Poetry by A.C. Clarke: “Woman Made of Glass”

A.C. Clarke’s “Woman Made of Glass” won the 2011 Grey Hen Poetry Competition for women over 60. This contest offers a top prize of 100 pounds and is now accepting submissions through April 30.

I came across this exquisite poem while updating our Winning Writers contest database listings. The author and contest sponsor have kindly given me permission to reprint it here, since it’s no longer available on their website.

Woman Made of Glass

She can’t remember a time
before she knew to be careful.
No-one told her. She knew.

Her mother used to squeeze her hand so tight
she felt it crack. She’s never risked touch since,
spent childhood dodging

the heavy arms of aunts,
washing the smears
of fishmouth kisses from her skin.

She saw a glass frog once, its guts
clustered in its belly like pale grapes,
its small heart pittering:

took to covering herself –
high collars, sleeves to wrists,
thick tights. Like an old maid

said her mother. No boyfriends yet?
the aunts would dig. Afraid of heat
she’d hurry past lovers fused

mouth to mouth in a doorway,
likes cool places still,
country churches on weekday afternoons,

the saints in the windows filtering light
through sightless eyes.
Old glass is her favourite: its pieced

stories jewel-bright, simple, remote
as fairy-tale. Does she notice
how sometimes it bulges towards the base

thick and opaque, as if all these years
it’s been sneaking out of the leaden cames
slipped down, let itself go?

My Story “An Incomplete List of My Wishes” Wins Bayou Magazine’s Fiction Prize

My short story “An Incomplete List of My Wishes” has just won the James Knudsen Editor’s Prize in Fiction from Bayou Magazine, the literary journal of the University of New Orleans. Contest judge Joseph Boyden said, “This gorgeously written story snuck up and walloped me. It’s beautifully conceived and executed. A gem, with a last line that made me shiver.”

Thank you, Mr. Boyden and Bayou! The story will appear in the spring 2012 issue. Order a copy here. Meanwhile, enjoy the opening paragraphs:

An Incomplete List of My Wishes

The best funeral I ever went to was Wallace P. Chandler’s. I didn’t know him hardly at all, I just went because everyone else was going, and because his death was unexpected it seemed important.

You know how it is, on a warm and buzzing May afternoon, with those bits of tree fluff lazing through the air, and the campus seeming half-empty but tense with last-minute cramming, all those boys and girls discovering where’s that library their parents paid for — on that kind of day, especially if you don’t really know the dead person, the mildewy cool of the college chapel feels kind of nice, and the sawing of the cello makes you tired, and you start to wonder about things like how Wallace P. Chandler, who was so fat and short that his thighs made you think of elephant-leg umbrella stands, could possibly fit in that coffin. And when you realize how interesting you find all this, you know it’s wrong, but it’s the only thing you can feel, hard as you try.

I can guess why I’m remembering this today, but I wish it would stop until this plane hits the ground in Dallas, where I’ll have more than enough to occupy me. Not hits, no. Glides through the air, a south-west beeline from Boston, bulleting like the football my ex used to throw to our boy Scotty every sunny weekend in our fenced-in backyard in Watertown. The grass never grew back right; the stood-on, skidded-on patches still show.

The stewardess clip-clops down the aisle in her fake military jacket and pencil skirt to offer us coffee, tea, orange or tomato juice. If this silver tube of stale air and us packed inside it began to smoke, to dip and lurch, to maybe hesitate for a second on a tilt and then, with a shrug, scream nose-down into one of the fruited plains, there’d be no time to find out our favorite hymns. No time to ask which priest, or whether gardenias were a better choice because Aunt Peggy was allergic to lilies. Some of us on this flight may have made a list like that, tucked into a safe-deposit box, but I haven’t.

Feeling incomplete? Order a copy of the magazine to find out how it ends!

Massachusetts Three-Strikes Sentencing Bill Draws Criticism

Hat tip once again to Lois Ahrens at The Real Cost of Prisons, who sent me more articles and a factsheet from Families Against Mandatory Minimums about three-strikes sentencing.

Here’s FAMM’s summary of how the legislation currently pending in the Massachusetts statehouse would change our existing three-strikes law:

Current law: Requires maximum sentence for any felony conviction if defendant was previously sentenced twice to three or more years in prison. Parole is possible after serving half of maximum sentence.

Bills passed in November: The House and Senate both passed habitual offender bills. Both bills rewrite the existing habitual-offender law and add a new section to the law. In other words, both bills provide two different ways to prosecute someone as an habitual offender.

How bills would change ‘3-strikes’ law House bill

■Option 1 — changes to existing law:
• Removes requirement that prior felony convictions must result in prison sentence of at least three years. As a result, any two felony convictions that result in any sentence to state prison (could be as little as one year) would count as first two “strikes.” Any felony conviction would count as third strike, resulting in maximum sentence possible.
• Pushes back parole-eligibility date until two-thirds of maximum sentence has been served.
■ Option 2 — new section:
• Creates a list of about 60 dangerous or serious offenses, more finally tuned list than Senate’s.
• Like Senate bill, all three offenses must be from the list, although sentences for first two offenses must have been to state prison.
• Like Senate bill, defendant gets maximum sentence possible for third offense, with no parole. Critics say this section, as with the Senate bill, offers no access to parole.

Senate bill
■Option 1 — changes to existing law:
• Pushes back parole-eligibility date until two-thirds of maximum sentence has been served.
■ Option 2 — new section:
• Creates list of about 60 offenses; most — but not all — are dangerous or serious.
• All three offenses must be from the list.
• Sentences for the first two offenses could have been as little as one day in jail or prison.
• Defendant gets maximum sentence possible for third offense with no parole.
Critics say this section is problematic because it would include those who received very short sentences for the first two “strikes” due to a minor role in the offense or other mitigating factors. Also, critics say, the section offers no access to parole.


This article by Lisa Redmond, from the Feb. 22 Lowell Sun newspaper, lays out the background and arguments for and against the legislation:

The state’s former corrections commissioner is blasting a proposed bill that could restrict parole and increase sentences for three-time convicted felons, saying the law is too broad and an overreaction to high-profile crimes.

“We are driven by high-profile crimes and our sympathy toward victims, but individual mistakes in judgment cannot be cured by systematic reform,” said Kathleen Dennehy, former commissioner of the state Department of Correction….

…One of the criticisms of both the House and Senate bills is that there is no room for judges to consider mitigating factors, essentially handcuffing judges to specific sentences, Dennehy said.

Critics have also described the law an overreaction to the December 2010 murder of Woburn Police Officer John Maguire.

Maguire, a Wilmington resident, was killed in a shootout during a botched jewelry-store heist with career criminal Dominic Cinelli, who had been released on parole despite receiving three life sentences for various crimes.

Maguire’s murder triggered an outcry from the public to fire members of the state Parole Board who released Cinelli on parole. The board has since been revamped and members replaced by Gov. Deval Patrick.

“The death of Officer Maguire was more like a wake-up call than an overreaction,” said Laurie Myers, spokeswoman for Community Voices, a victim-advocacy group.

Myers, of Chelmsford, noted that the three-strikes bill was filed in response to the Maguire murder and the 1999 slaying of Melissa Gosule at the hands of a repeat offender who was released from prison.

“Our communities are not equipped to handle violent criminals and suggesting that they are is not only irresponsible it’s dangerous,” Myers said.

“The number one priority of the Legislature should be to protect our communities, not find excuses when they fail, or choose to make other budget items a priority,” she said.

State Rep. Kevin Murphy, of Lowell, who is also a defense attorney, said, “This is a reasonable piece of legislation.”

While opponents of the law have stirred the debate by saying that convictions for minor offenses will count as strikes, Murphy said that’s not the case.

“The list has very serious crimes,” Murphy said. The crimes include: rape, assault and battery on a child or elderly causing serious injury, and armed assault in a dwelling.

In his State of the Commonwealth address last month, Patrick said he supports a “balanced bill” that has “some reforms on the habitual offender” to be “as tough as we should be on the worst of the worst.”

Opponents fear the law would result in increasing a prison population that is already bursting at the seams, with taxpayers footing the bill.

The Center for Church and Prison estimates the three strikes law would trigger an increase of more than 1,500 more prisoners each year or $125 million a year to the state’s $1 billion-per-year corrections’ budget.

Read the whole article here.

In the Worcester Telegram, Clive McFarlane’s Feb. 17 editorial contends that three-strikes will permanently condemn people who could have been rehabilitated:

Jamie Domiano-Ayers’ husband was an addict and, as a result, she became one, too.

And when her husband landed in jail, she said, she had to come up with the money to satisfy her addiction.

She did, illegally, compiling a rap sheet between her mid-20s and early 30s that included convictions on assault and battery with dangerous weapons and breaking-and-entering charges.

But today, Ms. Domiano-Ayers, 49, has recovered from that dark period of her life.

She talked of her successful drug treatment, of her educational attainment — an associate’s degree in business administration in 2004 and her current pursuit of an associate’s degree in human services.

She is also proud that she has helped raise her five children to lead strong and productive lives.

But successful rehabilitation stories such as hers will likely occur a lot less in the future if Massachusetts lawmakers push through a “three strikes” bill that dramatically increases jail time for repeat criminal offenders, according to several speakers at a forum Wednesday at St. Andrew the Apostle Church on Spaulding Street.

According to speakers at the forum, a legislative conference committee is weighing two versions of a three strikes bill, both of which would increase the types of crimes for which an offender could be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Tatum Pritchard, a lawyer with Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, said 688 infractions are classified as felonies in Massachusetts. Under current law, a third conviction on any of these felonies could draw the maximum sentence, with or without parole opportunities, she said.

Under the Senate’s version of the bill, 59 of the 688 felonies would draw maximum sentences, including 22 felonies that would draw life sentences. The sentences for these 59 felonies would be served without parole.

Currently, according to Ms. Prichard, only a murder conviction carries life without parole in the state.

The House version of the three strikes law reduces the number of felonies that carry maximum sentences without parole to 55, removing four that lawmakers felt were not serious enough offenses to meet such harsh penalties.

Ms. Pritchard said her organization is pushing to remove at least nine more low-level felonies from the list of 55.

She also noted that under current law, a defendant must serve three years or more in state prison before any of his convictions qualifies under the three strikes law.

However, under the House bill, that incarceration period for each conviction would be reduced to one day or more in state prison.

More significantly, qualifying conviction time for three strikes offenses that carry the maximum sentences without parole has been reduced to one day or more in a state prison in the House bill and to one day or more in any facility in the Senate bill.

“This means that people who have only spent a day or two in a county jail and who have never been to state prison can now get the maximum sentence without parole on a third conviction,” Ms. Prichard said.

She is also troubled that unlike the three strikes law in other states such as California, the bills before the Massachusetts Legislature remove judges’ discretion from sentencing.

That means the state’s 14 district attorneys would have the upper hand in these cases, she said.

Ms. Domiano-Ayers, who is now a member of the Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement board of directors, said she is skeptical that prosecutors would show much empathy for a defendant with low-level convictions such as hers.

“If these bills were the law of the land years ago, I would have been put away for 10 years and that would have had a devastating impact on my family,” she said. “My children more than likely would have been placed in foster care, and there is no telling what would have happened to them.”

Critics of the bills say they are not asking lawmakers to be soft on crime, but for them to check the abundance of available research on three strikes law and to listen to both sides before making a decision, steps legislators seem unwilling to take, according to Benjamin Thompson, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition in Boston. He who spoke at Wednesday’s forum.

“They (legislators) are people of good will who have made a bad decision by pushing public policy that was developed and crafted on emotion alone,” he said.

He is right, but there is still time for lawmakers to act rationally. There are too many lives at stake for them not to listen to both sides on this issue.

Donal Mahoney: “Ash Wednesday”

A day late (due to travel) but hopefully not a dollar short, I wish my readers a blessed Lent. This season, I am giving up worrying about my friends’ problems. Worrying, of course, is different from praying. I hope to pray more, relying on Jesus’s care for all who are dear to me, and remind myself that it’s not all on my shoulders.

Meanwhile, faithful Reiter’s Block reader Donal Mahoney seems to be thinking along the same lines, with this wistful poem about the difficulty of rescuing a friend from the past. Thanks for sharing.

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday I saw Quinn again,
first time in years, sailing the streets,
weaving through people,
collar up, head cocked,
arms like telephone poles sunk
in the pockets of his overcoat,

the brilliant pennants of his long red hair
waving over the stadium
where years ago he took my handoff,
bucked off guard, found the free field,
and heaved like a bison
into the end zone.

Tonight, when Quinn wove by me muttering,
I should have handed him the ball.
I should have screamed, “Go, Quinn, go!”
He would have stiff-armed the lamppost,
found the free field again,
left all in his wake to gawk

as he hit the end zone
and circled the goal posts,
whooping and laughing,
flinging the ball like a spear
over the cross-bar,
back to Iraq.

Visit Donal’s poetry blog here.

Gay News Roundup: Marriage Advances, Teens Struggle

First, the good news: Marriage equality is advancing. Gov. Christine Gregoire signed legislation this past Monday that will make Washington State the seventh in the nation to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples. On the other side of the continent, the New Jersey legislature passed a gay marriage bill, only to have it vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie. Proponents of equality have until December 2013 to try to gather enough votes for an override. Meanwhile, the Maryland House of Delegates narrowly passed a marriage equality bill yesterday, which the Senate and the Governor are expected to approve.

So, it gets better, right? Well, yes and no. GLBT teens in non-affirming communities are still extremely vulnerable. They’re bearing the brunt of the right-wing backlash against the integration of gay and lesbian adults into mainstream institutions.

This month Rolling Stone published a must-read feature article about the teen suicide epidemic in Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin school district, whose Congressional representative happens to be Mrs. Ex-Gay Therapy, Michele Bachmann. The district’s policy against discussing homosexuality prevents them from cracking down on anti-gay bullying, with fatal results. High school freshman Justin Aaberg’s story is one heartbreaking example:

…In April, Justin came home from school and found his mother at the top of the stairs, tending to the saltwater fish tank. “Mom,” he said tentatively, “a kid told me at school today I’m gonna go to hell because I’m gay.”

“That’s not true. God loves everybody,” his mom replied. “That kid needs to go home and read his Bible.”

Justin shrugged and smiled, then retreated to his room. It had been a hard day: the annual “Day of Truth” had been held at school, an evangelical event then-sponsored by the anti-gay ministry Exodus International, whose mission is to usher gays back to wholeness and “victory in Christ” by converting them to heterosexuality. Day of Truth has been a font of controversy that has bounced in and out of the courts; its legality was affirmed last March, when a federal appeals court ruled that two Naperville, Illinois, high school students’ Day of Truth T-shirts reading BE HAPPY, NOT GAY were protected by their First Amendment rights. (However, the event, now sponsored by Focus on the Family, has been renamed “Day of Dialogue.”) Local churches had been touting the program, and students had obediently shown up at Anoka High School wearing day of truth T-shirts, preaching in the halls about the sin of homosexuality. Justin wanted to brush them off, but was troubled by their proselytizing. Secretly, he had begun to worry that maybe he was an abomination, like the Bible said.

Justin was trying not to care what anyone else thought and be true to himself. He surrounded himself with a bevy of girlfriends who cherished him for his sweet, sunny disposition. He played cello in the orchestra, practicing for hours up in his room, where he’d covered one wall with mementos of good times: taped-up movie-ticket stubs, gum wrappers, Christmas cards. Justin had even briefly dated a boy, a 17-year-old he’d met online who attended a nearby high school. The relationship didn’t end well: The boyfriend had cheated on him, and compounding Justin’s hurt, his coming out had earned Justin hateful Facebook messages from other teens – some from those he didn’t even know – telling him he was a fag who didn’t deserve to live. At least his freshman year of high school was nearly done. Only three more years to go. He wondered how he would ever make it.

Though some members of the Anoka-Hennepin school board had been appalled by “No Homo Promo” since its passage 14 years earlier, it wasn’t until 2009 that the board brought the policy up for review, after a student named Alex Merritt filed a complaint with the state Department of Human Rights claiming he’d been gay-bashed by two of his teachers during high school; according to the complaint, the teachers had announced in front of students that Merritt, who is straight, “swings both ways,” speculated that he wore women’s clothing, and compared him to a Wisconsin man who had sex with a dead deer. The teachers denied the charges, but the school district paid $25,000 to settle the complaint. Soon representatives from the gay-rights group Outfront Minnesota began making inquiries at board meetings. “No Homo Promo” was starting to look like a risky policy.

“The lawyers said, ‘You’d have a hard time defending it,'” remembers Scott Wenzel, a board member who for years had pushed colleagues to abolish the policy. “It was clear that it might risk a lawsuit.” But while board members agreed that such an overtly anti-gay policy needed to be scrapped, they also agreed that some guideline was needed to not only help teachers navigate a topic as inflammatory as homosexuality but to appease the area’s evangelical activists. So the legal department wrote a broad new course of action with language intended to give a respectful nod to the topic – but also an equal measure of respect to the anti-gay contingent. The new policy was circulated to staff without a word of introduction. (Parents were not alerted at all, unless they happened to be diligent online readers of board-meeting minutes.) And while “No Homo Promo” had at least been clear, the new Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy mostly just puzzled the teachers who’d be responsible for enforcing it. It read:

Anoka-Hennepin staff, in the course of their professional duties, shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation including but not limited to student-led discussions.

It quickly became known as the “neutrality” policy. No one could figure out what it meant. “What is ‘neutral’?” asks instructor Merrick-Lockett. “Teachers are constantly asking, ‘Do you think I could get in trouble for this? Could I get fired for that?’ So a lot of teachers sidestep it. They don’t want to deal with district backlash.”

English teachers worried they’d get in trouble for teaching books by gay authors, or books with gay characters. Social-studies teachers wondered what to do if a student wrote a term paper on gay rights, or how to address current events like “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Health teachers were faced with the impossible task of teaching about AIDS awareness and safe sex without mentioning homosexuality. Many teachers decided once again to keep gay issues from the curriculum altogether, rather than chance saying something that could be interpreted as anything other than neutral.

“There has been widespread confusion,” says Anoka-Hennepin teachers’ union president Julie Blaha. “You ask five people how to interpret the policy and you get five different answers.” Silenced by fear, gay teachers became more vigilant than ever to avoid mention of their personal lives, and in closeting themselves, they inadvertently ensured that many students had no real-life gay role models. “I was told by teachers, ‘You have to be careful, it’s really not safe for you to come out,'” says the psychologist Cashen, who is a lesbian. “I felt like I couldn’t have a picture of my family on my desk.” When teacher Jefferson Fietek was outed in the community paper, which referred to him as an “open homosexual,” he didn’t feel he could address the situation with his students even as they passed the newspaper around, tittering. When one finally asked, “Are you gay?” he panicked. “I was terrified to answer that question,” Fietek says. “I thought, ‘If I violate the policy, what’s going to happen to me?'”

The silence of adults was deafening. At Blaine High School, says alum Justin Anderson, “I would hear people calling people ‘fags’ all the time without it being addressed. Teachers just didn’t respond.” In Andover High School, when 10th-grader Sam Pinilla was pushed to the ground by three kids calling him a “faggot,” he saw a teacher nearby who did nothing to stop the assault. At Anoka High School, a 10th-grade girl became so upset at being mocked as a “lesbo” and a “sinner” – in earshot of teachers – that she complained to an associate principal, who counseled her to “lay low”; the girl would later attempt suicide. At Anoka Middle School for the Arts, after Kyle Rooker was urinated upon from above in a boys’ bathroom stall, an associate principal told him, “It was probably water.” Jackson Middle School seventh-grader Dylon Frei was passed notes saying, “Get out of this town, fag”; when a teacher intercepted one such note, she simply threw it away.

“You feel horrible about yourself,” remembers Dylon. “Like, why do these kids hate me so much? And why won’t anybody help me?” The following year, after Dylon was hit in the head with a binder and called “fag,” the associate principal told Dylon that since there was no proof of the incident she could take no action. By contrast, Dylon and others saw how the same teachers who ignored anti-gay insults were quick to reprimand kids who uttered racial slurs. It further reinforced the message resonating throughout the district: Gay kids simply didn’t deserve protection.

“Justin?” Tammy Aaberg rapped on her son’s locked bedroom door again. It was past noon, and not a peep from inside, unusual for Justin.

“Justin?” She could hear her own voice rising as she pounded harder, suddenly overtaken by a wild terror she couldn’t name. “Justin!” she yelled. Tammy grabbed a screwdriver and loosened the doorknob. She pushed open the door. He was wearing his Anoka High School sweatpants and an old soccer shirt. His feet were dangling off the ground. Justin was hanging from the frame of his futon, which he’d taken out from under his mattress and stood upright in the corner of his room. Screaming, Tammy ran to hold him and recoiled at his cold skin. His limp body was grotesquely bloated – her baby – eyes closed, head lolling to the right, a dried smear of saliva trailing from the corner of his mouth. His cheeks were strafed with scratch marks, as though in his final moments he’d tried to claw his noose loose. He’d cinched the woven belt so tight that the mortician would have a hard time masking the imprint it left in the flesh above Justin’s collar.

Read the whole article here.

The Nashville Scene newspaper also reported this week on the connections between bullying, teen suicide, and a controversial Tennessee law that bans anti-discrimination protections for GLBT individuals:

…In the midst of statewide, even nationwide concern over the impact of bullying, LGBT advocates and activists point to a spate of well-publicized bills in Tennessee’s Republican-dominated legislature. These bills, they say, contribute to a culture of hostility toward gays and transgendered citizens — undermining their rights, restricting their restroom use, refusing to acknowledge their existence in the classroom…

…There is reason to worry. By the most recent statistics, Tennessee has the 17th highest age-adjusted suicide rate in the U.S. These findings arrive among a list of other grim stats.

The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s 2009 National School Climate Survey found that LGBT students in Tennessee report levels of verbal abuse higher than the national average. Ninety-eight percent of Tennessee high schoolers have heard a peer use the word “gay” in a derogatory fashion, compared with a national rate of 89 percent. Likewise, 68 percent of Tennessee students did not report bullying to school faculty, and 65 percent kept instances of bullying from their families.

Compounding matters, fewer than one in 10 Tennessee students attends a school with a comprehensive anti-bullying policy. In addition, only one in seven could access LGBT information via school computers — the subject of a 2009 ACLU lawsuit against Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools and Knoxville Public Schools that was ultimately successful in overturning the policy. For these and other reasons, Chris Sanders, director of the LGBT advocacy group Tennessee Equality Project, thinks the change in attitudes he hopes for will come slowly.

“Unfortunately, it takes time for things to reach Tennessee,” Sanders says. “It’s not to say it won’t get better at some point, but right now, 2011-2012 — or you could say the time that coincides with the 107th General Assembly — it’s the worst it’s been since the marriage amendment went through the legislature. We’re back really to — I think the worst point in history for Tennessee’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community in years.”

The irony, noted by Sanders and others, is that while conservative lawmakers dismiss equal rights legislation for gays on grounds that no group should be singled out for special treatment, they have had no compunctions whatsoever about punitive bills that specifically target LGBT citizens.

The most notorious example is HB600 — the blanket nullification of municipal anti-discrimination laws crafted by state Rep. Glen Casada, signed by Gov. Bill Haslam last year, and lobbied for in secret by powerful Christian conservative interests. A direct one-stroke obliteration of Metro Nashville’s LGBT workplace-protection ordinance, the law essentially gives employers free rein to fire or not hire individuals solely on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identification.

That was the first salvo in what has become a culture-war blitzkrieg. There is state Rep. Joey Hensley’s HB 0229, the House version of Knoxville Sen. Stacey Campfield’s “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” which bans any mention of sexuality other than the hetero-variety in K-8 sex education classes. There is HB 1153, which critics say codifies First Amendment protection for the very bullies who tormented Jacob Rogers and Phillip Parker. Most controversial — and LGBT advocates argue, most appalling — is HB 2279, which would make it a crime for a transgender person to use the restroom that best coincides with their gender identity.

As both of these articles point out, the causes of teen suicide are complex and varied. However, as far as I’m concerned, the bigots’ culpability doesn’t depend on whether all of these poor kids were gay or perceived as gay. Seeing that bullies run the adult world, from the legislature to the school board, is enough to drive any persecuted kid to despair. If they’re doing this to the gays, they’d do it to you too, because you’re fat or poor or female or Hispanic or…whatever. That’s the message that drowns out “it gets better” for boys like Justin Aaberg. What are we going to do about it?

One place to start: Donate to The Trevor Project, a GLBT suicide-prevention hotline.

Boston Globe Critiques Three-Strikes Sentencing Plan

Lois Ahrens at The Real Cost of Prisons, a Massachusetts prisoner advocacy site, forwarded me this editorial from Northeaster University criminologist James Alan Fox about potential overbreadth in the three-strikes sentencing bill currently under consideration in the Statehouse. An excerpt follows.

…By current statute, third-time felons charged and convicted as habitual offenders must serve one-half of their sentence before becoming eligible for parole consideration. Crafted in response to two particularly high profile murder cases involving repeat offenders, both the Senate and the House bills call for increasing the threshold from one-half to two-thirds of the maximum sentence imposed.

But the more significant change comes with the second portion (Subsection b) of these bills, which makes those habitual offenders who had committed one of a long list of nearly 60 crimes ineligible for parole consideration (as well as “good time” reduction). These prisoners would need to serve the maximum with no gifts from a parole board (or a dying royalty).

A close examination of the list of crimes raises two concerns. The first involves the overly broad range of offenses among those that disallow parole, and the other relates to the subset that is punishable by life without parole.

While the array of serious felonies appropriately includes such atrocities as homicide and rape, lesser offenses such as stalking in violation of a restraining order and assault with intent to commit robbery would also make the third-timer ineligible for early release on parole.

Particularly curious, if not problematic, is the fate of those convicted on a smaller subset of crimes that are punishable by as much as a life sentence. At the severity extreme, there is, of course, murder. A first degree murder conviction already carries a life sentence without parole eligibility, whether the offender is a first-timer or a repeat criminal. A habitual offender convicted of second degree murder would also, by virtue of the pending legislation, receive life without parole.

Not so reasonable, however, is that many other habitual offenders convicted of crimes far short of murder could also be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. If charged as a habitual offender, defendants convicted of such crimes as armed robbery and burglary could be sent away to prison forever.

While I do not mean to minimize the severity of such transgressions, they do not rise to the gravity level of homicide. Life without parole should be reserved for the very worst of the worst, and robbers and burglars — even habitual ones — do not fall in the category of those who should never ever experience freedom again. The most serious crimes short of homicide require long sentences, but not life-long ones.


A Three-Strikes Prisoner Speaks Out

Last month I wrote about how Massachusetts is considering a “three-strikes” sentencing bill. I asked my prison pen pal “Conway”, whose poetry I’ve often shared on this blog, to share his thoughts about the unjust impact of such legislation. A nonviolent offender, Conway is serving 25-to-life in a supermax facility in California for receiving stolen goods. The “EDGE” program that he mentions was a youth mentoring program that he taught in before he was transferred to his current facility. Conway is a talented writer and artist who used his skills to help at-risk youth find safer outlets for their negative emotions.

Here is an excerpt from the letter he sent me last week:

“…So the Mass. State House is contemplating a three-strikes bill? Didn’t or haven’t they seen that it broke New York’s budget and California, which supposedly had one of the largest economies, has now begun sending prisoners to five other states because of overcrowding.

California has been forced by the Supreme Court to reduce their prison population. And they have created a [prison] guard union that forces the lawmakers to bow down to their agenda. Sounds like someone is not thinking about the people except as commodities/prisoners.

That’s one way to build a voters’ market.

Only the franchised can vote. Next comes the prison labor bill. Put those crooks/slaves to work for pennies an hour. Sound familiar? ‘Cause they did that here. Same time they put the three strikes into effect. Check Prison Industries and the Joint Venture Program, Penal Code 2717.4. 

It’s all legalized slavery.

It’s sad really how easy the voting public is manipulated.

For example: They show television programs with perfect or dysfunctional lives. (But not truly dysfunctional.) Then they advertise all this shiny crap every 10 minutes and you say ‘Wow! I want some of that.’ But wait there’s more.

You need money, you need to stay away from where money is, ’cause the cops know you ain’t got none. Don’t betray your morals, our morals.

If you work 10 hours a day, I’ll pay you minimum wage for 8 hours. And you can make payments on this car someone already wore out.

Oh? You have a record? No soup for you!

The frustrating way that a carrot is dangled in front of an old plow horse, basically…

…Wackenhut or some other private prison conglomeration…convince the public that crime is on the rise with false pie charts, and media exploitation of some heinous crime that is unexplainable. Because no one knows what’s going through some of these sociopaths heads. Some are just broken machines; broken by the prison system itself. These broken machines pacing back and forth and back and forth, until one day these fools just open the cage, hand them 200 dollars and drop them off at a bus station.

No one reached out in here and the thing is, if you did see a headshrink they just fill out a subscription [sic] for pills that make you sleep or nonresponsive.

Do I know a cure? No. I don’t even know what I would do to change the current way things are run. But I do know that another tough on crime bill, is not a deterrent to crime or a way to manage human lives.

How about voting for a second change program. When a person paroles, they enter a working environment that treats them like people. Like their lives can be whole again if they want to show the effort.

They could learn a trade and earn an honest dollar. Feel proud of their accomplishments without being locked in a toilet every night.

Obviously some would fail to assimilate. But, most prisoners would rather take a beating than subject themselves to this drudgery.

Most of these prisoners are not good with frustration. So, they lash out (because, maybe that’s a learned response). But, give em something to be proud of. And enforce that attitude and you’d see miracles.

I wish that I could of had a follow-up program for my EDGE kids. All of those kids had serious potential. They just needed someone to show an interest in their abilities. Someone to listen to their frustration, that went through the same unique things…It’s such a shame that the prison officials decided to stop the program, because of the new warden.

We had a judge come in and see a couple of our groups and he wanted to make it a mandatory program for the juvenile offenders in his jurisdiction. He even bought a huge library of child psychology books and different self-help books to help us explore our program.

Why wouldn’t something like that work for prisoners as well?”



Call for Anthology Submissions: Survivors in Solidarity with Prison Abolition

This call for anthology submissions is reprinted from the Survivors in Solidarity website. Hat tip to Lois Ahrens at The Real Cost of Prisons, a Massachusetts-based prisoners’ rights weblog, for alerting me to this project.

Working Title: Challenging Convictions: Survivors of Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Writing on Solidarity with Prison Abolition.

Completed submissions due: April 15, 2012.

Like much prison abolition work, the call for this anthology comes from frustration and hope: frustration with organizers against sexual assault and domestic violence who treat the police as a universally available and as a good solution; frustration with prison abolitionists who only use “domestic violence” and “rape” as provocative examples; and, frustration with academic discussions that use only distanced third-person case studies and statistics to talk about sexual violence and the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). But, this project also shares the hope and worth of working toward building communities without prisons and without sexual violence. Most importantly, it is anchored in the belief that resisting prisons, domestic violence, and sexual assault are inseparable.

Organizers of this anthology want to hear from survivors in conversation with prison abolition struggles. We are interested in receiving submissions from survivors who are/have been imprisoned, and survivors who have not. Both those survivors who have sought police intervention, as well as those who haven’t, are encouraged to submit. We are looking for personal essays and creative non-fiction from fellow survivors who are interested in discussing their unique needs in anti-violence work and prison abolitionism.

Discussions of sexual assault, domestic violence, police violence, prejudice within courts, and imprisonment cannot be separated from experiences of privilege and marginalization. Overwhelmingly people who are perceived to be white, straight, able-bodied, normatively masculine, settlers who are legal residents/citizens, and/or financially stable are not only less likely to experience violence but also less likely to encounter the criminal injustice system than those who are not accorded the privileges associated with these positions. At the same time, sexual assault and domestic violence support centers and shelters are often designed with certain privileges assumed. We are especially interested in contributions that explore how experiences of race, ability, gender, citizenship, sexuality, or class inform your understandings of, or interactions with cops, prisons, and sexual assault/domestic violence support.

For complete submission guidelines and suggested topics, read more on their website.

Sunday Non-Random Song: Whitney Houston, “The Greatest Love of All”

I was grieved to learn today that pop diva Whitney Houston died this weekend, at the young age of 48. Sadly, like many brilliant performers, she struggled with addictions and unhealthy relationships.

Her hit song “The Greatest Love of All” was a favorite anthem of mine in the 1980s. The theology of this song may offend some Christians, as too redolent of the “cult of self-esteem”, but personally I believe that you can’t hate yourself and love God at the same time. He made you, didn’t He? Was He wrong? Accepting yourself as lovable is a necessary part of believing that God loves you, not merely as an idea but as a lived psychological reality. Also, a certain amount of self-love protects you against making an idol of religious teachers, who can be a great help in proper perspective, but shouldn’t substitute for your own knowledge of God inside. Sometimes the Spirit will “lead you to a lonely place” where you must “find your strength in love”.

Sending God’s love to you, Whitney, wherever your soul’s journey takes you…

9th Circuit Rules Prop 8 Gay Marriage Ban Unconstitutional

The 9th Circuit, the federal appeals court based in California, today upheld the trial court’s ruling that California’s Proposition 8 was unconstitutional. This referendum, narrowly passed in 2008, stripped same-sex couples of the right to marry. Here’s a quick summary from the San Francisco Chronicle’s website:

A federal appeals court declared California’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional today, saying a state can’t revoke gay rights solely because a majority of its voters disapprove of homosexuality.

In a 2-1 ruling, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said Proposition 8’s limitations on access to marriage took rights away from a vulnerable minority without benefiting parents, children or the marital institution.

“Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples,” said Judge Stephen Reinhardt in the majority opinion…

…Reinhardt, joined by Judge Michael Hawkins, pointedly refrained from deciding whether gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to marry. Instead, he said Prop. 8 violated the Constitution because it was rooted in moral disproval of gays and lesbians and withdrew rights they had won less than six months earlier, when the state Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage.

Their narrowly framed ruling would apply only to California, if upheld on appeal.

In dissent, Judge N. Randy Smith said Prop. 8 must be upheld if there was any reasonable basis for its enactment. For example, he said, Californians could have concluded – rightly or wrongly – that children were better off with married, biological parents, and that limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples would encourage responsible child-rearing.

But the court majority said prohibiting same-sex marriage does not encourage opposite-sex couples to marry or raise children.

Read the rest of the article here.
Read the court decision here. The appeals court decided the case more narrowly than the trial court, which had ruled that gays and lesbians had an affirmative constitutional right to marry. The 9th Circuit found that Prop 8 did not pass even the lowest standard of review, namely whether there was any rational basis for the law to advance a legitimate public purpose. This standard does not require the court to treat gays and lesbians as a specially protected class.

The case now heads to the Supreme Court.