Mission Statement

Seeking the good, the light and a smidgeon of sanity out of tragedy.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Courage and Honor

My man and I saw The Blind Side last night. It’s the type of movie where you leave the theater feeling uplifted and giddy with a lightness in your step and can’t wait to hug your loved ones and embrace life overall. It’s a wonderful feeling.

The fact that this film is based on a true story adds more to its power, but my favorite bit, and to me, one of the most memorable, was Oher’s final essay on courage and honor.

This is what he wrote about The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, a poem written to memorialize a suicidal charge by the British cavalry over open terrain:

Courage is a hard thing to figure. You can have courage based on a dumb idea or a mistake, but you’re not supposed to question adults, or your coach, or your teacher because they make the rules. Maybe they know best, but maybe they don’t.

It all depends on who you are, where you come from. Didn’t at least one of the six hundred guys think about giving up and joining with the other side? I mean, Valley of Death, that’s pretty salty stuff.

That’s why courage is tricky. Should you always do what others tell you to do? Sometimes you might not even know why you’re doing something. I mean, any fool can have courage.

But honor, that’s the real reason you either do something or you don’t. It’s who you want to be. If you die trying for something important then you have both honor and courage and that’s pretty good.
I wrote to my brother in Leavenworth this morning, and I sent him the above. I asked him to have both courage and honor in this next phase of life he’s entering. I also proposed to him that, with his permission, and of course, input, that he contribute to this blog, sharing his feelings and experiences from the inside.

I suggested he write about his experiences like a story. There is so little information on the Internet on what it is like that most of us on the outside can only draw from movies. People are hungry for information — we also want to know he’s okay.

I thought maybe if he had an audience, though they are invisible to him, he would not be invisible to them. In short, my brother could make a difference. A positive one. Still.

Courage and honor.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Welcome to the USDB!

I have made contact! I had called and written the USDB two weeks ago and received no response, but today when I phoned their General Information line, the woman who answered my questions could not have been nicer! I now have a writing address for my newly enrolled brother. It's rather straightforward — no PO boxes, no pseudonyms, no routing numbers, just the following:

Inmate's Name
Inmate's #
1300 N. Warehouse Rd.
Ft. Leavenworth, KS 66027

Frankly for a men's barracks, I was not expecting to talk to a woman, but the letter from my father yesterday redefined that misconception. The BOP chain of command where he is now has a woman Warden, a woman Captain (disciplinarian), and a woman Camp manager. From the way he states it, they're bad-asses and take no crap from anyone doling out mass punishment for errors committed by individuals.

However, the USDB woman could not have been nicer. She even laughed at one point. Somehow, you just don't envision people laughing in prison, be it in their business offices or elsewhere on the premises. It took me by surprise.

And here's another point of great contrast, for my father's prison canteen account, there is a maximum of $300 he is allowed in any one month, and I have to jump through a five-minute voice-mail process the top of every month with Western Union's Quick Collect to get him those monies. On top of the principal charge, there is the Western Union fee (reduced if you are sending to the FBOP), my credit card cash advance fees, and of course, interest. Three hundred quickly becomes $350. Thank God for the limit. I don't count myself as particularly wealthy unless you put me up against a Third World native.

For my brother's USDB canteen account, there is no monetary limit and no Western Union. I am to just send him an enclosed check or money order inside one of my letters, and my brother will turn it over to the appropriate authorities, who will in turn credit his account. Sounds rather casual to me. Hey kiddo, here's a grand. Go ahead and splurge on yourself inside the local penitentiary store. Yee-haw!

Seriously, I hear they do educate the prisoners on the inside, but the classes are not free. So, I will have to find out more about that later.

Last tidbit I discovered today is my brother is allowed photos, though the USDB woman could clarify the limit on them. One source told me they were limited to only 10 pictures at a time and only if they were printed on proper photo paper and that Internet photos were not allowed, but the USDB woman said I would have to speak to someone else to clarify that fact. From what she knew, the number of photos they are allowed are dependent on their room size, what he came in with (nothing from I understand), and what others had sent him... basically she instructed me to ask my brother what the rules are.

I asked if they had a Policies manual I should use, and her answer was that they never send it out.

So based on my one-year experience with my father's Camp, and this maximum security facility, here is my first key lesson: Prison policies are through word-of-mouth only for those outside the system.

No wonder I could find so little on the Internet. Even one Leavenworth blog only held a smite of useful information.

I intend to rectify that.

(For anyone listening. Of course, I could just be talking to myself, which I do do normally. On the other hand, if anyone has any useful input or insights or feedback, heck, this is my open-forum therapy, and I'm open.)

Monday, December 28, 2009

My father, the psuedo Godfather

My father has turned me into his personal secretary. Though he sits afar in a FBOP (Federal Bureau of Prison) Camp, his reach is still as near as his latest letter and right under my nose. Do this, do that, and please, don't forget about that, and that...and oh, I need this. He is kind about it. He is grateful. But the demands, feigned as requests, are relentless.

Not too long ago, my father was walking through Little Italy in New York City, attired in his fur-collared long coat and fedora, commanding attention and daring disrespect, and one teen stopped another and pointed at my father in a reverent tone and declared, "It's the Godfather!"

My father smiled at that. By the way, we're not Italian.

I will state here once and for all: the FBOP mail system sucks. Half of our correspondence deals with what is and is not getting through. Newspapers, which are permissible, do not arrive. Magazine subscriptions, also allowed, disappear into some mail room ether, rumored to be stacked ceiling high, but the FBOP no longer has the budget or staff to sort through the mail, though it's technically illegal to hold up, or suspend, Federal mail. But we're subject to their whimsies. My father had the chutzpah to file four formal complaints via their protocol, but we ended up canceling over half his subscriptions instead. When I called Customer Service for the subscriptions, invariably the response was the publication was returned from the FBOP and considered "undeliverable." Yet, occasionally, a stray one would break through the lines and make it all the way into his hands, ultimately giving us false hope.

We started off with 3 newspaper, 2 religious and 5 magazine subscriptions. We're now down to The CS Monitor and Time. These tenacious souls make it through the ranks. Why? Have absolutely no idea. The rest were turned away, stacked, or dare I say, pilfered.

The funny and sad thing is my father works in their Department of Education. (Take a moment, think about it.)

Yes, my father, an Ivy-league graduate and MBA, makes a whopping .12 cents an hour for his work now. The first time I read that, it got an out-loud guffaw out of me. Probably a mixture of devilish glee from him reaping his own karma and knowing full-well what his skill-set is really worth. Talk about being underpaid and under-appreciated.

But it's that Godfather in him that still commands an audience, even demands it.

On his cue, the MOCK NEWSCASTER begins his broadcast.

The US ranks as the prison capital of the world.
In 2008, more than 2.3 million men and women
(or 1 in 100) adults sat in prisons or jails.  This
dubious distinction comes from a near tripling of
the inmate population over the past two decades *

*Christian Science Monitor, 9/6/09

Now, envision these conversations of how the prison system is bursting at the seams, how they are at 110% capacity in his current facility, how the prison system needs to be reformed and how the Feds beat him down to taking a plea bargain peppered with discussions of our family lineage.

Do I understand correctly that our lineage tracing
takes us to the Roman Emperor Constantine?

His new pet project. Our family genealogy. I don't really care, but I guess it scores points with the Chinese. Heritage and all. He's doing business inside of prison, with the Chinese.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The Big House. A penal institution. Prison.

Oh, capricious fate. I find myself in the wayward position of watching not just one, but two, family members being sent behind bars. The daunting cold clang of metal hitting on metal bangs in my head. It seems impenetrable. A formidable barrier.

I imagine I'm the only one from my former private all-girls' school who can lay claim to such a family feat. Yes, hail, hail to the Blue Bloods out there and all that rot my father cared so much for once upon a time, before prison.

Now, I'm left to clean up the mess.

In fact, it's rather like a grenade went off right in the middle of our living room, and I'm the one who gets to pick up the spewed guts and gore, because I'm the only survivor of our small, shattered family unit. And I really want to make sense of it. Because right now, it is all so senseless...and it's sad, and terrible, and horrendous.

Because there were victims. And my heart goes out to them. I don't wish to undermine them or their feelings at all.

However, there is me, and frankly, I'm rather a decent sort. And there's our friends, and my man, and relatives...and you know, this sort of thing not just ripples outward, but tidal waves over those associated with the guilty as well. We feel it just as much. The pain. The tightness in the throat. The loss. For us and the victims.

Yesterday, my precious, loving – yes, loving!! – 20-year-old brother, now a convicted murderer, was transferred to the United States Disciplinary Barracks, more readily known as the USDB, or Leavenworth, or the Castle. It's in Kansas.  I had to look it up when the first plea bargain hit the table.

But my brother didn't take the plea bargain, and he had his day in (military) court, and he was found guilty of all charges. The sentence: life without parole.  That's what it says in black-and-white. But the case was not that clear-cut, and my brother is certainly no monster.

There is a reason the Army spent no less than a quarter a million on my brother's defense: there was a prescribed drug involved that already has a "black box" warning from the FDA. Suicides have been linked directly to it, and now "homicidal ideations." But there is still that leap from thinking about something to doing it. And pharmaceutical companies will never do a test study that links their product to murder. That's just a plain fact. They will, however, spend billions in defending their dubious drugs.

However, at the end of the day, all of the technical expertise and science could not sway the raw emotion prevalent in the courtroom.  The crime was horrible, the victim was honorable, and there were no less than 17 of victim's family members, from grandparents to the one-year-old baby son the deceased will never see, to support their prosecution.

Now I have the dubious privilege of educating myself about what maximum-security prison life is like.

Oh yeah, there is my father. He's in minimum security, actually what they call a "Camp," for mail and wire fraud. He has one year down, one to go.  He still touts his innocence. It's almost funny, it's such a cliché. His ego outsizes the proverbial elephant in the room.  It smooshes it. You should hear what he says...