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.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements
Tips for Writers

Designate a writing space to promote creativity and productivity

Just as my granddaughter spends lots of money on shoes and gear that increase her running safety and efficiency, having a designated writing space can promote your creativity and productivity.

Whether that space is in a corner of your bedroom or in a separate room, surround yourself with the tools of your trade: files, notebooks, reference materials, or anything else that keeps your focus on writing.

For example, inspirational posters, famous author quotes, or photos of writers you admire can enhance your writing experience,

My former office was an unused bedroom in a five-bedroom house; it was my writer’s cave.

I hung framed copies of a health newsletter that I had previously published; kept a small, antique pillow from a deceased colleague–whose work I admired–at my desk; and had a glass wall hanging engraved with the words, “Your story begins at home.”

Of course, you can write just as well from a kitchen table, but nothing says “serious writer” as much as having an at-home office.

You “go” to work there, just like you do at your job.

The difference: on your job you produce for someone else; at home, you produce for yourself–and hopefully, the world.

I am in the process of setting up a writing space in my new apartment. With less space, I need to get creative about where it will be.

The “where” is less important than the “why:” increase my productivity and nurture artistic expression.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tips for Writers

Rejection is tough so get tougher

As an editor for several New York City magazines and newspapers, I worked with many fine staff writers. Most of my dealings with them were mutually respectful. The best of them accepted my editorial suggestions yet, if necessary, could defend their choices without rancor.

On the other hand, some freelance writers would bristle with indignation when I rejected their article. One writer demanded to know why his submission was not acceptable. Needless to say, I did not add him to my list of freelancers.

He did not understand that rejection does not necessarily reflect the quality of a writer’s work. Instead, other editorial considerations determine an article’s suitability for publication:

  1. Has a similar article been published or been scheduled for a future issue?
  2. Is it suitable for the target audience?
  3. Is it written in the style and voice of the publication?
  4. Is the topic timely?

Editors seldom provide more than a brief explanation for rejecting an article; they are simply too busy.

Rejection is tough. Writers put in many hours perfecting a story and wholeheartedly expect someone will publish it, so  it is disheartening when expectation does not meet reality.

Truth is, writers need a tough skin. Think of yourself as a salesperson. Not everyone will want or need your product. If Customer #1 says, “no,” move on to Customer #2. Don’t waste time trying to convince a reluctant buyer.

Many famous authors faced rejection; it is the price for admission to the world of writing/publishing.

Unless, you choose to write a blog where you are the decision-maker about what and how you write, develop a rapport with those editors whose publications reach your target audience.