Posted by: Bill Tracy | December 31, 2020

New Year’s Eve

“…still it is you, your mind picking endlessly over the splintered glass of a mirror dropped and broken long ago. That is all time is at the end when you are old — a splintered glass.”

-Loren Eiseley

All the Strange Hours

New Year’s eve, 2020. My long-time friend, Joe Albert, sent a holiday remembrance today. “Our house was always the party place,” he wrote. “New Year’s eve was no exception.” After this long year of isolation, Joe’s memory triggered the New Year’s eve experiences of my own life. This is my 73rd New Year’s eve in this realm. Not much of what I recall seems worth space in the memory banks, but a few things stand out. Most lives are probably that way.

Happily nestled in the arms of my beautiful grandmother, along with sister, Kathy at the Philadelphia Zoo.
Happily nestled in the arms of my beautiful grandmother, along with sister, Kathy at the Philadelphia Zoo.

As a child, New Years was an adult event. We kids had Christmas; a week later the adults went at it. Dressing up, parties, drinking, midnight kisses, bizarre behavior, banging pots out in the street, Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians on the TV. The most favorite New Year’s eves of my life, and still the most treasured, were the ones when I was a youngster — and living up the night with my grandmother, Catherine Cullinan. My parents were out partying with the extended family (the only partying they ever did) and grandmom was the designated babysitter. In a house where any dessert had a strict two-cookie limit, New Years eve was an orgy. All the cookies, soda, ice cream you wanted. In those days you could still get real ice cream from Breyers, and the peach variety had huge chunks of frozen peaches embedded, a culinary treat I’ll never forget. A lot of peaches lived frozen in ice cream until New Years eve in those days, but no farther. This was also the only night of the year I ever saw midnight!

The wildest was 1967-68. War might slow down, but it doesn’t stop for New Year’s. I was on an alert pad in Viet Nam. Whenever an alarm suddenly went off we all ran to the F4 fighter aircraft on the ready line and got them into the air in seconds. Some U.S. troops somewhere in country were under attack and needed the “fast movers” to come in and save their asses. At one point I had to take a utility truck (picture the old bread trucks of yore) over to the main flightline to arrange for another aircraft to be brought out to the alert pad. In a moment of pure and perfect insanity I decided to go by way of an active runway — so around midnight New Year’s eve there I was racing at 80 mph down an active runway in a bread truck. I could certainly have been court martialed for such outrageous breach of security and safety; more likely I was lucky not to have been shot — it was a war zone and an unidentified and unauthorized vehicle on an active runway should have invited at least a small arms response. To my surprise, when I got back on the alert pad, all I got were a bevy of nurses who had come out to give us kisses and wishes for long life in 1968 and the coming years. If nothing else, war is bizarre!

F4C fighter jet aircraft on the alert pad, Vietnam 1967

One year later Vietnam was a memory. I was now a civilian with a nine-to-five, suit and tie job in the city. The lady I was seeing joined me for a nice dinner in a good Philadelphia restaurant. Then we went back to her place to bring in ‘69 in what we thought the most appropriate way. That was the last memorable New Year’s for a long while.

It’s the mid-1980s when New Year’s again intrudes on memory. Life had become more sedate by then. It became the custom to join with friends Mary and Jerry Standley for an overnight stay at a small cottage in Stone Harbor, NJ. We arrived in the afternoon, prepared a nice dinner and sat talking through the evening. At midnight, we walked a block or two to the beach and had a champagne toast to welcome the new year. Then it was back to the warmth of the cottage and sleep until just before sunrise. When the sun rose we were nearly in the surf, again toasting the new year’s first sunrise and first day. Then it was back to the cottage to pack up and go have breakfast at a classic New Jersey diner over on the mainland. From there we headed home and into a new year. It was a convention in those evenings to share something we had found meaningful in the past year. I recall one year reading aloud “The Talking Cat.” It’s a later chapter in Loren Eiseley’s autobiography, All the Strange Hours. It’s a story of his hearing a cat one night, taking it home, caring for it despite not being allowed to have a pet in his apartment, finally finding a home for the cat with a nice co-worker. Like all great stories, the plot is simple, the meanings are deep, nearly unfathomable. One thing he’s talking about is our connection with the natural world around us, how it so depends on our willingness to hear and see and feel. That same year Mary and Jerry announced her pregnancy with an audio recording of the fetal heart. The next year a beautiful baby joined us in Stone Harbor. That same heart beats today, as does Mary’s. Sadly, my friend Jerry’s is now at rest. A pulse-oximeter says mine tonight is at 78 bpm. And the beat goes on.

New Year’s eve at Stone Harbor, NJ. Jerry Standley and daughter.
Laura note

Memory again retreats for some years. When New Year’s eve next pops up I’m sitting on a sofa late December 31, 1999 — wondering if the world will end soon. “Y2K” was all the rage that year. For so many years no computer people had thought much about time, and all programming had been done identifying years by the final two digits. So, 99 meant 1999, but no one knew how a computer would interpret 00. Would it see it as 1900 instead of 2000? No one seemed to know, and all our infrastructure had been programmed this way. We feared the electric grid might go down, nuclear missiles might launch — all sorts of craziness. In the year before this night lots of people with old fashioned COBOL computer programming knowledge made a lot of money reprogramming lots of business computers. In the end, the only craziness was watching the ageless Dick Clark oversee the New Year events in Times Square, New York. Since that anticlimactic night, I feel like I’ve been in retreat from New Year’s eve.

Now I mostly spend the night at home, hoping for quiet. Unfortunately, fireworks have become the fashion. I don’t so much mind the distant, organized displays; they’re not so noisy and can be reckoned with as background noise. The treacherous business is the immature “adults” who need to rock the world with the biggest and loudest noise makers they can obtain — setting them off just outside my window. The first time that happened a few years ago I came out of my chair scrambling for an M16 to go out and defend the perimeter. That’s when I knew something was wrong. I immediately got a good set of noise-canceling headphones to protect myself.

Despite my having to cower here in the bunker every New Year’s eve, I still appreciate it as a marker of time and our passages within that framework. My fascination with Loren Eiseley is our shared awe of time and its impenetrable mysteries. In the coming year, I recommend becoming acquainted with the man. His autobiography, All the Strange Hours, is a good place to begin.

A year ago we wished a good year to everyone alive; now over 300 thousand of those folks, just in this country, are no longer with us. We expected them to be here with us tonight. Let’s hope for better numbers in 2021.

Posted by: Bill Tracy | June 14, 2020

What Did You Do in Prison, Daddy?

This is something I wrote back in 2007 when I was actively working as a case manager (social worker) in California prisons. It was in answer to an inquiry about what kind of stories could be told about prisons at the time. Rereading this, I think I was a lot more coherent back then, and certainly more up to date on the issue. But, no surprise, the same issues remain today, in some cases they’ve become problems on steroids:

We've been locking people up for a long time. This is "Preston Castle," what remains of a juvenile prison in Ione, CA.

We’ve been locking people up for a long time. This is “Preston Castle,” what remains of a juvenile prison in Ione, CA.

1. The razor wire curtain. Incarceration is increasingly being used to isolate the “undesirables” from society. After we locked up most killers and rapists, people who really needed to be locked up, for some reason we started going after other undesirables. First it was a lot of the troubling mentally disabled who had been deinstitutionalized in the seventies/eighties. And today, at least in CA, we have a huge mental health population! Then we went after those with the disease of addiction and decided to apply a criminal justice solution to a medical problem. At this point, 80% of inmates have some substance abuse issue. Today sex offenders are the hot target. We’re locking them up and trying to keep them locked up forever. I’ve seen recent articles saying aging baby-boomers are a growing segment of the newly incarcerated. And we know women are the fastest growing new segment. I’m wondering what group is next! My opinion is that as corporations become more dominant, people who neither consume nor contribute become expendable. And once seen as expendable, you’re fodder for the razor-wire shredder. We are close to having two of every 10 people in this state under some level of criminal justice supervision. In my studies of the history of penology, this is simply unprecedented and says more about our society than virtually any statistic I know. (With the possible exception that there are 1.5 million homeless children in this country tonight!)

One step away. Homeless and vulnerable on the streets, your next step may be prison, a thought always on your mind.

One step away. Homeless and vulnerable on the streets, your next step may be prison, a thought always on your mind.

2. The new resistance. I see the beginnings of a revolutionary class in this country based on an organized resistance movement. Emblematic of this is the “don’t snitch” aspect of popular culture. That suggests a sizable portion of society no longer sees the criminal justice system as viable. When you connect that to the spreading gang culture and the growing sophistication of gang networks, many run from prisons, it adds up to a resistance movement. That’s not surprising given that politicians have become alienated from the people, and police over the last 20 years have become truly paramilitary in both attitude and function. I worked for a while with California Highway Patrol. I can tell you that the typical CHP single-officer patrol car has usually not less than four guns. And stats say that every seventh vehicle on the highway has a gun in it so we’re already collectively armed beyond anything Robert E. Lee could have imagined! And among this resistance class, incarceration is seen as a rite of passage or even basic training. It’s a chance to see up close the enemy and get closer to the oppressors.

Prison culture on the street. "Shot caller" is a prison term for the decision maker in the gang or race or whatever defining category is being used in the prison culture.

Prison culture on the street. “Shot caller” is a prison term for the decision maker in the gang or race or whatever defining category is being used in the prison culture.

3. Monkey on the back. The criminalization of addiction has created a class of institutionalized people that supports a huge economy — everything from prison guards to public defenders to package vendors to substance abuse programs to long-distance phone companies to parole workers to prison records clerks.

4. Visiting nomads. There are families who travel the state of California to visit inmates. Laura Frisbee published a book last year (Family Guide to Visiting California State Prisons). She describes her travels as her inmate was moved from prison to prison — the long trips, the varying issues with visiting staffs at different prisons, getting to know other visitors coming from all over the place. Especially because of the overcrowding situation, California inmates are transferred a lot. And the transfer priority is not proximity to families. Last week I thought I’d have to get involved with the possible transfer of an 86-year-old man from a prison in this area to one near Blythe — where summer temps routinely approach 120 degrees. His wife lives in a group home in Sacramento and can visit him here, but there was no chance she could make the 500-mile trip to Blythe. I think the system has relented on this one. But they have recently transferred many inmates down there far away from families. And now they appear poised to be sending a lot of inmates to other states.

Sentenced to prison in California, the state can send you 500 or more miles from home, their whim prevails. And when you go, you go alone.

Sentenced to prison in California, the state can send you 500 or more miles from home, their whim prevails. And when you go, you go alone.

5. The flood of estrogen. The issues around women in prison approach the horrific. Until I moved up here last year I worked with women inmates at a prison down south. The single best thing that has happened recently is that female officers now search female inmates. Before that, men could do it, and it was awful as you can probably imagine. The most wrenching thing about women is the separation from their children. And the worst are the ones who have lost their parental rights. The look in their eyes when they realize what this means is simply devastating. And for me, unless I can get an adoption agency to agree to have the adoptive family send pictures or something, the only hope I have for them is a consent to contact form. If they keep that form on file with the adoptive agency, at age 18 the child will be given the mother’s contact information if he or she asks for it. I try to make it more significant by suggesting physiological potentials also — if the child needs a kidney transplant or bone marrow, the biological mother is probably the best possible donor. And typical of working with poor people — that form often does not get filed because it has to be notarized. The mother either can’t get the money or simply gives up because it’s one more complication.

Another issue with women is visiting. People don’t go to prison to visit women inmates. Their men simply find other women. Their families are so busy taking care of children, working, etc., they don’t have time and resources to make long trips to prisons. Despite this, I’ve seen women who believed their husband/boyfriend would take them back once they got out. I had to gently work with one woman who was convinced her boyfriend would pick her up the day she was released — in spite of the fact that he had never visited nor even sent her a letter. Statistics say that 90 percent of men lose their wives to divorce in the first year of incarceration — and virtually 100 percent of women do.

There is zero chance you'll look out this window and see your children playing. Some women will never see their children again.

There is zero chance you’ll look out this window and see your children playing. Some women will never see their children again.

Economic issues affect women inordinately. I worked with one woman who seemed to be permanently institutionalized because of economic issues. She had gone through over a year of substance abuse treatment in the prison. I think she had been through a basic office skills program so she could do word-processing, filing, etc. And even though she believed she could stay clean on the street, she saw no way to make enough money to support herself. She had a mother, but they did not get along so she couldn’t live with her — the relationship itself was a drug trigger that could start her using again. She was paroling to a small town in northern CA where she would be lucky to get a minimum wage job. Even with that, net income would not be enough to support her. So she was simply giving up in her mind and knew that her upcoming parole was just a brief vacation from the prisons. On the other hand, there are heroic stories. One woman who works in a prison substance abuse program did 13 county jail stints before coming to prison. The substance abuse program in the prison turned her around. When she got out she took a job in a brick factory doing hard manual labor place, struggled for a few years, managed to get some education and came back to the prison as a counselor — and a stellar role model too!

The prison experience -- walled in, perhaps a glimpse of sky you cannot touch, and a fearful uncertainty in the distance.

The prison experience — walled in, perhaps a glimpse of sky you cannot touch, and a fearful uncertainty in the distance.

6. Poor parenting. Early on in my prison career I realized that inmates are people who have never been properly parented. In effect, the prison system now functions as their parent, usually a cruel one. What I see in my parenting classes confirms this. They know nothing about parenting. Almost all these inmates have children, and for most prison is an intergenerational thing. I was devastated one morning to get a request from a female inmate who wanted me to find her father, her husband and their children — all in prisons. The entire family was incarcerated. And rules regarding communication with other inmates make it difficult to communicate with your incarcerated family even if you find out what prisons they’re in. The prison I was in down south had both men and women on the same grounds, no interaction of course. I got a note from one male inmate asking if I could find his wife. Turned out she was literally 300 yards away in the same prison — and they could not send letters to one another without going through a process to verify they were man and wife. And that brings up the issue of all the people who have children with people to whom they are not married!

Prison can be where the road ends for many families.

Prison can be where the road ends for many families.

Anyway, back to the parenting issue. Friends Outside has a contractual obligation to put 75 inmates in each prison through a court-recognized parenting education program. With full compliance, that’s about 2500 inmates per year, or less than 1.5% of all those incarcerated. And outside of a few of the substance abuse programs, there really is no other parenting education. In a recent class, I had a dozen inmates send me letters after the class saying this was the most important thing they had ever done in prison — that they came to see the real effects of their incarceration on their families and how they were going to make real efforts to parent in such a way as to break the cycle so their children might not go through prison. I had an inmate tell me three weeks after he finished my parenting class, “Bill, that parenting class was almost worth coming back to prison for.” On a pragmatic note, not every inmate is ready to hear such a message.

7. Scarred children. Incarceration of a parent deeply affects children, and it can affect them for a lifetime. I suspect you’re already familiar with the Bill of Rights for Children of Incarcerated Parents that was developed by Gretchen Newby, the Friends Outside executive director. She can tell you more about that than you’d want to know. She showed a film clip at a recent training of case managers that was so troubling some case managers asked not to be shown anything else so emotionally unsettling.

For many prison inmates, it's no more than a layabout existence. Over the years people become institutionalized and unable to function outside the walls.

For many prison inmates, it’s no more than a layabout existence. Over the years people become institutionalized and unable to function outside the walls.

8. Heart-stopping stories. As the old “Naked City”program used to say, “There are eight million stories in the naked city.” In the CA prison system there are at least 173,000 stories. An inmate came to me for help for his wife and child who were living in their car. They could not afford a place to stay and shelters proved too dangerous. I found her a place in a shelter where she and the child had a private room — relieving his anxiety.

Another man desperately wants to see his 14-year-old son both to say he’s sorry and to say goodbye. The inmate, who only has a year or two to live killed the child’s mother in front of the child five years ago and he has never seen the child since. I was at least able to put him in touch with his family member who has custody of the son.

This is an image from Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, PA, now a museum that can be toured. I had this image framed on my office wall in a California prison. One inmate I worked with told me he had nightmares after seeing this image. This is how prison can traumatize.

This is an image from Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, PA, now a museum that can be toured. I had this image framed on my office wall in a California prison. One inmate I worked with told me he had nightmares after seeing this image. This is how prison can traumatize.

A wife visits an inmate faithfully in spite of his being a minister who was having an affair with another woman and killed his lover’s husband. Where she gets the strength to stand by him rises to the level of theological mystery for me!

And every day more stories pour forth. A 24-year-old asks me for help in understanding how he can cope with a 176-year sentence — how can he go on living knowing he will never, ever see the the world outside a prison. If he were lucky enough to get a “good time” release after serving half his time, he would be 112 years old. And on top of that he has to live with his crime — having killed his whole family in a fire he caused!
___________________________

Now, 13 years later, the situation seems no better. Collectively, our hearts have hardened even more. Prosecutors have proven formulas for getting just about anyone a spot behind the walls, and they get elected based on how effective they are at putting people in prisons. The weapons are more advanced. The social safety net is frayed if still in place at all. And the cruelty proceeds apace.

The state, like a vulture overhead, watches for the vulnerable, and is ready to swoop in and take us to prison.

The state, like a vulture overhead, watches for the vulnerable, and is ready to swoop in and take us to prison.

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