In Memoriam: Martin Steele

Winning Writers lost one of our most prolific and imaginative subscribers this year, the writer Martin Steele, who passed away in February after a battle with cancer. (We only received the notice this week.) Martin won several prizes in our contests over the years, representing only a small portion of his vast output of prose-poems, humorous tales, ghost stories, and poetry on subjects from African wars to tennis.

Probably my favorite piece of his writing is the flash fiction “The Girls in the Tree“, which we reprinted on this blog last year. Some of his war poetry can be found here and here. Also check out his Poet of the Week page at Poetry Super Highway.

If you’ve been touched by his work, please sign his guestbook on the website of Beth Israel Memorial Chapel and make a donation to the American Cancer Society.

Supermax Prison Sued for Inhumane Treatment of the Mentally Ill

This week The Atlantic’s website published a powerful three-part investigative report by Andrew Cohen on the inhumane treatment of mentally ill prisoners at “Supermax” in Florence, Colorado, the flagship maximum-security federal prison.

Part One, “American Gulag”, describes flagrant violations of Bureau of Prisons rules requiring medical treatment for prisoners with diagnosed disabilities. Prisoners are caught in a nightmarish cycle of contradictions. Federal policy prohibits prisoners with serious mental illness from being transferred to Supermax, where the inmates are not allowed to be on psychotropic medications. However, many such prisoners are sent there anyway, and then denied the drugs they need to keep from injuring themselves and others. Their acting-out prompts more disciplinary crackdowns that drive them further into madness. According to a lawsuit filed this week by five inmates, alleging violations of the Constitution’s “cruel and unusual punishment” clause, guards often chain up these prisoners in their own waste products and taunt them by giving them empty food bags at mealtime.

In Part Two, “Supermax: The Faces of a Prison’s Mentally Ill”, the magazine profiles the plaintiffs. These are not the sympathetic characters championed by groups like The Innocence Project; they are violent, delusional, convicted of murder and other serious crimes. However, the article reminds us that they are also human beings with shocking trauma histories and, in many cases, mental retardation and brain injuries. Often their conditions have dramatically worsened because prison staff has mistreated them or failed to protect them from other prisoners’ violence. Here’s just one story:

Michael Bacote: He is the first named plaintiff in the case. Age 37, functionally illiterate, and deemed “mildly mentally retarded” a decade ago by a prison psychologist, Bacote was sent to ADX in 2005 after pleading guilty to murder in a case involving the death of a fellow inmate at the federal prison in Texas. (Evidently, he did not kill the victim but rather stood guard while others did.) Bacote has been diagnosed as suffering from “major depressive disorder with psychotic features” as well as from “paranoid ideations,” and he also may suffer the after-effects of severe closed-head injury.

Bacote refuses to take medicine that has been ground up from pill form by prison officials. And they, in turn, refuse to allow Bacote to take his medicine in pill form. Bacote has repeatedly tried to transfer out of Supermax. Over and over again, his requests have been denied. Despite the prior diagnoses from prison doctors, for example, paragraph 138 of the complaint alleges that ADX officials in April 2009 told Bacote that “a review of your file does not indicate you are mentally ill or mentally retarded.”

Part Three, “The Constitution and Mentally Ill Prisoners”, surveys the issues in the current lawsuit. The takeaway question: if we require a certain level of mental competency to hold a person accountable for a crime, “why does such a competency determination not impact the severity of an inmate’s incarceration?” The answer will tell us a lot about what American values really are.

Reading this series, I couldn’t help but wonder…what would happen if Christians threw their considerable political clout behind prison reform? The religious right has poured enormous amounts of money and organizational skills into passing legislation on contentious social issues. Like the unborn, mentally ill prisoners could certainly be considered “the least of these”, whom Jesus told us to protect. Sure, their feet don’t look as good on a lapel pin, but Matthew 25 is pretty clear:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

So what can YOU do?
Donate to the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, one of the pro bono groups behind this lawsuit. Contact your member of Congress. Write to a prison pen pal, and share their stories so the world can see that these people are “more than their worst act” (as Sister Helen Prejean said in “Dead Man Walking”). 

Saturday Random Song: Mark Schultz, “What It Means to Be Loved”

Last night I was listening to the Christian pop channel on Slacker Internet radio while feeding baby Shane, and this song brought tears to my eyes. Parenting has compelled me to slow down and appreciate the present moment, because that’s the only kind of time that my baby knows. Like the lilies of the field, he doesn’t worry about tomorrow, as far as I can tell. As for me, there’s so much I can’t control or foresee, from “when will he wake me up next” (predictably, sometime between 2-4 AM) to “what kind of person will he become” (our goal is “happy and not evil”). As the song says, love means savoring the mere fact of his existence, right here and now.

W.S. Merwin, “To Waiting”

Coming from a long line of clinically depressed women, I’ve often wondered whether my own tendency toward melancholy and dissatisfaction is primarily a biological problem or one that stems from underlying false beliefs. Do I need a pill, or a change of emphasis? The latter option is more my style. Contrary to the popular saying, I personally would rather be right than happy. In other words, I’d rather put up with some sadness while I investigate whether things are really as bad as I think they are. What you call dysthymia, I call the First Noble Truth.

Today’s poem on The Writer’s Almanac made me feel supported in that decision. Discontent is not always a fate to which we are condemned by our brain chemistry; it can be interrupted by simple everyday moments of redirecting our attention, starting with the few minutes it takes to read these lines.

To Waiting
by W.S. Merwin

You spend so much of your time
expecting to become
someone else
always someone
who will be different
someone to whom a moment
whatever moment it may be
at last has come
and who has been
met and transformed
into no longer being you
and so has forgotten you

meanwhile in your life
you hardly notice
the world around you
lights changing
sirens dying along the buildings
your eyes intent
on a sight you do not see yet
not yet there
as long as you
are only yourself

with whom as you
recall you were
never happy
to be left alone for long