Commentary

Privacy Lost

Most of my life I have protested against or advocated for one cause or another, from ending apartheid in South Africa to reforming America’s criminal justice system, hardly radical stuff.

In the late sixties, my children attended a Harlem (New York) public elementary school; then one of the lowest ranked in the city.

To address the issue, I joined with several like-minded parents to urge removal of its principal. We argued our position at local school board meetings, raised awareness at PTA meetings, and distributed position papers.

Despite our good intentions, we met strong resistance from some teachers and parents who labeled us “troublemakers.”

Ultimately, we succeeded, and I learned the power of community action, protest, and citizen activism.

Over the years, I have jokingly remarked that I am probably on some government watch list.

I no longer consider this a joke.

Criticism of government, corporations, or institutions is likely to get you “tagged,”  sued, maybe even arrested, for views and opinions expressed in texts, e-mails, v-logs, blogs, chats, or on Facebook and Twitter.

Shared personal data can be accessed by marketers or law enforcement, hopefully for benign purposes.

The American Civil Liberties Union, however, has serious concerns over government collection of personal data:

“Government surveillance of social media can have serious consequences, whether you’re a U.S. citizen, a lawful resident, or are seeking to immigrate to or visit the United States. The FBI appears to be using social media as a basis for deciding who to interview, investigate, or target with informants or undercover agents. A single Facebook post or tweet may be all it takes to place someone on a watch list, with effects that can range from repeated, invasive screening at airports to detention and questioning in the United States or abroad. And non-citizens subject to the Trump administration’s “extreme vetting” policies could be denied entry to the United States or face difficulty becoming lawful residents or naturalized citizens.”

Food for Thought

  • Facebook Gave Device Makers Deep Access to Data on Users and Friends(New York Times, 6/3/18“Facebook has reached data-sharing partnerships with at least 60 device makers — including Apple, Amazon, BlackBerry, Microsoft and Samsung — over the last decade, starting before Facebook apps were widely available on smartphones, company officials said…You might think that Facebook or the device manufacturer is trustworthy,” said Serge Egelman, a privacy researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies the security of mobile apps. “But the problem is that as more and more data is collected on the device — and if it can be accessed by apps on the device — it creates serious privacy and security risks.”
  • The NSA Managed to Collect 500 Million U.S. Call Records in 2017” (Gizmodo.com, 5/4/18)  “In the first full year of the Trump administration, the National Security Agency really went all out in efforts to surveil Americans. According to a new report released Friday, the agency sucked up more than 534 million US phone records in 2017, three times the amount it collected in 2016…While it might not seem like much, metadata can be quite revealing. The information itself is supposedly anonymous, but it can easily be used to identify an individual. The information can also be paired with other publicly available information from social media and other sources to paint a surprisingly detailed picture of a person’s life.
  • “You Don’t Have To Be a Star To Be Sued Like One (hubinternational.com, 5/3/17) As is the case with a popular things, with the increased reach of professional blogging comes a greater incidence of lawsuits and claims. The Media Law Resource Center estimated that there were $17.4 million in court judgments made against bloggers by the end of 2014…The biggest risks that bloggers with large followings face are, according to Bankrate, claims of libel, defamation of character, copyright infringement, and invasion of privacy. Depending on the blog in question, harassment and trademark infringement could also pose a risk, as well as charges of bodily injury resulting from products recommended in professional blogs. However, the biggest danger to bloggers comes from the fact that blogging cases don’t have the same legal precedent that more traditional media might have; in fact, courts have been very inconsistent about cases and the application of the First Amendment to blogging cases.”

Now, I don’t believe that my blog, Facebook, or Twitter posts are so cogent, provocative, or widespread that I pose a security threat.

Nonetheless, I do recognize that my political views, personal data, or postings could someday land me in trouble, or worse, in handcuffs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Commentary

Why do mothers support incarcerated sons?

Years ago, when my 20-year old son was locked up at New York’s infamous Rikers Island, I would visit regularly despite the long commute from Brooklyn to Queens, two or three hour waits in the crowded, noisy reception area, and short, but bumpy, rides on dilapidated buses to various “houses” on the island; most times, I had just completed an 8-hour workday.

My landlord at the time–an obnoxious, nosy man–once questioned why I bothered to visit my son. “If he did the crime, I’d let him do the time.”

At the time, his words irritated me; however, in retrospect, I think his comment reflected the opinion of the public, and even, some family and friends.

Nonetheless, I had promised myself, I would not–could not–abandon my son to the custody and control of the city’s notorious jail system.

Like my former landlord, others might wonder mothers continue to support sons involved in the criminal justice system, often in the face of societal disapproval.

The answers are as varied as the mothers themselves.

One mother might have a son with a mental illness–often a factor in the commission of a crime–who worries about how he will fare in jail or prison if appropriate treatment/medication is not available.

Another mother might have a juvenile son tried as an as an adult and sentenced to time in a dangerous adult correctional facility, probably hours away from her community.

A mother could have a son who did not commit the criminal act for which he was arrested but was at the scene. She wonders why he received the same 10-year sentence as the perpetrators.

Our rationale for standing by them is simple. Our sons need advocates.

In spite of their wrong choices or bad acts, we nurture the hope that our sons’ lives can be salvaged.

For much of the public, the term, “inmate,” evokes images of violent, (mostly) black young men with gang affiliations, drug histories, broken families, or low morals.

Hence, many politicians see no need for sentencing or bail reform, increased drug rehabilitation funding, in-prison job training or educational programs. No need for comprehensive post-release assistance or services.

As mothers of incarcerated sons, we do not see our sons as state-issued ID “numbers,” but as “Junior” or “Davey,” or “Little Man.”

We remember our sons’ 6th Grade Math Award or love for animals or dream of playing for the NBA.

We are not apologists for them, but know that when wives, girlfriends, buddies, or relatives, stop visiting or communicating, we are left to bolster fragile egos.

Criminal justice research shows that when inmates lack contact with family, they are more likely to create discipline problems for prison administrators or suffer depression.

Often I was afraid to upset my son by denying him some request or by not providing everything he wanted; I had not learned that I could not save him from the hardships of prison by acceding to all his demands.

The most I could do was reassure him that he was loved and that better days were possible.

Unfortunately, in 1999, my son died prematurely in prison, so I can only imagine what his future might have held.

I take comfort in the knowledge that he knew that I was always there for him.

Having a son in prison can be all-consuming emotionally, psychologically, even physically, yet mothers muster the strength to carry on.

That’s just what we do.

 

 

 

 

 

Commentary

We all have a stake in making a difference

(This is an updated commentary from my podcast, “One Mother’s Voice: In the Name of Justice.” Nonetheless, the message is still relevant and underlies my criminal justice advocacy.)

I thought that dealing with the stress of having an incarcerated loved one would end with the death of my son in prison, so many years ago.

It did not.

Three of my grandsons have served time in prison: one of them, who struggles with mental illness, is in and out of jail/treatment programs, often out of touch with family and a source of constant concern.

Another grandson is back in jail for parole violations. Two months ago, he collapsed with mild convulsions, yet doctors could find no apparent cause. I believe, however, that the causes are rooted in his undiagnosed depression and anxiety as well as untreated psychological and emotional issues.

My third grandson died suddenly on March 29, 2018 at the age of 30, leaving behind a grieving family, who had looked on helplessly as he struggled to turn his life around despite numerous obstacles.

In addition, we believe that he suffered from trauma, the result of beating (he told us) at the hands of prison correctional officers.

These young men are the reason that I have dedicated my life to educating others, especially mothers with sons in prison, about the far-reaching, negative consequences  of incarceration on criminal justice-involved persons, their families, and communities 

July 2017

When my son was incarcerated during eighties and nineties, I knew very little about the criminal justice system. I hated the arduous trips to visit him in jail or in prison. They were demoralizing and demeaning. Most New York State prisons are located in upstate counties, so travel would entail six or eight hours (one-way) on crowded, uncomfortable charter buses operated by private individuals or Greyhound.

Once at a prison, we waited in dirty, cheerless rooms to be summoned by correctional officers to show identification and to get searched.

There was little effort to make the surroundings even minimally appealing for visitors. Bathrooms were dirty, smelly and often without toilet paper. These conditions told me a lot about how correctional administrators viewed the families—mostly black and Hispanic—who came for the visits. We were not deserving of better.

I could only imagine (or rather, I couldn’t imagine) what conditions were like behind the iron doors for inmates. In fact, I think the visits offered them a chance to get off the cell-blocks and feel “free” for a few hours.

As much as I dreaded the oppressive atmosphere of the prisons, I understood that it was important for me to see my son and for him to see me. I wanted him to remember that he was more than a number; he was part of a family that loved and missed him.

Some days, however, the visits were painful because they reminded him of how much he missed the familiar comforts of family, friends, and community.

I saw the effects of prison life in his sad eyes and his ragged nails chewed down to the skin. I never spoke on this because he wanted me to believe that he could handle prison. On the other hand, I never told him how the visits depressed me and drained my positive energy.

Thoughts of him in prison hung like dark clouds over my day-to-day life.

During the most commonplace of activities—family get-togethers, holiday celebrations, or vacation trips–I would envision him alone in his cell.

The day that I learned that he had died (after being found unconscious in his cell) I was devastated. My worst fear–that he would die in prison–had come to pass.

My initial reaction, ironically, was relief; for this, I was deeply ashamed.

Eventually, I came to understand my reaction: I could let go of the fear, sadness, and anxiety that had haunted my days and nights for nearly two decades.

I don’t blame “the system” for my son’s choices.

However, he did not commit his crimes in a vacuum. His behavior (as for all of us) was the result of complex, inter-related factors, including racial disparities, punitive criminal justice policies, economic inequality, flawed family dynamics, societal expectations, and personal history.

There is much work to be done to keep other sons (and increasingly daughters) out of prison or to provide resources, support, and opportunities for those who return to our communities from prison.

As a nation, we all have a stake in affecting positive outcomes.

Donate to advocacy groups, write letters to your representatives, tell your story, push for legislation, organize in your community, join or create a support group.

I chose to turn my loss into something bigger—a mission to support other mothers with sons in prison.

Wherever or however you choose to make a difference–locally, nationally, privately or publicly–is not important. Just do something.