Saturday, May 30, 2009

Renewal of spirit, renewal of heart

It's eighteen years since my husband and I begin to notice and enjoy each other's company. We found more and more things and people and places that we enjoyed, so we took out the contract and were married in Oakland on Grand Lake under the arches there. We arrived in a vintage purple limosine, some friends played our favorite song at the time -Mo Better Blues. They were joined by a person who happened to be there playing his trumpet with his case open, and rather than disturb his day, they added him into the mix. My almost grown children stood and watched -not unpleased, but not sure what this would bring to their life. We considered our getting together a miracle having survived some loss and trauma around the relationship department.

And really we went along coming together to have a good time whenever we wanted to do that, cause we were certain that was what our life together would be about. Not that we didn't have our share of life's tragedies-the loss of his parents, my parents and most heartbreaking my daughter to cancer. My husband was amazing, and I made my way day to day not knowing if I would return, much less WE would return to a happy life. Within a year or so, we had found our way back to a rhythm of enjoyment in our life and each other that seemed to create new options and joys BECAUSE we were happy with each other. When the last child fairly abruptly left the house, we were in this odd position - looking to see what was the cause of our relationship if not to have people to take care of and a schedule around those events. That journey took us to a renewal of spirit and heart, but I'll save that for another day, another blog.

Bringing the light back-when it's good, it's very good!

Summer in Berkeley - nice and cool, 67 degrees, blue jeans and down vest will get you all around town! Berkeley Bowl, never to be beaten in terms of the array and quality of vegetables and fruit is jammed pack. It's kind of an intelligence course, just to get around -there are no aisles, and everything would be cool except for the people who are talking on cell phones while folks dodge and weave-bags of produce in their hands. Still folks are willing to make contact, meet eyes and exchange pleasantries. After all, it's Sunday!

So different from the Whole Foods crowd who are considerably younger and more well dressed, and well, I'll go ahead and say it, not as concerned with the bill at the line at the end of their shopping. Having lived in the neighborhood for 13 years, I've noticed the snob effect at the Telegraph Whole Foods has given way to the real competition they have for good produce and better prices at Berkeley Bowl. The Deli at the Whole Foods however is hard to beat. One lady standing next to me said, why cook for one, and I think most of the people who show up there are cooking for one or two at most at the prices offered. Still the quality is very consistent and reliable. I've come to Whole Foods this Sunday for the Coconut Sorbet, which if you haven't tried it would be worth the quick trip in and out-Coconut Bliss. It tastes like it sounds.

The students are gone this time of year, most returning in August so this time of year you can get into the theatres and restaurants, no problem and parking is accessible. Sunday in the City, Summer in the City-Berkeley is a treasure.

Berkeley's Ed Roberts Center

In 1970, four students in wheelchairs were the first to leave the rehabilitation centers, or the homes from which they never left, to be admitted to UC Berkeley. The condition required was that they stay in the Cowell University Hospital so they could be cared for, in and out of their wheelchair, bathing, and daily life maintenance. It was a time when people were considering new ways to hold truths, some call it a social revolution period race, sex, age, class and physical disability found light of day in that time frame. Ed Roberts was one of those students, and he and his fellow mates at Cowell soon came up with a system of using Attendants who would allow them to live outside of Cowell independently. This was truly the beginning of the expectations of those with a physical disability that restricted their movement without a wheelchair to leave behind the life in the back room of their homes or the rehab sites, and go to college, get jobs, get married, have families, have their voice counted and heard in the community. For some time, University of California Berkeley was the Mecca of the Physically Disabled as a result. Ed Roberts graduated from Berkeley and in time went to Sacramento and was one of the authors of the Rehabilitation Bill that took the experience of these students from the site of Berkeley, California to all over the United States.

The neighborhood had a lukewarm response to the development of the Ed Roberts Center at the Ashby Bart Station initially. Real estate concerns about blocked views, etc. and the neighborhood felt sold out-"why South Berkeley, they wouldn't put up with this at the North Berkeley Bart Station." Many edgy, irritable, even angry meetings. That was years ago when the first notice was given of the Ed Roberts Center, a place of professional services and offices for the Physically Disabled community. South Berkeley is where La Pena, the former Black Panther office, and Starrey Plough, the first IRA bar are centered. People are active politically and skepticism is parr for the course. But as the construction takes form, the steel rigors and concrete are poured, you can literally feel the Ed Roberts Center pulling up and pulling together this neighborhood: Pushing the neighborhood towards a future worth sharing uniquely Berkeley.

AB999-Books not BARS-no more ADD ONS

The mothers, sister, brothers and people who together from Ella Baker's Book Not Bars got on a bus May 7th bound for Sacramento; they carried the message that youth given a sentence by a judge and or jury should not have time Add Ons made by the staff of the institution in which they were incarcerated. Unlike the judge and the jury, there is no accounting by staff as to the decision to ADD ON weeks or months which on record increase the time for up to 15 months longer on average. As well, AB999 challenges the use of solitary confinement as punishment for weeks and months. The real issue was represented by one young man who had successfully gotten past his term in jail, past his probation; he said he entered the system at 12 and returned to society at age 19, but he was still 12 in terms of education, ability to work and emotional maturity. The Need for youth to get education and job training to have a means to enter society is for the offenders, that's true. But who benefits really is the taxpayer upon whom the cost of $200,000 per offender per year lands. AB999 looks to have job training, education and the hope of a future. In comparison, in states where the prison system does provide education and training, there is a huge difference in what happens after the youth offender leaves prison. The ratio of return is a third of the Youth System in California. Throughout the country, the reality of the failure of the prison system in terms of the cost to everyone is unquestioned. In the case of the youth in prison, we have the possibility of providing the education and the job training with the taxpayer's dollar rather than paying for extended stays that cultivate waste and reduce the possibility of reentry. Van Jones is now in Washington working with the President on Green Jobs for the country, having started Green Jobs in Oakland with Ella Baker Center.

AB999, the bill resulting from Books Not Bars going to Sacramento on May 7th will soon reach the Assembly in California. The choice seems simple: the prisons are overcrowded, the economy is not job training friendly and the cost in dollars and lives is unforgiveable if we don't provide a change in policy now.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Taking it to Sacramento-AB999-Ending the waste of a whole generation.

A group from Books not Bars, of mothers, sisters, brothers and fathers climbed on a bus and went to Sacramento on May 7th to promote AB999. The good news it will be presented to the Assembly in the very near future, having passed from them to public attention and the assembly. This is a bill that would prohibit there being Add ons to the length of time a youth offender can have additional time added on to his sentence by the guards and staff at the places of incareration. Without a judge, or any kind of hearing or even acknowledgement to the courts, the jail staff unlike the judge and court have no accounting to any group outside themselves for the actions taken against a youth in jail. But that's not all the AB999 is about, it's about the guards not putting youth into solitary confinement for weeks and months, it's about providing education and training, so these young people come out not deadened angry young men. With the recidivist cycle a given under the current condition, AB999 would require the monies spent by taxpayers to be directed toward improving the conditions: job training, education for starters, of youth in such a way as they are ready for reentry, rather than left to waste. What we'd be paying for as taxpayers would be on the positive side instead of keeping the jails staffed and recycling the offenders. as people who have been given the opportunity to return to society rather than youth wasted.

President Obama said not that long ago, that it's important to our country that the youth of today get the education and job training they need to have our country keep its place in the world. All the young people. Not just for the individual, but the future we're all going to take part. Books Not Bars has taken that to Sacramento and is working not just for the youth, their families and the future that will be there, but they're working for all of us for a better world.

Keep a look out for AB999 will be in the State Assembly this week.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Youth In Prison: The Waste of a Whole Generation

In shock and grief, Oakland faced the death of 4 police officers with 20,000 mourners at the Oakland Coliseum. The bagpipes mournful call with the view of 1000's of raised white gloved arms saluting the caskets was shocking as the four caskets were brought in with the families following each casket. Clearly these were fine irreplaceable officers, husbands, fathers and sons. Not two hours later, on talk radio 560, the savage voice raged that the fault of this whole incident lay at the hands of the liberals. He raged that shoot now, ask questions later should be the policy after these policeman were gunned down.

Today I sat with a very small group looking at the other victim of this carnage. The young man who with his 10th grade education in special education classes who had not met with his parole officer and was so desperate to avoid going back to the jail where he had spent 2-4 years that he shot the two officers who came to his car for a traffic stop, then blasted through a door with a AK47 two other officers. Waiting all week for this scheduled meeting this morning since it offered a discussion about youth in prison, the Books Not Bars meeting did connect with the most recent events.

In the room, there were young men on probation having found their way, there were mothers who had gone step by step through the process with their 16 year old, or their 12 year old through their prison experience. One woman said her son had spent the last seven months in solitary at the age of 17, then was released and soon had broken the rules of his probation again, and now at 25 was beginning to comprehend the tragedy of his situation. She expressed her strong belief that all youth should be tried as youth until the age of 25, and that being thrown into a cell the early part of their lives has the effect of being a person less able to function in the world once he gets out.  As one young man said-hey, I was in jail at 12 and when I got out at 19, I was still a twelve year old; he reflected the fact that once a youth is in the system, for every infraction:  wrong attitude, didn't pick up the tray quick enough or whatever, time can be added to the term of his sentence.  The guards do not as is the case with adult offenders have to get approval or bring recommendations to any other authority other than their own.  Add Ons-adding months or years on a sentence by a court to a youth offender,  as they are called keep youth in jail, untrained, unskilled and under their probation terms they cannot relate with others who have been in jail.  And guess what we're all paying for this laying to waste of young men, black, spanish or white, both the cost of their extended stays and for their return to society, untrained, unskilled - their young bodies and minds in holding pattern from which they have neither the experience or the expectation to be found or find their way the benefits of personhood.  Books not Bars is going to Sacramento in May to bring about a bill that will stop the unilateral  unstructured and often self perpetuating system that kills the body and the soul of youth in prison.  Many of those present were planning to go.

Here's what it was like for one of the moms present.  For Lynn, a phone call from the police that they had her 14 year old on a assault charge:  her son had taken a gun to school to deal with a bully and the gun went off grazing the boys thigh when he came after the kid.  Lynn's mother was the first black police woman in San Francisco, and she couldn't have been more taken by surprise.  She expressed it as - as a mom, you just do what you can do, everything you can think of doing to get to your child what you can to support them.  She got in there and presented herself to the guards and staff and did what it took to have a regularly pleasant interaction with them every time out so they knew her and they knew her son- that made a big difference.  She was invited to be part of the parents group and they actually together and presented some changes to  benefit the conditions of the prison.  She said as much as she invested in knowing what was happening for her son and other prisoners, they only knew about 20% of the actual experience for them. But out on parole is the most dangerous time, the mothers all agreed.  The meeting had skits to demonstrate how the mothers could assist their sons to stay within the guidelines and how to relate to the probation officers;  the ability to manage probation one mom said is basically by keeping them home and helping them get work. Keeping them out of trouble taking very seriously the parole officers authority and keeping the rules as the first priority is the task at hand.

But back to Lovelle Mixon, a man on parole who was so desperate not to go to jail or deal with his parole officer that he committed a murder suicide.  Really that's what it amounts to.  The tragedy of murder suicide is the muffled cry in the night in the wealthiest of suburbs , Cupertino, Fremont, San Francisco just in this year alone.  How is it that a job loss, a relationship betrayal or loss in the suburbs, and a desparate young man turn to guns and not other human beings? Guns are not the answer, Books not Bars is looking from all sides to see what is.  One young man at the meeting said that when his mother was killed by the police when he was ten, he was sent to a community house that everyone in the room recognized the name of and there were approving, "ohh, that was good" throughout the room.  "Yes," he said, "they just kept being nice to me, every day all day and I was angry every day, but they kept being nice to me and that helped me remember who I was."