Doing the Right Thing Ain’t Easy

Doing the Right Thing Ain’t Easy

These days people can be quick to tell you what’s wrong with our society, and we all have canned solutions to almost every problem — just add water and simmer for 15 minutes… problem solved. I do it myself all the time. Give me a half-an-hour, and I can tell you how to solve healthcare, poverty, mass incarceration, you name it, and I have no doubt you have some good ideas yourself. But being passionate in the abstract is easy. What counts is how we deal with them when we actually are blessed with the opportunity to do something real.

See, doing something about the seemingly insignificant injustices we encounter in our immediate environment is risky, and therefore … more difficult. Affecting change universally brings negative blowback, whether from skeptical friends, ignorant or frightened colleagues, or the generally unforgiving social environment. However, the question for all of us echos throughout time: Do the changes we seek in our country matter more than any potential repercussions we may experience as a result of a decision to challenge the injustices we see? And if the answer is no, then stop telling people what’s wrong with the world. The opinions of those unwilling to change the world when given the platform and opportunity are like the sound of flatulence — humorous at best, but generally disgusting, unless of course, they’re your own.

Let me give you an example. This prior week, I was at work when another inmate, a young, black man and co-worker, asked me for advice. He then described a situation that made him uncomfortable (and me somewhat angry): One of his supervisors, who is not incarcerated, made an inappropriate and racist comment to him, framed as a joke, but in front of several other guys of all races. He explained that the comment not only perturbed him because of its inaccuracy and stereotyped underpinnings, but also made his job more difficult because he still was required to work with all those who heard it.

I gave him what I thought was sound advice. I encouraged him to speak with a staff member I know to be generally receptive and sensitive to issues like this. However, the person whom I thought would be willing to stand up against racism … simply wasn’t. The staff member described feeling uneasy about disrespecting the other staff member (the one who made the racist comment) by getting involved. In fact, in this meeting the young man was actually accused of a prior lack of professionalism, implicitly suggesting he somehow deserved the racist comment. Basically, the young black man was told to go to someone else if he wanted help, which saddened me, but I’m not naive about the prison environment.

Yet, I can’t help but find it disheartening. Picture a dog kennel, rows of dogs in cages and several dog handlers performing the duties of their jobs, feeding, cleaning, and otherwise caring for the animals. If one dog handler were verbally abusing one of the dogs, the other handlers would not hesitate to speak up. But incarcerated human beings apparently are often not as worthy of advocacy as dogs. Unfortunately, the very concept of rehabilitation will remain a farce until the men and women in prison are viewed and treated as human beings with inherent dignity and worthy of respect, regardless of their past mistakes, and dealt with as people who will one day return to the community.

I could allow myself to feel depressed and wallow in the injustice of it all, but I’m very mindful of the fact that I put myself here. I’m not the victim; I’ve hurt a lot of people. But even still, I can learn from those unwilling to use their power and platform to make positive change when called upon by the powers of fate.

The same night I experienced that unfortunate situation at work, I saw a gay kid being picked on by someone I know. I thought of what I witnessed at work as an example of what not to do, so I stepped in to stand up for the kid. Sure I took a little heat, and I’m sure it won’t be the last time that kid is picked on. And I certainly can’t be there for him everytime he has a problem. But I was able to help him that time. I did the right thing because I could, even though doing the right thing ain’t easy. But changing the world will never be easy, even if we all pitch in, which clearly … we don’t.

Change Starts With You

Change Starts With You

“How am I racist? I’m Black!”

Racism is something I never gave much thought to for most of my life, I just didn’t ascribe to the unconscious practice even before I began waking up. My opening quandary is an actual, honest-to-God exchange between an inmate and a corrections officer. The officer was white, the inmate black and they were joking each other; mostly. But it brought clarity to something I had been feeling for a long time during my incarceration but wasn’t able to identify. Racism, directed toward me!

When I heard this statement, it dawned on me, there are actually some people who truly don’t know what racism is. The American Heritage Dictionary defines racism as 1) the belief that a particular race is superior to others, and 2) Discrimination or prejudice based on race. I think it’s important to note that although the numbers are balancing out some, the prison population is predominantly black. Debating the reasons behind this fact is not my goal here. Reaching out to my brothers in blues (Fla D.O.C. has blue uniforms for inmates), is my goal, to let them know that I can feel racially discriminated against too. Not just by my fellow inmates who believe their conversations overheard are their right, but also by the direct use of some of the terms like white boy, cracker and other disparaging words intended to hurt and propel one race over another. And by the staff who have to be hyper vigilant in not committing any professional or political snafus by making any kind of a disparaging comment because of the ignorance that white people don’t or can’t feel discriminated against. How do we fix it?

I have to admit that after my last question, I felt a little overwhelmed at the enormity of the vastness of that query and had to put my pen down, not to return for a week. My pulling away from the subject felt like a real dilemma as to whether or not I could continue without an answer as how to make things “right” after so many years of static thinking from the two primary races that make up America. I should also mention that in 2015, the Spanish population outgrew the black population to claim the dubious title of the largest minority in the U.S. But the Spanish prison population is still third place.

Most people perceive prisons to be some sort of separate entity; a body of its own, distinct from the “it won’t happen to me” crowd. That mistake in thinking has left most people without any concrete ideas about prisons, prisoners, and race relations in prison. Prison is essentially a microcosm of what our society has become, not a representation of the people that make it up but for the ideals that have been propagated by an idealistic group of a few people with a vision that is actually limited in scope and context.

I have concluded that the problem with race relations is not a problem of a few, but of epic proportions plaguing the human race. Maybe I’m showing my own worldly ignorance, speaking out of place for cultures I’ve had minimal experience with, but when millions of people have to seek refuge from their homes because of internal strife, and then have to deal with not being able to find a safe place because of the ability of a few demagogues, spewing poisonous rhetoric to the masses, creates a false sense of separateness…and there’s nothing tenable about human suffering…nothing. Ah, but I digress on a global scale.

Let me scale back a bit. Ethnically speaking, it’s up to prisoners themselves to make their lives better; more equitable. How can they do this when there is absolutely no model for selfless thinking; inside or outside these fences.

Say your two year old hits another child like kids sometimes do. Do you then hit your child as punishment and hope they learn it’s not okay to hit? Some do! How counterproductive is that. It’s not a mixed message you’re sending. It’s Unequivocal…it’s okay to hurt people, period. We as thinking beings, cognizant and emotional, are in a state of shock about how we treat each other and the excuses we make to do it are as numerous and tenuous as the differences we think give us the right to be prejudicially racist. Greed, as opposed to need, is no different in prison than it is outside of prison. Somehow we have convinced entire generations that they need to be materially superior in order to have a sense of self. We spend endless resources and energy on teaching self esteem in a society full of ego maniacal, undereducated and dissociative people who have no understanding what it means to treat each other with equality. So maybe my dilemma is not so remote as it relates to prisoners, but there has to be a starting point for everything, even the beginning of the end of something as destructive as racism. No matter who it is against or who it’s from. How much more evident could it be that our method of dealing with what we consider our criminal element just doesn’t work. Is it our goal to perpetuate our children hitting each other? Because the message we’re sending by taking all human dignity from someone we perceive as having done harm to our fellow beings is doing just that.

A couple of modern prison systems who got this message loud and clear are two relatively unlikely to be thought of as progressive, Germany and Norway. The message they are sending to those who infringe on the dignity and security of their fellow citizens is a simple one. There is another way.

Through wonderful folks and organizations like AI, we too can stop the proverbial hitting of our kids. But it has to come from the top down. I’m not saying we need to rid ourselves of the justice system, but if we want it to reflect our goals of justice and equality so our citizens can treat each other without prejudice due to anyone’s race, the American prison system is a great place to start.

My Reluctant Ministry* – Dan

When you finally acknowledge and really accept that you can do and be more than the limitations others have set before you, there are more worlds open to you, with understanding and growth that has no limits than you have imagined, right in front of you.

My Reluctant Ministry brings people into my life that I would not have otherwise been graced with and opportunities to help in ways I could never have guessed. When you think of ministry, you automatically think spiritual or religious. Here in America’s insides, people’s needs are a hands on effort because even those who seem to be caught in the maze specifically to be judged by the rest of us, are deserving of the grace that anyone deserves just by virtue of being a fellow human being. This effort sometimes requires me to focus more on legal, practical matters to help find ones’ way through the end of the maze. I have come across men who, in hopes to make it, will fake it.

My friend, whom I’ll call Dan, is someone I probably would have never met outside the gates. I’d like to try and fool myself into not having any responsibility for that fact, but the truth is we all have preconceived ideas about people places and things and we are sometimes caught up in our own maze of those notions. We’re motivated to change by things like fear, desire, need and sometimes imagination.

Dan came to me with the most sincere facets of all of the above and little direction on how to accomplish his goals. I was… well, reluctant. I have spent all my incarceration living in the law library and had accomplished some of my own goals and didn’t see being able to help this young man very much because of my preconceived ideas about the men I’m imprisoned with and my lack of vision for others. In the process of helping this young man learn how to defend himself from the treacherous penal system, I learned so much from him about myself that I actually consider Dan my friend. Something I would not have been able to do under any other circumstances because he used to be a racist. Self professed. He shared with me about the day he stopped being a racist. He was sent to medical by a Sergeant because of an infection that was oozing and painful. When he got to the clinic, there was a very sweet looking older grandmotherly type of officer as clinic reception and when he approached her desk she told him she didn’t care who sent him to medical that he knew he couldn’t come to medical without signing up for sick call and that if he didn’t carry his beggar black ass out of there she was going to hit the panic button and tell security he was coming after her, at which point he backed out and left quickly.

The very next day, the same Sergeant saw he was in the same condition and again sent him to medical. The same grandmotherly officer was there again but this time there was also a Practitioner there who saw the infection and immediately ushered Dan to the treatment area where he proceeded to treat him with utmost care and professionalism, tending his wound and making sure he had enough dressings and antibiotic cream to get him through the infection. Thankfully, Dan healed, in more ways than one, and he affected healing in me through the whole process.

You see, Dan is a black man, as was the grandmotherly officer that drove him away from the clinic in fear and humiliation the day before. The practitioner was white. Dan told me that day in November 2012, he stopped being a racist because he now realizes that the person behind the skin is what matters, not the skin.

When Dan came to me seeking help to understand the justice system, I was more than glad to help him learn, but I had my reservations. By helping Dan with his case, I was able to experience not only Dan’s learning and real heartfelt drive, but I realized the ugly truth was that I was more like the grandmotherly officer than the helpful medical practitioner and even though I never considered myself racist, that day I grew and healed and learned.

Even the fact that Dan and I have spiritual talks and share some reading materials, the true ministering came through in the practical hands on effort to help him learn worldly ways, while Dan taught me the ways of the soul. I now no longer look at a person’s outer appearance because I first am looking inside of myself to check my own place in the cosmos by ridding myself of those old preconceived notions. That may have been the day I truly stopped being racist too.

* With gratitude for Leah, who not only listens to me, but actually hears me, and suggested the title for my article – all my love.