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."    


Monday, March 2, 2009

Down Home at Freight and Salvage

Our friends picked the entertainment for the evening, and we followed along not knowing what a treat we had coming our way. The Freight and Salvage is representative of the gray haired folks who quietly filed into the performance that evening; I'm pretty sure few were younger than 40 and most were Country Joe McDonald's generation. I bet most folks there had been to a concert with a headband like the one of the singer in a poster, back in the day. Anti war protesting is just a thread of the fabric of life in Berkeley and has been since the days when Country Joe and most of us present milled around People's Park and maybe even faced the "Blue Meanies" as they pushed the people back on Telegraph nudging us along, their helmets secured. But tonight the hall was a lot of quiet murmurs as we got our coffee and hot cider and waited for the show to start.

Joe McDonald walked on stage with a haircut that in no way reflected the long wavy hair of the 60's; his eyes were clear and his message straight. Turns out he has spent a lot of time studying Woody Guthrie. Other than an association with the depression days, grapes of wrath period I knew little about Woody Guthrie. As Country Joe conveyed through Guthrie's writings the life Woody Guthrie led and the people he encountered, shocked oh's and ahs erupted from people involuntairly. To say life was hard during the depression doesn't do it justice and these writings filled in the blanks and cravices having those people and those experiences become a presence to us, just as Woody Guthrie himself did. The depth of this man in his descriptions of the men who took the long hard roads revealed in fact a full on romantic and a gentle person who saw on so many levels everything around him. His songs and his poems were stunning in their impact and the comparison to today and the talk of a depression had to be made as we sat in the darkness as Country Joe strummed his guitar and spoke.

It suddenly seemed ridiculous that our culture, present time, there is a conversation about depression as if it had something to do with the event that happened in the 30's. Cable news personalities rant and rave about the losses and possible losses all day long, throwing around terms that seem to convey that our country is in real trouble because we have all, all lived way too well for too long relying on a bunch of possessions that we couldn't pay for except through credit. Compare Woody Guthrie who spoke about the line around the hardware store where men went in and got JAKE, in the darkest days of the depression. It was supposed to help whatever ailed you and had a content of at least 80% alcohol; poisoning by alcohol was not at all uncommon in the 30's Guthrie reports in his writing. This was where men turned when all was lost and the road was all that lay ahead as they piled up the wagons with everything they could carry in the dust storms of Oklahoma.
And let's see by comparison, what we have to deal is all these entertainers on television telling us how bad it is amped up and hysterical. The truth is right across the board, we're all taking a cut in pay, a reduction in our lifestyle and hopefully having a look see at what is really valuable about our life and where we can contribute what extra we have, be that time or resources to support the community around us.

The highlight of the evening with Country Joe as he gave us Woody Guthrie was an amazingly sensuous poem - describing his profound joy at being a man found who didn't realize he was lost till he found himself in the heart of his woman. A gentle giant who suffered kindness in the face of defeat was who this man seemed to be. We sitting together left the show stunned and appreciative of the impact that man Woody through Country Joe, and Country Joe himself contributed to us. Our cup runneth over.