Support Access to Justice for Low-Income Massachusetts Residents

Community Legal Aid is the state-funded civil legal aid program serving low-income and elderly residents of Central and Western Massachusetts (Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire, and Worcester counties). Massachusetts Justice Project is its federally-funded counterpart. The two groups have teamed up to raise money through their Access to Justice Campaign 2012. I just donated and hope you will too.

CLA and MJP have just one attorney available for every 7,000 needy clients in Western Massachusetts. Their services help our neighbors save their homes from foreclosure, secure protection from domestic violence, prevent elder abuse and fraud, and much more.

Here’s one story from their brochure:

After leaving an extremely abusive relationship, Maria* continued to be harassed and threatened by her abuser at her subsidized apartment. She was afraid to go outside, and could not do the work program required for her receipt of welfare benefits. As a result, her benefits were cut off, and she was evicted from her apartment for nonpayment of rent. She applied for emergency shelter but was told she was ineligible because she had been evicted from a subsidized apartment. She then got in touch with the Massachusetts Justice Project. An MJP attorney filed an appeal of the shelter denial, and represented her at a hearing with the Department of Housing and Community Development. To her great relief, Maria was admitted to a family shelter, and also awarded several months of retroactive welfare benefits to which she was entitled.


Gemini Magazine Is My Happy Place

My poem “Depression Is My Happy Place” was published today in Gemini Magazine, one of my favorite online journals, as an Honorable Mention winner in their 2012 poetry contest. You may enjoy it (or you may not) below. Also don’t miss the 2nd Prize poem by my friend Gerardo Mena, “A Nursing Home Boxer to a High School Volunteer”. Tony Mena is not only a talented poet; he’s a decorated Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran and a musician. Check out his website.

Depression Is My Happy Place

that lake waits anytime
for me to slip
under its threaded green hush
i don’t need summer or parking
to arrive
where my hurtling family
is already one less

depression is easy to get to
even on holidays
the standards are lower than church
or kindergarten
you can run with scissors there
but you probably won’t bother

it’s my tight light box
where i turn back the sun
to a pale hum

i don’t need fattening pills
or fermented dizzy bottles
i can spin it on my own
straw into lead
because a lead house
never blows down or burns

side effects of depression may include
eating more or less
than people in magazines
sleeping more or less
by yourself
sudden loss of interest
in what your mother thinks

it’s my soft dust pillow
under the boxspring where grandma money
refuses the bankers’ conjurations
of brown fields into winking green numbers
racing round the globe
like a tornado-spun house

it’s my black screen
i won’t trade

there may be a cost-saving generic
alternative to depression
ask your doctor about marriage
smiling often and wearing a good suit
may cause people to leave you alone
did you know that your natural skin tone
adds a layer of protection at no extra charge
(some restrictions may apply)

depression is not recommended
for unattractive women

Myth-Busting the Family

The humor site might seem like an unlikely source of wisdom, but this article by John Cheese, “4 Old Sayings About Family That Are (Sometimes) B.S.”, offers better advice about emotional boundaries and manipulation than many therapists and clergy provide. If I had a penny for every time a religious leader has enabled an abuser with the Fifth Commandment…I could do some serious damage with my piggy bank.

From the article:

Myth #4: “You Have to Help Him, He’s Your Father!” (or Mother, etc.)

Why We Say It:
You owe your parents everything. Without them, your entire existence would have been abbreviated to a latex reservoir tip swatting that shit out of the air like an NBA center. They put food on the table and a roof over your head, and by God, the least you can do is be there for them in return.

As adults, we expect the same from our own kids — a return on our investment. And that’s a perfectly logical, reasonable request, isn’t it? “I helped you, now you help me.” At some point, every parent does it, and we enforce that with one phrase that means two completely different things, depending on the recipient’s age: “I’m your father!”

As a child, it’s a demand. “You will mow the lawn because I’m your father, and you will damn well do what I tell you. Now you get out there before I clothe you with snakes!”

As an adult, that meaning loses its weight because they no longer make the rules. That’s when the phrase becomes a plea. “Can I borrow 20 bucks for some crack? Come on, man, I’m your father. You know how you made it to this age without dying? That was me who did that!”

When It’s Bullshit:
Right now, I have no fewer than two dozen messages in my inbox from readers asking me what to do in their seemingly unique situation. One or both of their parents are addicts, or habitual criminals, or general fuckups. The kids are taking care of themselves. They watch these grown-ass adults wrecking the entire family with stress about bills, borrowing money from anyone they can to keep the lights on while feeding hundreds of dollars per month into their vices. Every time the parents attempt to clean up their act, they fall right back into the same destructive cycle within weeks. The kids are essentially on their own. You know, normal family problems. We’ve all been there.

And here’s the thing — the whole “broken childhood” bit doesn’t end at childhood. There are people who will spend 40 consecutive years with this bullshit from their parents, knowing that their own kids won’t have the sitcom Grandma and Grandpa that’s always waiting with a hug and a turkey at Thanksgiving. These are the parents who are always borrowing, or begging, or making demands. They’re constantly needing to be bailed out like teenagers, or roping you into petty family disputes (“Your Uncle Steve has been talking shit about your mom again. Now be a good son and go slash his fucking tires”).

But … “I have to be there for them because they’re my parents, right?”

If you take nothing else from this article, please make it this: Childhood is not a bill that you have to pay for later. Parenting is not charity, or a loan — it is a requirement for those who took on the job, whether they meant to or not. When you become a parent yourself, you will be required to do it as well, without thanks or compensation. In fact, in the first year, you will often get shit on and stomped in the genitals.

Do you owe it to your own parents to be supportive? To try to help them break destructive habits? Of course. But not at the risk of your own health and emotional well being. For the first 20 years of your life, you are being trained to be a caregiver. At no point in that time should you be required to be one yourself. That’s not your job. Your job is to learn and grow.

Again, I’m not saying that if your mom is wheelchair-bound and needs help painting the house that you shove a finger in her face and say “I got my own problems, whore!” I’m talking about people who are outside your power to help unless you make it your full-time job. You can’t fix their addictions, or depression, or stupidity, or chronic need to constantly be in some kind of dramatic crisis. I think there’s a point where you’re allowed to let that shit go to voice mail.

Poem by Freddy Niagara Fonseca: “Books”

Freddy Niagara Fonseca is the editor of the anthology This Enduring Gift: A Flowering of Fairfield Poetry, featuring work by 76 talented poets who all happen to live in Fairfield, Iowa. He’s given me permission to share this lovely poem of his from the anthology. It puts into words why I feel such delight and magical connection when I find a well-thumbed book in a thrift store bin. E-books have many advantages, but they can’t do that.


Sometimes, when I think of the vast
wisdom ever contained in books—

countless scriptures of all creeds; scrolls in
indecipherable languages; tomes of science;

the great Library of Alexandria destroyed by
fire centuries ago, priceless knowledge gone;

thousands of books burned by the Third Reich;
books still held secret at the Vatican;

hieroglyphs in Egypt and whatever Atlantis
must have contributed to the written word;

books simply lost and never retrieved;
others molded, fallen apart, discarded,

and all the many books I’ll never be able to read in a
life-time even if I lived a thousand years;

and when I think of all these while browsing
at garage sales, used bookstores—(o, the good

feel of an old book and the sense of care for
books you surmise some previous owner had;

to see his or her name written on the title page,
sometimes with the date of purchase or gift)—

yes, then I tend to hold a book in my hands a little long
sometimes, deliberating whether I’ll buy,

and I read again what’s on the flap; scan a
few more pages; find a keen phrase here and there;

ponder on the title, the design, the author’s
name, weighing it all in my hand . . . And

page after page of long-forgotten lore, myth, and
adventure slowly take shape and mingle with

my own memory of myth in the back of
my mind, passing through my skin, stealing

into my bones, my heart, holding me spellbound
for a life-time it seems, and somehow beneath

my feet the deeper caves and mysteries of the earth
open wide where I glimpse that which

I cannot name but know that it exists;
and I’m feeling so strangely rooted and connected

to all cultures, beliefs, poetry, romance, peace,
wars, and history . . . and I may take the book home,

maybe not—it doesn’t matter, for as I’m
standing here, simply lost in time for a while,

some power is reclaiming everything I thought
was lost to man one time, and I see the

Great Communicator of it all in all these
many chapters, paragraphs, sentences, words

working their way with a purpose, meaning,
and conviction across so many ages,

and suddenly it seems that everything is all here now,
and really never was gone at all, as long as

books have ever existed, and readers found them,
and as I close the book, walking out to get some fresh air,

there’s all the magic in the air as of old still, and
I can live with that, and be an open book to all.

Grace Beyond Accounting

The St. Sebastian Review is a biannual online journal of creative writing by GLBT Christians and allies. In the introduction to the third issue, released today, editor Carolyn E.M. Gibney writes about what she has learned about grace because of the love she shares with her partner:

I was raised Presbyterian with a Calvinist bent, which meant that I was taught as a child that I –
everyone – was totally depraved. That any possible goodness that seemed to come from us was
in fact the grace of God pouring through us. This meant that grace was the source of every good
thing, the right focus of our deepest thanks. As harsh as it sounds, and sometimes was, there are
worse things to believe in than the ubiquity of grace.

Even so, in this context, the word “grace” seemed to me to take on a counter-intuitive meaning:
rather than obliterating the calculus of good and evil, as the word seems to imply, it offered
instead that there was a debt too great for any one human to pay – namely, our depravity, and
the havoc wrought thereby – and that grace was the undeserved payment of that debt. In the
bookkeeping of salvation, grace was an infinite sum proffered on our behalf. But infinity is still a
number – or, at least, a direction of numbers. There are still books being kept.

Growing up, I didn’t recognize when I started to begrudge this understanding of grace as both
an accusation and what felt like a condescending response to that accusation. Even if the debt
had been miraculously paid, I didn’t want to interact with a God who would, at any point, hold
an infinite debt against me. I didn’t want a God beholden to the calculus of sin. Instead, I
wanted grace to mean what it seemed to imply – something beautiful, meaningful, humbling –
something that did not exist simply because something else was lacking. I wanted, and continue
to want, grace to be itself a priori. A synonym of “love” rather than a synonym of “payment.”

I’m not sure I understood grace in that sense until I met Brita. How something could pass
completely outside the realm of what is deserved to a realm where things are not responses but
themselves entirely. A grace that I do not resent, or feel condescends to me, a love that does not
calculate, but overflows.

Prisons Withhold Medical Care to Coerce Inmates Into Snitching

The FACTS Education Fund, also known as Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes, just sent me this newsletter about coercive withholding of medical care from prisoners in Segregated Housing Units (SHU). The SHU is a form of restricted or solitary confinement imposed on prisoners who are accused of gang connections, which often happens based on secret evidence or arbitrary prison politics. Once there, prisoners are put under enormous pressure to “debrief”, or inform on other suspected gang members to prison officials. This report from American RadioWorks, “Locked Down: Gangs in the Supermax“, gives more background on this process.

In the FACTS newsletter, Alfred Sandoval, a prisoner in California’s Pelican Bay SHU, describes why he joined last year’s hunger strike to improve prison conditions. Sandoval reports that guards withheld family visits and essential medical care from terminally ill prisoners to pressure them to debrief. An excerpt:

A few years ago, a close friend – his name was Jimmy – developed cancer. The medical staff, MTAs and RNs, explained that if he’d debrief, become an informant, he would receive better medical care. Now Jimmy and I had known each other since we were teenagers running the streets of East Los Angeles getting high and living the lifestyle that ended up with both of us in prison for life.

As Jimmy’s cancer grew worse, he began chemotherapy. Jimmy mentioned to me how the IGI would “show up” at the clinic and comment that he could have contact visits with his wife before he died if he’d debrief. He refused but that’s how he found out the cancer was terminal! Jimmy loved his wife more than anything and he wouldn’t tell her everything about the head games and bullshit like waking up from surgery still under anesthesia being questioned by IGI, but I had warned him of that because it happened to me and at least three other prisoners.

After one of the surgeries, Jimmy was returned to his cell after a brief stay at the Pelican Bay prison infirmary. Those cells are completely bare except for a bed and all you can do is lay there and wait. On the second night back in his cell, he awoke to a bad pain. He said it was a little after 2 a.m. and the staples had opened along his abdomen and he was bleeding. He was holding his intestines in, calling for the C/O. The C/O came and saw the blood and said he’d call the RN on duty.

The C/O came back approximately 30 minutes later with a roll of toilet paper. Jimmy was sitting on the blood-covered cement floor holding a towel soaked in blood against his stomach. The cop tossed Jimmy the toilet paper and said the medical staff would not come until the next shift and there was nothing he could do. Jimmy held his stomach closed in pain until almost 6 a.m. when the medical finally came and they rushed him to the hospital. He asked that I keep it to myself because that was his style.

I was pissed! He had requested two hardship transfers to Corcoran because of its medical facility and he’d be able to see his wife and family more before he died. Both were denied and he was told to debrief and then he’d be transferred but he steadfastly refused. The cancer spread and the gang unit increased the head games, telling the medical staff to confiscate his shaded prescription glasses. But luckily, a Dr. Williams stepped in and told the medical staff to leave Jimmy alone as he was at end stage cancer. Jimmy chose to stop the chemotherapy and die. We’d talk through a steel door and discuss everything and nothing and plan out his funeral. He died in December of 2010 and I am proud and honored to have been his friend.

Shortly after Jimmy’s death, I was told that approximately eight of the older prisoners had been approved for transfer to the SHU medical facility at New Folsom, but the gang unit had those transfers stopped citing that those prisoners, all in their 60s and 70s, had not successfully completed the debriefing, thereby issuing a death sentence to all of these prisoners and denying adequate medical care.

Make a donation to FACTS to help end these human rights abuses. You can write Mr. Sandoval a letter of support at: Alfred Sandoval, D-61000, Pelican Bay State Prison, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City, CA 95532.