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Posts Tagged ‘incarceration’

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Some reasons: required minimum sentences, for-profit prisons that lobby officials to get more business, lack of programs to treat addictions. Most US prisons don’t help people who commit crimes to learn better behaviors, and it’s hard for ex-offenders to find jobs when they get out.

According to the Sentencing Project, “In the last forty years, incarceration has increased with rates upwards of 500% despite crime rates decreasing nationally.”

The good news is that here and there, local sheriffs are experimenting with techniques to reduce recidivism, as are individual states. Whether the new programs are motivated by the wish to save public money, by compassion, or for any other reason, the trend is promising.

Mikaela Porter writes at the Hartford Courant about an initiative in Connecticut.

“For years John Pittman was known as a lifer in the state prison here. But now, he’s taken on a new identity: mentor. …

” ‘My philosophy is this: no one is going to save us but us,’ Pittman said in an interview. ‘I’m older than these guys – grandfather age – and if they can learn something from me without being in my situation with a life sentence then I felt I did my job.’

“The pilot program, called T.R.U.E. (Truthfulness to oneself and others, Respect toward the community, Understanding ourselves and what brought us here, Elevating into success) was set up [early this year] for about 70 18- to 25-year-old offenders at the prison. …

“The pilot program started with a visit to Germany, when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Correction Commissioner Scott Semple, Vera Institute of Justice President Nicholas Turner toured prisons there.

” ‘We saw people behind bars who had keys to their own cells, cells [they] decorated themselves,’ Turner said. ‘They wore their own street clothes and they cooked their own meals and they worked in the community. People who were there left better off than they had come in.’ …

” ‘This population of 18- to 25-year-olds is responsible for 25 percent of the incidents that we respond to within our correctional institutions,’ Cheshire Warden Scott Erfe said.

“Erfe said approximately 100 correction staff over three shifts will work in the unit, and that workers have taken three weeks of training on human development and behavioral impact, motivational interviewing, mediation and conflict resolution for young offenders, trauma-informed interventions for young adult offenders and family engagement.

“The program includes work on life skills, educational assistance, team-building exercises and family assistance.

” ‘Although this unit is still in its infancy, it is clear that this has a chance to be something truly special,’ Erfe said.” More here.

I particularly like the “U” of T.R.U.E. I believe a lack of self-knowledge probably underlies most of the world’s problems, not just incarceration rates.

Photo: Lauren Schneiderman / Hartford Courant
Inmates talk to Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy about a rehabilitation program at the Cheshire Correctional Institution. Mentors work with offenders between the ages 18-25 to both make facilities safer and prevent young adults from returning to prison.

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Dan Holin, who used to run a Concord-Lowell volunteer partnership called the Jericho Road Project, is now director of special projects at UTEC in Lowell. (UTEC doesn’t use the longer title its youth founders originally came up with, but since people ask, it was United Teen Equality Center.)

UTEC describes itself as a nonprofit that “helps young people from Lowell and Lawrence, Mass., trade violence and poverty for social and economic success. It works to remove barriers that confront them when they want to turn their lives around and offers young people paid work experience through its social enterprises: mattress recycling, food services and woodworking.”

On May 15, Acton’s Pedal Power joined members of the Concord-based Monsters in the Basement bicycling club to share their bike-repair expertise with young people who wanted to acquire bikes and learn to maintain them. Holin, a serious biker himself, organized the event to give UTEC young people two things that he said they normally lack: transportation and fun.

At the event, one of them, Sav, recounted his story of change. Before UTEC I never talked to anyone,” he said. “I was a problem child on the streets. I was hanging around with gangs, selling drugs. I don’t do that now. Seven months ago, I moved from a place with nothing positive. Atlantic City. I let my family know I’m ready to live life. It was hard for me to get into something good: I’ve got a lot of tattoos and a record. But I’m in the culinary program here. It’s a family. They make you feel like you are somebody that has a chance. They give me love like a family. They changed my life for the better. There are so many new things to do here. Yesterday I went kayaking.”

More here.

Sav, in sunglasses, got a good bike at UTEC’s bike event in Lowell on May 15. The bike will provide transportation to his job at UTEC. It will also provide some much needed fun.

051516-UTEC-bike-clinic.jpg

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I like stories about people who want to help others and then do it by sharing whatever skill they have.

Mary Wiltenburg writes in the Christian Science Monitor about a woman who conveys her love of knitting to men in prison. It took persistence to make it happen.

“The first warden Lynn Zwerling approached with her idea recoiled as if she might bite. The second wouldn’t meet with her. The third claimed to love the idea, then fell out of touch. Outrageous, said the fourth.

“The fifth, Margaret Chippendale, at a minimum-security men’s prison outside Baltimore, didn’t have much hope for Ms. Zwerling’s plan either.

” ‘She brought the program to me and told me: “Your inmates will get hooked. It will relax them, empower them,” ‘ remembers Ms. Chippendale, a 40-year veteran of Maryland’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. ‘And my gut reaction is: “Lynn, I’m always looking for ways to do that, but I’m not sure I’m going to get a bunch of big, macho guys to sit around a table and knit.” ‘ …

“Now, nearly three years later, 254 felons have passed through the Knitting Behind Bars program. Its annual budget is $350, which Zwerling and fellow volunteers raise selling yarn-ball necklaces at the annual Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival. Other donations come through Ravelry.com, a social network for knitters. …

“Adam Hoover is working on an electric blue-and-black striped hat, a fresh pirate skeleton tattoo still raw on his pale forearm.

“The idea that participants give many of the knitted hats they make to local elementary school students appealed to Mr. Hoover. ‘I know how it feels to be out there in the winter sometimes,’ he says. …

“Hoover and [inmate] Harris say the group is a place where they can relax and let their guard down. As they say this, the group falls silent while a red-faced young man with a spider-web tattoo on his neck tells Zwerling about his little brother’s troubles in foster care.

“Nowhere else in the prison do guys share their personal struggles like this, whispers Hoover. ‘I think the ladies bring it out of you,’ says James Russell, working on a pale blue hat beside Hoover. ‘They just have an ease, like you can talk to them about anything. Like a mother would do.’ ”

Read more.

Photograph: Joanne Ciccarello/Christian Science Monitor
Lynn Zwerling, cofounder of Knitting Behind Bars, sits in front of the Jessup Pre-Release Unit in Jessup, Md., where she teaches inmates to knit.

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I liked Jacki Lyden’s story at National Public Radio about some unusual artists in the 1960s.

“If you traveled by way of Florida’s Route 1 in the 1960s, you might have encountered a young, African-American artist, selling a lushly painted oil landscape from his car. They weren’t allowed in galleries during Jim Crow segregation — but motels, office buildings and tourists would buy their vivid works.

“Together, they formed a loosely associated band around Fort Pierce, Fla., that came to be known as The Highwaymen. At $20 a painting, they made their way out of agricultural jobs like citrus-picking and defined the cultural look of an era.

“Their paintings departed from an earlier tradition of landscape painting in Fort Pierce. A.E. ‘Beanie’ Backus, considered the father of the landscape movement there, caught the clouds and savannahs and inlets that were falling to developers in the mid-century. He would teach many youngsters who came to his studio, including the teenage Alfred Hair, leader of The Highwaymen.

“These artists would take off in their own direction. But success has brought enduring tensions on their home turf, raising questions about art, race and cultural legacy. …

“The who’s who of The Highwaymen can be tricky. (A curator named Jim Fitch coined the name in the ’90s and it stuck.) Gary Monroe, author of The Highwaymen, Florida’s African-American Landscape Artists, counts 26 original painters — 18 of whom are still living. That’s how many were inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004.”

Lots more.

Photograph: Gary Monroe
Alfred Hair (left) and Robert Lewis

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An Associated Press story on an “innovative program that allows inmates to reduce their sentences in exchange for generating power” caught the attention of NPR today. It seems that prisoners may volunteer to help “illuminate the town of Santa Rita do Sapucai [Brazil] at night.

“By pedaling, the inmates charge a battery that powers 10 street lamps along a riverside promenade. For every three eight-hour days they spend on the bikes, [the volunteers] get one day shaved off their sentences.

“The project in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais is one of several across Brazil meant to cut recidivism by helping restore an inmate’s sense of self-worth. Prisoners elsewhere can trim their sentences by reading sentences — in books — or taking classes.

“Officials say they’ve heard a few complaints the initiatives are soft on criminals, but there’s been little criticism in the country’s press or in other public forums.” Read more at National Public Radio.

Here is what such a bike might look like.

Photograph: Eric Luse, The Chronicle / San Francisco

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Today I walked over to the Moakley Courthouse on Boston Harbor to see an art exhibit that the Actors’ Shakespeare Project put together with youth in detention. It consisted of large photographs in which a young person, sometimes in costume, acted out a word from Shakespeare. I did not feel that the presentation in the low-ceiling hallway did the works justice — and having to go through metal detectors to look at them is a bit of a downer — but the concept is positive.

Deborah Becker of WBUR reported that the photographs were part of a larger effort to turn young offenders around with the help of art: “Using the arts as a way to heal and transform is the theme of an exhibit at Boston’s federal courthouse. The artists are children who have been involved with the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS), the agency that handles youngsters charged with crimes.

“At a recent reception of the artists and DYS officials, 17-year-old Ricky Brown was among the young people proudly describing his work. He helped paint a mural that covers the entire wall of a DYS district office in Springfield. He says it sends a message about kids in the juvenile justice system.

“It brightens up the whole building,” Brown said. “It makes sure to say that we’re not only there to get locked up. It’s there to let people know that we do work together, we do do something positive.”

Read more.

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I heard the singer Harry Belafonte give a speech today. Boy, is he ever “in the fray” at 85!

He covered his life story: the journey from New York to his mother’s Jamaican relatives to be raised by a poor but big-hearted village; service in WW II; involvement in black theater in Harlem; acting training at the New School with classmates such as Marlon Brando; and social justice activism with people like Eleanor Roosevelt, JFK, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela.

His “monologue” was loaded with intriguing and amusing anecdotes, and his face lit up in that wonderful youthful smile that many will recall.

I was interested to see where the talk would wind up, because it was clear that helping the poor and combating injustice still make him tick. He moved on from his own story to honoring the youthfulness and nonviolence of the Occupy movement and then zeroed in on his current concern, our prison system.

He asked why the country has more people in prison than any other country and why we spend more to build prisons than schools. He acknowledged that states like California and New York are beginning to find better ways to deal with underlying social ills. Belafonte himself volunteers at SingSing to help inmates get a college education.

Bruce Springsteen, he said, once asked him how to deal with some of the issues the country faces, and Belafonte answered that when someone knocks on his door, he opens it. He thinks it is important to hear whatever the knocker has to say.

I can attest to that. As a young teen I myself knocked on his door, and he opened it. I wish I could say I was knocking about social justice, but it was something mundane. That summer people were circulating petitions to keep a road from being built on Fire Island, which we loved partly because there were no roads. Harry Belafonte signed the petition.

Here he is, just having fun.

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I met Mary Driscoll in playwriting class last summer.

Mary has had a lifetime focus on social justice for marginalized people. She has traveled to foreign countries to work with refugees. For people with HIV, she has taught pilates and the healing art of telling one’s stories. She has performed with mission-oriented theater troupes. And she is the founder of  OWLL, On with Living and Learning, which helps ex-offenders build new lives after prison.

At Mary’s invitation, my husband and I found our way last night to what is a virtual artist colony in the long-abandoned but reemerging warehouse district of South Boston. In Mary’s loft apartment, one of the artists she has drawn into her orbit presented a wonderful cabaret show to raise money for OWLL’s production of Generational Legacy about mothers and children after prison.

Michael Ricca interpreted songs by Michel Legrand with great humor and feeling (including the theme song of our wedding, “What Are You Doing for the Rest of Your Life?”). Ricca is performing the songs and others by Legrand at Scullers in March.

My husband and I enjoyed talking to Mary’s guests  — artists, actors, musicians, social activists, old  friends. We’re especially keen to keep an eye on the doings of the Fort Point Theatre Channel in the Midway Studios building, where Mary  lives and works. The collaborative productions in the Black Box Theatre sound intriguing and offbeat. We like offbeat.

Phot0 Credit: OWLL

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Went to see a new play at the Lyric Stage, Superior Donuts. Liked it very much.

Will Lebow was affecting as a disillusioned Chicago donut maker who gets a different perspective on life when a young African American with big ideas applies for work (Omar Robinson). Funny and touching production.

This post is not a review. Rather it is “What I did on Saturday when not doing work I brought home from the office.”

In the morning I was editing an article about Venturing Out, a program that helps ex-offenders tap their street skills to set up legitimate microenterprises. Watching the play, I had a shock of recognition, thinking at first that the story would be about an ex-offender. It wasn’t.

There certainly are plays about such topics. Venturing Out produced one of its own in December, The Castle. And my friend Mary from playwriting class is gearing up for a similar production: “Generational Legacy integrates music and dance and centers around the life of one woman  and her son, both of whom have been incarcerated for non-violent  offenses, … and the challenges and barriers they face as they re-enter their communities.”

I haven’t seen the plays, so I don’t know if they are didactic. Superior Donuts wasn’t. Here’s a scene from it.

Photograph: Mark S. Howard, Boston Globe

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I blogged a while back about a prison arts program that seemed to help some offenders discover a more positive, less antisocial side of themselves. Today I have a similar story, this one from England.

“Allowing prisoners to take part in art [projects] can help cut reoffending rates in half, according to a report commissioned by the Arts Alliance. The group of charities has voiced concern that in tough economic times such projects may be cut.” Nick Higham of the BBC reports in a video clip here.

I admire people who have the faith in human nature to try to reach society’s lost souls with arts or yoga or meditation or any other enrichment.

My second cousin, Alex, went to college in Cambridge, Mass., and did an internship teaching meditation techniques to some serious cases at the Suffolk County jail. She loved it and was inspired to go to graduate school and work with others in trouble.

Her mother tells me her latest internship is with a social services agency an hour and 20 minutes away. “She is managing several extremely challenging cases and spends a lot of time making home visits in dismal housing projects. Her days include fighting for housing for her clients, calling the police when bruised and beaten women answer the door, mediating confrontations between single moms who are managing 3-9 children and school officials who won’t let a child ride the bus due to behavioral issues. Her clients have been victims of domestic and other forms of violence and most have substance abuse issues. Her job is to find resources to rehabilitate troubled families. She is learning fast how to be the ultimate problem solver, confidante and counselor.  Most of all, she is extremely happy and energized by the challenge.”

I am in awe that this tough work makes Alex happy and energized. We are lucky to have people like that on the front lines.

 

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I believe that people must take responsibility for their actions, that crimes should have punishments, and that every effort should be made to protect society from danger. But I don’t think society is protected if the place of punishment makes a person who committed a crime more angry and hostile than when she did it.

That’s why I like to post about the many kinds of volunteers who work with inmates to turn their hearts to better purposes. It may not always work, but it seems worth trying.

A while back, I blogged about one friend who works with ex-offenders through an organization called OWLL (On With Living and Learning: Jobs Skills for the 21st Century).

Now another friend has written about being accepted into a volunteer program at a low-level women’s prison near her home. The way this friend writes about her orientation, I can see the whole thing.

“I had a letter telling me not to bring a cell phone, smoking paraphernalia, medications, or sharp objects, and not to wear tight clothing, open-toed shoes, dangly earrings, or anything green or orange. … About half the volunteers were people of color and half were white. About a quarter spoke to one another in Spanish. More than half were middle-aged or older. One woman was in a wheelchair. So, it was a pretty diverse group. … There was lots of impressive high-tech security. There are lots of things we’re not allowed to do, like buy things for the inmates, or bring them messages. Or–and the volunteer handbook says this explicitly–help them escape or cover up an escape attempt.” (!)

Are touchy-feely prison programs all too naïve? Well, a highly skeptical prison warden at a Florida prison where there is a dance program admits that he came to see the benefit of women inmates having more-positive ways of expressing themselves:

 

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I wrote before about a program using the arts to help people in prisons get beyond the prisoner mindset. Here’s a similar story.

Michelle “Bankston, who has short, blond hair and a muscular build, has spent almost 20 years behind bars. She was incarcerated first at a medium-security facility here in Alabama, and then at a private prison in Louisiana (to relieve overcrowding, Alabama sends some inmates out of state), and finally here, at the Montgomery Women’s Facility, a sun-soused cluster of buildings on the outskirts of the capital city.

” ‘A while back I decided that I could either spend decades in the bunks, watching TV or playing cards,’ Bankston says, ‘or I could get out here and take the opportunity to write poetry and draw.’

“That she’s been given this opportunity to do her art is testament to the work of Kyes Stevens, an avuncular and outspoken educator, poet, and Alabama native. Since 2002, Ms. Stevens has headed The Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project (APAEP), which offers literature and art classes in a range of prisons across the state. The program is funded by Auburn University and an array of grants. The teaching staff consists of five Auburn-based instructors and a rotating cast of teaching fellows from the graduate creative-writing program at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Classes run for 14 weeks and are rigorously structured, like college courses, demanding a full commitment from students.”

Read the article in the Christian Science Monitor.

On a related note, I met a woman in my playwriting class who founded a nonprofit called On With Living and Learning, Inc. Mary Driscoll lives in the Fort Point Channel area of Boston and works with people who have been through the prison system. She uses theater to generate the catharsis that can result from their telling their stories and also to help them develop “job skills for the 21st century.” Read about her here. A script that Mary was working on in my playwriting class is now going to be made into an opera, with all sorts of helpers, like the Harvard-trained opera composer, the cabaret singer, and the reggae performer.

I can’t help thinking that when these creative people use their talents to help others, they are getting something special in return.

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