Lonely Road, Locked Away

A few months ago…and a few months before that…I told the story of a woman I loosely know who embezzled more than a million dollars from her employer.

That employer was the county government. She was in a lot of trouble.

This woman (let’s call her Judy) is dating the ex-husband of a friend of mine. Actually, he was my friend first; we worked together in the county’s IT department. Since I don’t believe in being friends with a married man unless I’m friends with his wife, I made sure I met Pam as soon as possible. It’s uncomfortable finding out a man you work with has been talking about you to his wife…and she’s not sure what to think about it.

Anyway, when they divorced, my loyalties leaned toward Pam. Her ex (we’ll call him Joe) began dating Judy, who looked remarkably like Pam. I mean, remarkably. Apparently, the similarities ended there.

I learned from Pam, who heard it from Joe, that Joe and Judy were convinced she’d get probation. After all, this was a first time offense, and she’d had cancer ten years ago. The prison wouldn’t want a 50-year-old woman with a history of cancer, right? I laughed out loud at that idea. Judy stole public funds for ten years, and the prison system could not possibly care less about your health.

She was sentenced last month. Today is her last day of freedom for nearly three years. She has concurrent sentences and this was a federal offense, and it adds up to her serving the whole time. I think she was lucky to get only 34 months. She could have been sentenced for up to 13 years.

I don’t know if it’s hit her yet, what she’s about to face and how long she’ll be there.

I have mixed feelings about all of this. What she did was terrible and foolish. Based on records published in the newspapers, she started out with a bang. It wasn’t a slow seduction into evil, for which I’d have more sympathy. It’s hard to know what to think.

Judy’s two daughters were out of her life long before all of this took place. They won’t let her see her grandchildren, and they’ve told her, actually, told other relatives, they won’t visit her in prison. Pam’s girls despise her, although for their father’s sake, they are courteous.

Speaking of Joe, he was planning to break up with Judy right about the time she was arrested. He stood beside her until now, but is ready to be free of the whole situation.

She simply doesn’t come across as someone who’s going to evoke a lot of sympathy.

Yet I don’t wish federal prison on anyone, particularly a 50-something woman with no background to prepare her for what’s ahead. People talk about “country club” prisons. That’s bullshit. There’s no such thing. Prison is a tough place to be, no matter what level it is.

Our jail and prison systems need an overhaul. Incarceration is meant to remove you from society, not punish you with subtle tortures until you learn you have no value. Remember, most of them will be back in society again, and need help to lead the lives they want to lead — and for everyone’s sake, should lead.

I wouldn’t have these mixed feelings if I believed Judy will be safe in prison. Being locked away is lonely and isolating, and that’s punishment enough. It’s a long day when so much is taken from you.

So my prayers are with her. Yes, she deserved to go to prison — but not one of the prisons in place in our country today.


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Cry First, and Water the Flowers

I just heard my friend Casey is getting a divorce.

Casey is 29, and this is her second marriage. She has four children, one with her current husband, two with her previous and one from a brief relationship when she was just 15. She’s been in prison, is a recovering alcoholic and lost her three oldest children for a time because of those issues.

Here’s the thing: she is honest, hard-working, attractive and kind. She puts other people first but doesn’t get pushed around, and no one is more important to her than her kids. We worked together last spring, and I would recommend her to any employer.

My heart is breaking for her.

Her time in prison was the result of a drunken argument she had with her mother. She admits to trashing her mom’s apartment after the fight, breaking a few dishes and possibly a chair. Her mom, however, called the police and said Casey had tried to kill her and had been trying to poison her for months.

Original abstract acrylic color painting on artistic canvas. Han

When mom sobered up, she recanted her statement, but the prosecuting attorney refused to drop the case. Casey told me her biggest problem in all of this was she ended up being “too honest,” and the judge flat out stated she didn’t believe her when she admitted to all her crimes in court, but believed she was guilty of much more.

She threw out the plea agreement and sentenced Casey to 20 years in prison, which in my state means with the right programs and proper behavior you’ll serve less than four. Casey served 3 ½ years, came out sober, educated and prepared to move forward.

She worked hard to make things right with her children, met the man she later married and took any job she could to make ends meet. Eventually potential employers saw past the background checks and hired her, and she proved herself invaluable. Her children were doing well, although her teenage son was driving her batty. As fourteen-year-old boys do.

But Jim, her husband, started treating her in the same demeaning manner the prison guards had, and with a broken heart, she left him. She wasn’t going to let anyone, especially the man who vowed to love her more than all others, consider her with such indignity and shame.

I know she will be okay. I believe she will rise above this as she has risen above the rest of the detritus in her life. Still, in this moment, she is crying herself to sleep and struggling to keep her emotions in check at work and in front of her children. She smiles a little and says, “at least I don’t want to drink.”

She has been through the fire and knows it will end, something she shouldn’t have to understand so well before turning 30. It’s hard enough to get through your 20s, but two divorces, a prison sentence and all that goes hand-in-hand with those events makes it a little…harrowing. I told her 30 was the best year of my life, and she has wondrous times ahead.

Then I let her cry.

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Raise the Level

Two years ago my church, in particular my priest, was fighting hard for hot meals for the inmates at our county jail. Up to that time the best they got was sandwiches, made with stale bread and what in only the loosest term possible can be called meat, such as bologna.

This wasn’t Oscar-Meyer bologna. It was institutional, and the packaging revealed it was a “meat substitute” just as the cheese used was a “dairy substitute.” This sandwich filler cracked and crumbled when you bent it. It was like eating cardboard.

Woman in jailInstitutionalization is intended to be separation from society, not a series of debilitating punishments that can affect your health and mental state for life. With that in mind, we sought to bring our local jail to its senses and feed the inmates something edible. Not gourmet meals, not specialty food, simply something edible.

Shockingly, we received intense and harsh criticism from the community.  My favorite was this, written in a review on our Facebook page: “these people should stop trying to change the world and focus on the Gospel instead.”

For anyone reading this not familiar with the Christian gospels, they tell of a Christ who reached out to the thieves and prostitutes around him, down to his dying moments. He didn’t say, “they committed a crime. They deserve whatever happens to them in there” as thousands in our community told us, in writing.

I recognize that different denominations and congregations practice their faith differently than I do. That diversity in beliefs and priorities creates tension as well as reasoned debate, and I won’t tout my beliefs as the Absolute Truth. But I do believe condemning someone to abuse and cruelty because they committed a crime is not a godly plan.

And malnourishment is abusive, to the mind and the body. I’m proud to say the Sheriff eventually relented and the jail now serves two hot meals a day, in addition to a cold breakfast. (Breakfast, it should be noted, was always a fairly decent meal in that jail.) When they make sack lunches for inmates on a work detail, it’s usually peanut butter and jelly, which I’m told (for jail food) is pretty good, too.

We now have a new sheriff who is quietly making improvements in what is known as the “worst jail in the state.” Previous sheriffs took pride in that designation. He doesn’t. He is raising the level in his jail, demanding the inmates be treated in a humane manner, knowing that ultimately, society benefits from such behavior.

Hope and Freedom sm2Eventually most inmates will be back among us, and if they come out of jail beaten down and emotionally battered, their ability to function well in their community is severely compromised.

If you commit a crime, you should pay the appropriate price. But jails are inherently bad places to be. We don’t need to take steps to make them worse.


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There is Help, There is Hope

Today I met a couple who are celebrating their 49th anniversary. That’s a long time of loving another person. Bill, the husband, is a Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD. He and Joy were married before he left to serve in that war, and she’s watched the symptoms grow over the years since he got back. Like so many, it’s gotten worse as time has gone by.

It started with anger, a constant rage. Now it manifests itself primarily in nightmares, and a fear of going to sleep and facing them once again.

Hopefully his discussions with another veteran of the same war, another man named Bill, will encourage him to get the help he needs.

walkers-486583_640If you haven’t been there, you don’t know, I’m told, and of course that’s true. I wasn’t there, but I’ve seen the war played out in the faces of the men and women who served those many years ago. They are haunted, just as servicemen and women returning home today from the Middle East no doubt are or will be in the coming years.

My friend Beverly told me of a man she and her husband knew, who had also served in Vietnam. He seemed fine; no one, not even his wife, knew of any problems. Yet one day he shot and killed himself.

“I can’t take the nightmares anymore,” his note read.

Post-traumatic stress disorder isn’t limited to veterans. Victims of sexual assault make up the largest number of its victims in the United States, and like so many, they are reluctant to get help. Yet it can be treated, quite effectively.

Another woman visiting the bed and breakfast I work at is a retired psychologist, and she spoke of some treatments that seem a bit off-beat, yet they’ve had tremendous results in even the most jaded of individuals. I don’t know enough about them to speak effectively here, but they relate to eye movements.

candleThere is help. There is hope. Local Veteran’s Administration hospitals have experts on hand, and rape crisis centers can also refer victims to someone who can change your life for the better. A friend of mine who’s a social worker for the VA tells me she sees even the most reluctant veterans improve dramatically once they’ve gotten some basic treatment.

If you are suffering from PTSD or any other mental disorder, let the nightmare end.


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Nightmare

The Least Among You

Suppose you met someone who told you she just got out of prison for terroristic threatening.

What would you think? This woman in front of you is well-groomed, dressed fashionably yet somewhat conservatively, certainly doesn’t have a prison-tough look or demeanor and timidly is talking about her seemingly impossible search for work.

Turns out, you’ll discover, she went to prison because she threatened her ex-husband with bodily harm while holding a knife, with the children in the next room. In fact, it was her oldest daughter who called the police. It wasn’t the first argument she’d had with her husband, although it had never gone this far before. The police had been called one other time, about a year earlier, when neighbors heard them arguing and were concerned. No arrests at that time, but there was a record of the call.

pink butterfly no bkgdNo drugs, no alcohol, no physical violence. She went to prison, did her time and while she was there got anger management training, a certificate in Microsoft software proficiency and another in office administrative skills. She’d had a good job before, had always been a good worker. Now she’s fighting to get work again as the first step in regaining custody of her children, who are living with her parents.

But terroristic threatening.

In today’s world, that’s a horrible thing to have on your record. It sounds like, well, you’re a terrorist, when in fact what you did, while criminal, wasn’t what we normally think of as terroristic. Legally, what I’m talking about here means you threatened someone with the intent to terrorize them, in other words, frighten them to the point they believe they’ll be harmed. It also means it’s a highly subjective crime to prosecute.

In the case above, she threatened her husband to the point her children believed he was at risk. While that wasn’t her intent, it was the predictable result, and she went to prison for it.

Being in prison, even jail, has a terrible stigma. There is reason for that; one has committed a crime. Let me explain, briefly, the difference between jail and prison: jail is where you go when you’re first arrested, before you’re convicted, and where people with shorter sentences will end up. It’s also where people who are going to prison will start out while they wait to be transported, and in some states that can be months. Prison is where people with sentences generally over one year serve their time.

Yes, these people have done something very wrong, and there is common sense in being wary when you encounter them. But more important than that, they are human beings who are struggling to make things right. For whatever reason, the woman I described above messed up to a point of breaking the law, and of course the underlying problem wasn’t something that started that night. This likely had been going on for some time. But who am I to judge her for the path that led her there?

To see prisoners and inmates as people first is critically important

in bringing about change in their lives. They have families, they love their children. While Whatever they’ve done in the past may cause you to argue they put themselves, drugs or some other thing before their children, and perhaps they did, now they want to figure out how to do the right thing. It’s a challenge for most, more than you can imagine.

monarch no kgdThere’s the young woman whose father was injecting her with heroin when she was eleven. What chance did she have? At the age of 21, she’d spent more of her adult life in jail than not. She had a three-year-old son, and she desperately wanted to do right. Today, at 25, she’s clean and sober, has an associates’ degree and a good job. All because people cared.

These stories aren’t the exception. More often than not, this is the type of history former prisoners have.

Most don’t want to go back to criminal behavior. I can’t say all of them have a heart of gold, but they have value. And yes, we should use discretion in the doors we open for those who have committed a crime in the past and not allow ourselves to be taken advantage of in any way. However, everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.

Many who ended up in jail or prison got themselves caught up in a cycle of bad behavior they didn’t know how to get of, or they weren’t fully aware how deep in trouble they were. They are far from hardened criminals. They are people who really screwed up, and have been held accountable for it.

Please know I am aware there are those violent offenders it is wisest to stay away from in all circumstances, and hopefully they remain in prison. And certainly we need to use caution around sexual offenders, although I suggest you find out the specifics of the crime. Not all sexual offenders are sexual predators. Urinating in public and consensual sex with a teenager, even if you’re underage yourself, can put you on the sexual offender list in some states.

I’m also aware, from my own experience, of the trauma and anger that comes from being the victim of a crime. These are all legitimate concerns.

red butterfly no bkgdYet we need to use wisdom appropriate to the individual situation, and can’t place all former prisoners in the same category. It’s easy to dismiss them completely rather than allow for the possibility of reform and rehabilitation, change and growth. You may not be the one to give someone the in-depth counseling they need to get back on their feet, but your smile and considerate behavior can give them the confidence to get through the day.

And if you doubt this is the right way to view others who have failed, remember this: it’s how Jesus treated the thieves and prostitutes, the criminals, around him, down to his dying moments.

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