Alternative to Violence Project – First meeting at Maryland Correctional Institution

INAlternative to Violonce Project
On June 1st I wrote about an organization called AVP  Alternative to Violence Project. This organization began in New York and has since spread to 36 other states. It is a group of volunteers who hold workshops inside prisons with the inmates who want to learn a better way of living – a better way of dealing with their emotions and making positive changes in their life. Eventually almost everyone gets out of prison. Recidivism back to prison is overall 70% after five years. Even people who aren’t incarcerated want to make changes to their lives and find it isn’t easy and we have many options to choose from to try and make it happen. Coming from inside prison and then expected to live among society again, there is no family to soften the blow. That makes it very hard to create a life of value.

There is a lot of anger in a prison. There are some men, and women, who have been given a raw deal with sentences that are ridiculously long for the crime committed. Many have been inside more than once. Many have lost their family, spouses and children and some had a lifestyle they know they don’t want to go back to, but don’t know any alternative. Many come from low income neighborhoods where if they had an attorney who actually had their best interest at heart they might not have gotten the years they were sentenced to. There is nothing fair about prison.

Knowing someday Jamie will also get out of prison, and also knowing he knows very little about how to live on the outside, and most of all, knowing he has a problem with anger he has been working on, it’s been important to me to find ways to help him. Completing your sentence and getting out is only half the battle. Staying out and having a life you are happy with is another.

I found out first there are mediation services that help inmates reintegrate into society by helping with relationships that have become difficult. It isn’t unusually for family to stop writing and visiting less, especially if the sentence is long. Wives and girlfriends find new relationships. There is often anger at being left to raise children alone. Children might be angry at their parent not being there for them and also there might be a gap because they don’t know each other. Mediation helps bring them together and work out the issues. This is why I try so hard to find out how Jamie’s son is doing in school and send pictures. My daughter tells me she doesn’t care and to not speak of him again. She has a man in her life so it has made it a problem. Jamie is afraid of losing his son. That is fine for her, but nothing can erase the fact he has a father. This is one reason why I want to learn as much as I can. I think they will need mediation when the times comes when Jamie gets out.

avp, alternative to violence project

photo credit:
justifiedoutdoors.com

AVP is a different organization of dedicated facilitators who volunteer to go into the prison each month and hold workshops. These initial workshops have 2 steps. Each step is 3 days long. An inmate has to want to indicate they want to sign up for it. They can stop at this point, but if they want to become a facilitator themselves they can continue on with the training. Total hours of training is 55. It would be the same for me. I have to attend both series of workshops and do the training

I was able to contact a husband and wife team, David and Nancy Hutchins and told them the reason why I wanted to get involved. I was sent a packet of papers to fill out and send back to get approval to be inside the prison with the inmates. July 21st was the yearly AVP Facilitator Recognition Night and it would be a good introduction to the group as most of them would be there. Also at the meeting would be the old and new inmate facilitators. I live in Pa, close to the Maryland border so the prison was only about forty miles away. There were quite a few people waiting to sign in and go through the metal detectors. Everyone was retirement age and many have been doing this for a long time, 20-25 years. I wasn’t ready for what was waiting when we went to the room where the meeting was being held.

I didn’t count the inmates but there had to be total of 40-50 people there, more inmates than outsiders. The inmates either had on white t-shirts or one that indicated they were facilitators. I have never seen so many smiles in one room! We walked single file into the room with inmates on the left and right as we went down the aisle. We exchanged names, hugs and handshakes. One man said he was so happy to be in air conditioning because it had been a long time. It’s been a pretty hot summer this year and it is easy to take for granted that we can always get out of the heat if we want to. I know from Jamie, in Texas, that heat is a big problem and each year there are at least a few who die from the effects of heat. At the Wynne Unit in Texas they now have a big fans out in the corridor but it doesn’t do anything for ventilation in the cells. All at does is blow around hot air. If they have the money they can buy a little plastic fan in the commissary.

After everyone introduced themselves the meeting began. Fortunately I had a front row seat. The Master of Ceremonies was “Tenacious Tillet” aka Selvyn Tillet. Everyone has a second name and that is what everyone calls each other. James Dyson is “Joking JD”, Rigo Mena-Perez is “Respectful Rigo”, Nancy Hutchins is “Knowing Nancy”. The inmates are quite at ease with these other names. Tenatious Tillet started out with the motto of the organization, “Making a Difference One Person at a Time” How true that is because the change in a single human being can change the world.

Assistant Warden Lyons spoke and what he said was very positive. He said, Everyone has value. Everyone has worth. I looks for those who will make good leaders; those with the ability to say no and those with the ability to swim upstream against the norm. Change brings change.”

I have had very little positive to say about the prisons in my writings, but this evening, if he means what he says, these inmates are fortunate to have him there. I know it can’t be easy to run a population of people who make prison their home, either by a mistake, a deliberate crime, someone mentally off-balance or a repeat offender who knows no other way of doing things. But his desire, he says, is to bring down the recidivism percentage at the Maryland Correctional Institute which currently sits at 40% within three years. The highest percentage is in the first three years. Nationwide it is 70% within 5 years. Those who honestly try to live right find it extremely hard to find jobs and rent apartments and resort to crime or old habits to survive. There needs to be changes for those inmates who are sincere about living a better life. If they have repaid their debt to society then they should leave with a clean slate. If you have to tell everyone you are an ex felon, no one is going to want to take a chance with you on any level.

Christopher Shank, Director at the Governor Office of Crime Control and Prevention, talked about a bill being passed that would shield low level non violent crimes when they get out, to lessen the stigma of being an ex-con. They are gathering the data to look at the mix of how many are locked up for technical reasons like parole violations rather than new crimes. When people come back, what is it for? But talk is easy. Let’s see what actually happens. There is still the fact of the 20 year contracts with the prison corporations who expect the prisons to be 90-100% full or the government has to pay them for empty beds. That is a very expensive catch 22 for the inmates.

“Joking JD” did a presentation about what they teach in the workshops. It is a five step process that starts with 1. Affirmation 2.Communication 3.Cooperation 4.Conflict resolution 5. Problem solving

“Respectful Rico” gave an experience and said the workshops taught him how to interact and how to express himself. He wouldn’t even speak at the first meeting. He said he’s learned to think before he reacts. When he finished with the workshops someone said they saw something in him and asked him if he wanted to train as a facilitator. This might not seem like a big thing to some people, but this might have been the first time he had a reason to feel proud of himself and other people thought he had worth.

“Excellent E” said, “I always reacted with violence, especially when alcohol was involved. In 2008 I killed someone and got 33 years. At first I lost it, and then I worried about my kids. I needed to make a choice. AVP was life changing for me. Now I have the tools to make my life work. Now I no longer curse when I’m mad. I’ve been with AVP for five years.”

I was sitting next to “Humorous Hutch”, David Hutchins, and he explained to me that almost every inmate who walks through the door on the first meeting is scowling with their heads down and they don’t talk to anyone. By the time they get down with the third day of the 2nd part of the workshops they are completely different people, laughing and joking and making friends. The transformation of a human being when he learns he has value and doesn’t have to be wary of the person next to him is incredible. They take these new attitudes and insights back into the prison population and it encourages the next group of people to participate. Sometimes people get out, sometimes they get transferred to another prison and sometimes they are on lockdown and the meeting has to be changed. Being able to participate in these workshops gives them something of value in their lives – helping other inmates.

In addition to the workshops with the outside facilitators, the inmate facilitators carry on with workshops throughout the month. I know there are other workshops for different areas such as music. Being a piano teacher, that is of interest to me. This is just the beginning for me. I’m hoping that what I learn here I can use to help Jamie in some way. But this is a medium security prison where Jamie is in maximum security. I think it would take a good attorney to see if that could be changed because as long as he is being held the way he is he isn’t eligible for anything. This is one way they keep from paroling them. He can’t do anything to improve himself so it is a catch 22 situation. This is one reason why I am writing his story, “Inside the Forbidden Outside”, in the hopes of being able to put money together for him. But it’s a ways off and still being written. I keep chipping away with everything that needs to be done one day at a time.

Prison Sentences Are Just As Long For The Children

photo-61
Hiraeth by Sonni Quick copyright 2014

(Sonni’s note: I am reposting part of this from a post July 2012. Nothing has changed from then except that two more years have gone by, so there is at least that. October 2016 he comes up for parole again and I want things to be different this time around. They never give parole the first time around and they have made it very difficult for him this time coming up by not letting him have any education. He has to be so careful now. But even being careful doesn’t help when they use any excuse to file a case against you, real or false. The picture of his son is two years old, so I am adding one that is newer. His son is his reason for being. The one thing that gives value to his life. His one accomplishment. At least 3 months before a parole hearing, a parole packet should be sent to the parole board to read. It’s important because it tells them what kind of support an inamte has. The chances of going back in, recidivism, is higher for those who don’t have family support. They want to see  there is a system in place to help him get back on his feet. The adjustment back into society is no always possible. When an inmate has no one, he has to figure out himself how to get his life together. He may not have those life skills. So many inmates don’t. Jamie has never had the opportunity to live on his own to gain the experiences needed to live. There is much we take for granted; how to turn on utilities, how to open a bank account, how to do laundry. These are things we find easy. He doesn’t know how. He is going to need help and guidance to figure out all he’ll need to do to survive. One of the reasons I am writing his story as a book is to have it ready before his parole hearing.  I don’t know if is a good idea to present it to the parole board so that will take some thought first)

Jamie and his little brother Ben
Jamie with his little half brother Benjamin

I’m just lonely and it hurts. I miss everyone so much. It seems as if no one cares at all how I’m doing. And it bothers me that the woman I care so much for isn’t worried about my health or well being. No one stays in touch with me at all. It hurts that Megan is treating me as if I’m not Jamie’s dad. What I mean is, she don’t tell me nothing about how he’s doing. Everything I know comes from you. I’m very thankful for that. I would love to hear from Megan once or twice a month. What’s so hard about that? I get mad and try to write her to let her know I’m mad but I end up throwing the letter away. I tell myself it’s all my fault I’m here. Then again, it’s no reason for her to not stay in touch. If not for her then for the kids. I do love them and miss them so much.

It hurts so much not being there for Jamie. I’ve missed out on so much. I’m trying. I’m staying clear of trouble. I come up for parole on July 27, 2014. That’s one reason why I try to stay in touch with everyone. If these people decided to give me parole and they can’t get in touch with nobody I will have to wait for them to find me a half way house. I’m being treated like an unknown person by them.

So, if it stays like this, why should I try? My son is young and he has dyslexia. It’s hard for him to write. But still, Megan could give him some paper and let him color a picture for me. EVERY little thing touches my heart. I miss him so much. I sit here trying to read and my mind wanders thinking of everyone, from the night me and Megan met, even to the day I met Megan’s dad, to the day I first met my son. That was the most wonderful moment in my life. Please talk to Megan for me. Ask her what’s wrong. Why don’t she write to me? Tell her all she has to do is let me know. I can’t put up too much of an argument here. I just want the truth, that’s all. I’m going to close this letter. Take it easy, okay? Take one day at a time. The pain will be over soon and things will be just as beautiful as before. I love you mom

(Sonni’s note: Jamie’s  heart is big. He wrote this six weeks after I had a liver transplant. The healing had been very painful. He has always shown concern for me. He has kept my spirit up while I try to keep him going, too. Two wounded people living through the consequences of our own making. Cause and effect is very strict. Long ago I began calling him son, and he began calling me mom. He needed someone to hold him up during the times he couldn’t do it himself. I felt honored.)

Reading this letter again brings tears to my eyes. His pain pours out through his words. He has always expressed so much caring to me about these things that are important to him. There are so many children of inmates who are separated by at least one of their parents.  They accept it.  It is common.  Most all their friends only have a mom, or they are raised by their grandmothers, like Jamies neices and nephews have been raised by his mom.  How do they grow up and understand what a family should be? Knowing how many dad’s are in prison, what do these little boys think about themselves when they grow up?  That is an interesting angle to pursue.

Please Sign the Petition For Clemency For Chad Marks

chad marks,petition for clemency

I’ve written to this man several times. He needs our help. I wouldn’t put this petition here if I didn’t think it was the right thing to do. You can find out more about him here – https://m.facebook.com/pages/Mercy-Me-924c/214679578557840

And here –
https://m.facebook.com/profile.php?id=853864717977001&__tn__=C

I just signed the petition, “President Barack Obama: Clemency for Chad Marks. Reduce his sentence from 40 years to 17-20..”

I think this is important. Will you sign it, too, and put it out on your own social media sites? Let’s help this man have his sentence reduced to a more reasonable place, at least within the timeline of the sentences the other three people received who were involved in the same crime. He takes responsibility for the mistake he made in his 20’s. Let him have back at least part of his life. Keeping him there until his mid 60’s serves no purpose.

Here’s the link:

http://www.change.org/p/president-barack-obama-clemency-for-chad-marks-reduce-his-sentence-from-40-years-to-17-20

Thanks,

Sonni

This is Why I Do What I do For Jamie Cummings

Sonni’s note: For those that see this posted twice, I also printed it as a page on Inside the Forbidden Outside<

Early in 2015 I began to write a book giving Jamie a voice for his life -a voice to speak about the experiences he’s been through and why they happened. Rereading his letters, there are a few common threads that run through them. The deepest one is loneliness. The second one is not understanding why no one cares. The third one is determination. When he gets he out he is going to be a father to his son, one he never had himself. It was hard not be affected by Jamie. Other people see what the people closest to him cannot.

This is why, after years of writing letters, I chose to start writing his blog the beginning of 2014. It’s hard to not have feelings for him when you read his words. I have heard from so many readers who have been affected by his story and are pulling for him to have a successful life. He hasn’t heard many words of encouragement from people in his life, but he will knows there are many people all over the world who wish the best for him. He is a good man – a lonely man – who had one time in his life where he thought he found happiness. He so loved a woman who loved him back, who was having his baby. His child! But he lost that long before it ever breathed life. That child is now almost nine years old. The times he has seen him, through glass, has been few.

jamie Cummings, father and son
Jamie and Jamie Cummings- age 8

The first half of his life he was a lonely child. You can have a large family and still be alone. Getting sucked in to juvy system at sixteen took away the rest of his youth. Being released at age 21 and shortly after, meeting my daughter and getting pregnant was the happiest he had ever been. He didn’t know life could be so good. He would do anything he had to, to take care of his precious family. Anything. But how could he do that? He didn’t know what to do. He had no education. No job. No driver’s license because of epilepsy. He had no wisdom. He didn’t understand consequences. He had no life experience to draw on and no one to seek guidance from. Under pressure to take care of this precious life he created, he chose to go along with something incredibly stupid, and lost everything. Now at age 32, he still sits, trying to stay optimistic about having a life, yet still doesn’t know how to do that.

Does that make him a bad person? No. He, too, is a product of his environment, just like we all are. There are many people in prison who are very broken. They come from tortured lives of abuse and violence. What their environment taught them, took them to a place where having a life that fits inside society is far beyond their grasp. The only place their life works is inside a prison where others understood the language they spoke. They never experienced or learned what a good life should be. You learn by your experiences, your community. When these people get out of prison, they may want a different life, but they won’t know how. They will end up back inside. These people are only a portion of why people are locked up and unfortunately those are the ones you hear about. So you believe that prisons are only for bad people, and most of them, unfortunately have sentences that last longer than they should, with every form of inhumane treatment your imagination can think of.

But how did Jamie end up losing his way? What cause was made where this could be the only outcome? The experiences you have in life don’t happen by accident. There is no such thing as good luck or bad luck. There is only causes you’ve made that you might not understand. Some are easy to see and some are not. There is nothing that manipulates life like a puppet on strings. What he is experiencing, just like all of us, is the effects of these causes we made in our lives. So how does he change it? How does he turn it around? That is what I explore in this writing of his life.

Why should I care? Why was I pulled into his life? What part was I to play? Why couldn’t I be like everyone else and say how unfortunate it was that this was happening and then go on with my life? Or, I could say it hurt me so much he was in there, that I was unable to bring myself to write back. It wasn’t my fault he was there. Why did I feel it was my job to be there for him? I didn’t just become part of his life for no reason. A cause was made. By him? By my daughter? By me?

I became part of his life because was no one else there. He is the father of one of my grandsons. His pain was too great for me to become like everyone else. Jamie and I needed each other. It wasn’t a one way street. He wasn’t “using” me, as one person told me. I didn’t buy the statement, “Once a loser always a loser.” He needed to be taught things he never had a chance to learn – how to pull himself up so he can one day be a father to his son, my grandson? Wishful thinking won’t cut it. He needed someone he could count on, who wouldn’t judge him, and like a parent, I became mom.

That is why I do what I do.

Looking for Testimonials of people who have been through the Justice System

open prison door in jail or prison
I want to start a new section that is about the stories of other people who have been through this. Justified, Not justified. Guilty or not guilty. This isn’t a place to pass judgement, just a place to let people know what you know about these things I write about. This is space to air how you feel and maybe talk with other people who understand. Write to me and tell me if you’d like me to tell your story.

It could be a story of life before prison, prison life or life after prison and everything in between. I invite any other prison bloggers to add their story here as well.

Video – Michelle Alexander – Locked out of the American Dream

http://facebook.com/jamielifeinprison . . .Blog posts and news about injustice in the world

Sonni Quick piano music complete list

Everything Michelle Alexander is saying is what I have been writing about and for quite some time.  Understanding this when it is too late won’t help anyone.  How many more children have to lose one or both of their parents to a system they can’t fight against because there are men who are much stronger who can make a profit out of selling them?  How many of you have lost someone to the system? American dream?  Is there an American dream for most people?  This America – Land of the Brave – Home of the Free – ceased to exist a long time ago yet the rhetoric is still being fed and it is still being believed. 

It isn’t just the prisons, it is any way they can convince you to give up your life or the life of your loved one for a cause that only exists for profit.  Join the armed service and fight for the freedom of America is really – fight the war of the corporations in the countries that have something we want and wrap it up in patriotism.  Our men and women think they are fighting for one reason – but it isn’t the real reason. We are being used.  Our families are being torn apart.  We are expendable.  And as president Bush Sr once said ( off camera), he considered each American to be equal to one fodder unit. Do you know what a fodder unit is? Our men and women in prison are also fodder. 

The corporations that own the prisons get paid for every person they incarcerate.  This is why their 20 year contracts state that the prisons they take over have to be kept 90% and sometimes 100% full at all times or we, the taxpayers have to pay these corporations for their loss of money to make up for what they aren’t getting. 

So how can our prison populations go down when the people with money are fighting in the opposite direction?  This is our country and we need to fight for it.  Right now we are not only losing, we are fighting among ourselves – just what they want us to do.

This blog is about a man you should be familiar with by now – Jamie Cummings –  the black father of one of my grandsons, with a white mother, my daughter. My grandsons are black – not white.  It is easy for a white person to say they aren’t racist until they come face to face with it and it affects their own family. It is easy for white people to glance at the situation and turn their face away and go on with their lives because they think it doesn’t affect them.  Many people turn a blind eye and pretend it isn’t there because they don’t want to get involved.

Have you ever had a cause? Something you believed in so strongly it permeated through your bone marrow? Something that at the end of your life, defined who you are?  How you will be remembered? If someone where to describe who you were and finished the sentence, (your name), believed in (something) and (did something) that affected the lives of . . .Not for recognition but because your life affected other people in a positive way. After I had a liver transplant in 2012,  I wanted my life to mean something. I didn’t want to waste it.  I didn’t want to waste these extra years of life I was given. These are my thoughts for me, not meant to disparage anyone else.  We all make our own choices.  This is when I started this blog.

This issue affects everyone and it continues to slide the power more and more into the wealthy hands of wealthy men who think they have the right to profit off the sales of human beings they decide have no value. It is a sophisticated and ALLOWED form of slavery. Allowed because we don’t pay attention. Allowed because too many people believe the hype that prisons are only for locking up bad people. Unless you take the time to to take notice, it just slides by you because you think it has nothing to do with your life. I recently watched a video where a man was auctioning off a brand new prison – in auctioneer vernacular – to the highest bidder promising them there was an endless stream of new prisoners and they’d make lots of money on the sale of these people they decided are beneath them and they should have the right to profit from them.

I have studied and researched this issue to the point that if it were possible to have a degree in this – I would have at least a masters. But what to do with this information? How do I make a difference with this knowledge?  I am very concerned for my grandsons, now ages 6 and 8 because I know what is coming for them and i want to be able to protect them.  I know the possibilities that await them and it scares the daylights out of me.  I know now, what every other person of color has now for a long time.  I apologize to them for taking so long to join the fight.

I was never aware before of the prison system and what it stood for.  I only knew what you know.  I never thought of myself as a racist. It is easy to think you aren’t racist if you are white because it doesn’t affect your immediate life. But we are programmed to be racist. In speaking with a woman who said strongly that she isn’t racist, still said, without thinking, that if a black boy came toward her with a hooded sweatshirt she would be suspicious. Why? I asked. She had no answer other than she couldn’t see his face. We are programmed to think that a black person wearing a hooded sweatshirt is someone who is up to no good and might hurt us. There is a an earlier blog post, a letter from Jamie,  Walking While Black that is worth reading if you haven’t already.

After I started this blog, posting Jamie’s letters, and after starting the book, “Inside the Forbidden Outside”, I realized absolutely that I had a cause and that cause is probably the most important thing I will have done in my life. There are other prison blogs and prison books written by inmates, and many of them are about how bad they were as criminals and all the horrible things they do to each other in prison. Some have been able to change their lives in positive ways and some want to help influence the young people to keep them out of prison.

This book I am writing is about the person. The heart. The mental anguish of loneliness, separation from family, Loss of dignity and indignities shown, humiliation of being treated as less than a person. I want this book to be able helping to change what is happening. I want more people to stand up and say it needs to be changed. So much of all the bad things our government is doing that makes our life harder are things that we have allowed to happen. We listen to the hype. We pass bad information as if it were truth. We listen to sound bites and believe them.

I know what is waiting for Jamie when he gets out of prison. Not only will it be hard to get his life together, it will be next to impossible unless my voice is loud enough to help change it for him. Where does the money come from for him to have a place to live when no one will give him a job?  Will he have to depend on a family who hasn’t even given him $10 to buy the stamps he needs to write letters they never answer? All he wants is to be a father. He was pushed through the school to prison pipeline from the age of 16 and he’s 32 now. My hope is that writing his story, also about the injustice and racism in the prisons with horrible living conditions will sell to help bring him enough income to help get his life together.. He is a special person. A man with heart and hopes and dreams just like everyone else and I want him to be able to help him be that man.  There will bee a second book.  This one is the inside of prison.  The second book will be about what happens on the outside.

Life after prison. I see the possibility of lectures,  of him speaking at schools and communities and finding a way to turn a negative into a positive. I see this so clearly in my mind. Without this support he will not know which way to turn or what to do because he doesn’t have the wisdom gained by life experience. He is not a “criminal”. He is, unfortunately black and has not one skill to depend on. The prison system has kept him so far down he hasn’t even been able to study for his GED. Even McDonalds wouldn’t hire him because he will be an ex-felon. Also having epilepsy is a major setback. He came into my life for a reason and this is the reason why I do what I do. This is my cause and the reason for my day. It is what I am meant to do. What will be his life after prison?

There is something I have told many people. “The only legacy of value we can leave behind when we die, is the affect we have on other people.” It is how we live on. I want to be part of this change. My problem – I don’t know where to take it from here. I don’t know the right people. Where and how do I begin speaking out? I have spoken in different circumstances in front of a hundreds of people. Being able to speak is not an issue. How does one get more involved? You may not have those answers but I have to keep pushing ahead in any way I can to find them.