, I had to look.

I did not recognize any of the kids. They looked like they were probably about 15 or 16. Some kids were running, some were walking, many were complaining. As I said, it's a long, steep hill.

They were dressed not in gym clothes, but regular school clothes. Some had pulled their jeans up to their knees. One girl had pulled her T-shirt up and exposed her rather soft, bulbous belly. She held something orange in her left hand. It looked like a tube of deodorant. She held her boobs with her right hand. Another girl was carrying a large black purse and high heels but was wearing a pair of black skate shoes. A boy had an orange extension cord slung over his back. Another boy had a large, gold stud in his ear, a bright blue polo shirt with the collar up, and long basketball shorts. It did not look like the outfit he probably wore out of his house this morning. He was quite developed. He looked like he could probably run up and down the hill without breaking a sweat, but he walked.

The shouts continued. The kid with the extension cord started to run. The chick with the high heels stopped to adjust her socks then started to run, too.

I have no clue what they were doing. I'm guessing it was some team-building adventure exercise that very extroverted types love to inflict on others. The kids didn't look too thrilled. I wonder where they came from? I wonder where they went? I wonder what they were doing?

Friday, April 18, 2008

For Warren

There was a young man from Madras
Whose balls were made out of brass.
When he twitched them together
They played "Stormy Weather,"
And lightning shot out of his ass.


Swearing Mother had a great idea to start a limerick meme. So, she is tagged. Can't wait to hear hers.

RC, you're next.

Aims, you, too.

Warren, share with Marcia or something.

Sarah, like father like daughter. Lay something on us.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Rime of the aging homeowner

Water water everywhere
And made my carpet stink
Water water everywhere
I think I need a drink.

(Kidding, Eric! Ha! Joke! It's just a phrase to exemplify frustration! And drink rhymes – rimes – with stink! Ha!)

Remember a couple weeks ago? Kelsey hurled all over the hall? And I went downstairs to sleep? And it was flooded? Yeah.

Thursday we noticed the house was kind of smelly. Like rotten food. Like a cat box. Like rotten food in a cat box. Spring humidity can cause some carpet odor in the basement. We waited, expecting the smell to dissipate as the house dried out a bit.

Meanwhile, my professor cancelled Friday's class, so I had lots of time before I had to go to work. Excellent. I would be able to get so much work done. And – Eric was home, so we might have some time alone without kids. Freaky.

I did some light cleaning upstairs, then headed down to take a shower. The smell was really, really bad. I flipped on the light at the bottom of the stairs, and something looked wrong. Then I saw what it was. It was water. Everywhere. Another flood. Joy. Suddenly my day was not what I expected it to be.

The soggy carpet made that shplucky, spongy noise when I walked over it. I called Eric in, who had somehow missed noticing. He said he was wearing shoes and hadn't turned the light on. We started moving stuff, finding fans and resigning ourselves to a smelly, difficult, disappointing day.

I suggested we wet-vac, and Eric agreed it was a good idea. He sucked up about 20 gallons. That's a lot of water in a berber carpet. And when we dumped it into the laundry tub, it was nearly black. That's a lot of dirt to go with a lot of water. No wonder it smelled so bad. It was still wet after that, but better.

All that rain after all that melting snow was more than the ground could hold, so it oozed up into my house. It also came in through the window wells.

Oddly enough, we thought it would dry out OK. But the smell was just beyond our ability to withstand. There was no way any carpet cleaner could get that stench out.

We don't know how old the carpet is. It was here when we moved in 11 years ago. It had a few stains even then. We'd had it cleaned a few times, but it was getting pretty icky. So, conservatively, 15 years of dirt, barf, food and beverage, mold, cat, dog, mouse, rat, rabbit, fish and who knows what else and the carpet had definitely seen better days.

We moved our stuff and started ripping the nasty thing up. It came up easily. Surprising. Last time we had to tear up a section of carpet, the glue held tight. It took a couple of days to tear up about 16 square feet. We were expecting a nightmare. But the glue had gotten so wet, it wasn't sticky anymore.

Not much needed throwing away besides the carpet. There were a couple of books on the floor that might not recover. But, really, we were lucky. If you can call all this lucky.

Oh. I forgot. I guess I want to. Our fish died today. We had to move the tank off the carpet. So we prepared a nice (really, it's quite elegant) bowl for him. We made sure to add some of his evil water to the clean, new filtered water. We let the water warm up to a temperature he liked. Then I set about catching him. He's a shark. He did not want to be caught. He was getting pretty freaked out, but I thought it would be a great opportunity to get his tank cleaner. I finally caught the little guy in a large plastic cup. Before I could even carry him up the stairs he was dead. I guess I scared him to death. Poor little guy. I plopped his stiff body into his bowl, and he sank to the bottom. He started losing his color right away, too. He was such a pretty fish. Black with a red tail. Kelsey was beside herself and quite angry with me. She wiped her eyes with a Kleenex, then tucked the tissue away in a box to save her tears.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

My coolest story

This story is the front-page centerpiece in today's paper. My favorite part got cut. I had a feeling it would be. It was about the procedure for castrating a cat. Heh. I guess the editor thought such detail would be more than our fair audience could stomach.

So here's how they do it: The cats are knocked out. Their eyes get lubricating drops. Someone is there monitoring them. The vet comes along, makes a slice into the scrotum, pops a testicle through the hole, cuts the tissue surrounding the testicle, snips it off, ties a knot, and shoves the tube back in the scrotum. Repeat. No stitches. Then the animals get a shot to wake them up, and someone stays with them until they are awake enough to be put back into their cages.

I described it more delicately for the story. I thought it was pretty interesting, but I'm weird, apparently.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

On the heels of Easter, a sacrilegious post

Before you read this, bear in mind that only Eric has even an inkling of my feelings about God, Jesus, religion, life, death, and all that other good stuff. So, have a laugh, take offense, whatever. But don't judge – because you don't have a clue.

The kids and I went to Hobby Lobby yesterday to get some yarn for my mom. She is making a baby blanket for my newest unborn, born-again, Jewish great-nephew. (I'll explain that another time. Remind me.) Hobby Lobby is a Christian store. They are closed on Sundays to give families the opportunity to worship. They carry some items with religious symbols on them. I guess that's fine. Although I don't think Christmas and Easter are really about colorful wooden crosses, if people need to remind themselves of their devotion through home decor made in China or feel they need to remind others, it's sort of a free country.

So, it's getting warmer outside, and one of the end caps in the store had summery stuff. Next to wooden American flags and stars on sticks, there were beach balls. White beach balls with crosses and fish. No loaves, though. Anyway, I thought these holy balls were about the funniest things I'd ever seen. So I bought a couple. Because you need more than one, otherwise you don't have balls. Just a ball. And I like to have a ball, but these were holy balls. So two really were required.

Sick #1: These religious symbols are right next to the patriotic ones. Puke.
Sick #2: These religious symbols are on a beach ball. What the hell?
Sick #3: Oh, the joy of playing with Jesus balls?
Sick #4: Oh, the joy of kicking Jesus balls?
Sick #5: Oh, the joy of kicking the shit out of religious imperialism?

Somehow, my $1.98 seems well spent.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Thin line of blood

A series of tangents led me to think about famous people I'm related to. These relations are very, very distant. Ridiculously distant. So distant it probably doesn't count as related. But my dear brother, who worked at the genealogy library in Salt Lake, gave me the scoop a few years ago when Kayleigh was doing a family history project. I don't even know what side of my family these people are on, and Clint is gone now, so I can't ask. But I can claim them as blood. As if it matters.

Princes William and Harry, and their mother, Princess Diana. I guess I have to get over drooling over Wills. Darn. He's getting too old for me, anyway.
Humphrey Bogart and his kids, Stephen and Leslie
Tom Brokaw
John Adams and John Quincy Adams

Those are the only ones I can think of right now.

How about you? Have any relatives we've heard of? Any you wish you'd never heard of?

Saturday, April 05, 2008

I'll be damned

Since I seem incapable of a real blog entry right now, here's a little something I stole from the Rotten Correspondent, who stole it from someone else. I let fly occasionally on this blog, but it is no match for my real, live mouth, which costs me a fortune in swear money.

The Blog-O-Cuss Meter - Do you cuss a lot in your blog or website?
Created by OnePlusYou