Aunt Willie

Aunt Willie

My Aunt Willie is the cool aunt, the cultured aunt. When my mother passed away when I was seventeen, Aunt Willie became the closest thing to a mother I had. She never forgot my birthday, to this very day. I can, at the very least, expect a call from her on my Born Day.

My Aunt Willie married my mother’s brother. In thinking about this penultimate post for Women’s History Month, I thought about my Uncle Mike (Micah). I was 10 years of age when he passed away. I don’t remember his death, but I remember him taking me and his son Jeffrey “crabbing” at Coney Island. We didn’t catch anything but seaweed, but it was still a memorable occasion. From this simple outing, I learned a lifelong lesson about “presence,” about being present in the life of your children, of young people, of the people with whom you are connected. This lesson informs how I move in the world, personally and professionally, which I call “the ministry of presence.”

It seems like my Aunt Willie has always been present, in one way or another, in my life, in the life of her family, in the life of our family. She is the true Matriarch of our larger family.

At 91, my aunt is still sharp, as sharp as when she was a public school teacher and had to deal with the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and she has an incredible sense of humor.

Aunt Willie has been blessed with a long life, and we have been blessed by having her in our life.

Aunt Willie and her Daughters

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Vision: To See What Others Can’t

In my work in the last twenty years in the nonprofit arena, I have met and collaborated with dynamic women leaders.  They all had different skill sets and strengths.  Some were fabulous fundraisers, others were powerful public speakers, and yet others were financial wizards.  They worked at grassroots, small, medium, and large organizations.

I struggled with this post, but I’m a  person who gives credit where credit is due.

Christine McMahon, President and CEO of The Fedcap Group, is one of the most visionary nonprofit leaders I have encountered in the past twenty years.  Under her leadership, The Fedcap Group has expanded its footprint, becoming an international organization, with Fedcap U.K., and Fedcap Canada.

Every Wednesday, in her “Wednesday Morning Buzz,” Christine McMahon shares some of her current thinking, along with articles she has been reading that’s informing her thought leadership.  As someone who teaches a graduate level leadership course, I am always gleaning these articles and sharing with my students.  My previous supervisor would, at staff meetings, joke, “I bet you Eric read the latest ‘buzz’ from our President and CEO.”  Once, I responded, ”Why would I not want to get into the head and the thinking of a visionary leader who sees what others can’t?”  I’m my previous supervisor’s successor, in part, methinks, because I, too, see what others can’t.

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Phenomenal Women Are Everywhere!

As we wind down this Women’s History Month, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the phenomenal women, Juliette, Giovanni, Belinda, and Irma, on ReServe’s leadership team who have helped me manage one of the organization’s remits with a workforce of two hundred people.  There are other women, not peripheral, but essential, that led this team to success, Bryanna, Tiffany, Yvette, Patricia, Akiko, Diane, Jodi, Cecilia, and Evelyn (Mafan).  And others, Dhanairy and Siana.

I’ve often stated that, growing up with three sisters, I have a sensibility many men don’t have.  I’ve never really given it much thought.  When you grow up a certain way, it’s just part of you; you don’t think about it.  I treat women in the workforce as I would want my sisters treated, with professionalism and respect.  To my credit, or theirs (my sisters), far too many women I have worked with have come to me, before they went to HR, to see if I could address a particular “male” behavior.  To a woman, they’ve said, we don’t get that vibe (toxic masculinity) from you in the workplace.  I’ve taken my understanding of this “vibe” to my coaching sessions with formerly incarcerated men who could very well be like the cavemen in the Geico commercials, but this balance in the workplace is not so easy.

One thing that I’m truly appreciative of the last two years, is working with a truly diverse workforce.  The ReServe workforce doing test and trace work around COVID-19, in the neighborhoods most impacted during this pandemic, spoke more than twenty languages and was as close as I’ve seen a “rainbow coalition.”  In more than 20 years in the nonprofit world, I have not worked with a more diverse workforce, linguistically and racially.  As a native New Yorker, I often marvel at how segregated our diverse City is, even in the workforce.  I’ve worked at nonprofits, and I could surmise, by race, which departments people served.

Our remit revolved around serving people, initially, in thirty-three zip codes most impacted by COVID-19, identified by the Mayor’s Taskforce on Racial Inclusion and Equity (TRIE).  I’ve seen some important things happen with this group, so I remain hopeful about a host of things.

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The Amazing Grace of The Most Honorable Ketanji Brown Jackson

Two months ago I didn’t know who Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was.  Today, the whole world should know her.  The whole world should be in awe of her amazing grace in the face of an unprecedented attack on a U.S. Supreme Court nominee, the first Black woman to receive this ”honor.”

Although the spotlight is on Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, something else is being highlighted: the virulent racism in the Senate leadership of Republicans.  In this historic moment, any Black Republican should be ashamed to be a Republican, given the treatment of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.  In fact, Black Republicans should defect from the Republican Party, become Independents, or revisit a period in American political history and become the new Know-Nothing party (1850-1860), and do nothing.

Those who know me know that I can’t stomach “slave movies,” including Gone With the Wind, Frankly, I don’t give a damn about that “genre” of film.  Add U.S. Senate Confirmation Hearings when Black people are nominees!

Years from now, whether or not Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson becomes the next U.S. Supreme Court Justice, movies will be made about her.  I hope they accurately capture this moment, and portray Senators Cruz and Graham as the wretched wretches they are, without an iota of shame, grace, or honor.

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, those who are most important honor you, today and tomorrow.  White America has never honored Black women and their contributions to making this nation great.

Lest we forget, white leaders of this nation suckled at the breasts of Black women, and continue to do so, although they are biting and drawing blood.

Blood is in the mouths of Senators Cruz and Graham.  You want some critical race theory?  When the historical record is written, Cruz and Graham will be a shameful footnote to the story of the Most Honorable Ketanji Brown Jackson.

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“Life Sentence”

In my post, “The Anatomy of Advocacy – In High Heels,” I mentioned how the successful advocacy of the Ad Hoc Committee on Lifetime Parole was a much longer, untold story.  This is another part of the story.

In addition to research on parole, quantitative out of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and qualitative out of the CUNY Graduate Center, some Ad Hoc Committee on Lifetime Parole members participated in a documentary, “Life Sentence.”  Lisa Gray, Media Producer / Editor / Consultant at Sound Mind Productions, put together a compelling documentary on the impact of a life sentence.  Many of these life sentences were given to people when they were teenagers, many of them unarmed, nonkilling accomplices in felony-murder, one of the strictest liability crimes on the law books.

In “The Anatomy of Advocacy,” I mentioned Jenna’s Law, how Gov. Pataki got it on the books, and the attendant rider that eliminated release from parole supervision for certain individuals, that is, lifetime parole supervision, which wasn’t part of the original sentence.  When I author the full story, how the Ad Hoc Committee on Lifetime Parole got to advocacy as opposed to a lawsuit challenging the constitutional legitimacy of the amendment of Executive Law 259-j, then the story will come into sharp focus, since I’ve been administering it in doses.  In any event, because people convicted of class A-1 felonies in New York were sentenced under the indeterminate sentencing scheme, Jenna’s Law, which brought determinate sentencing to New York State, didn’t apply to them.  The “loophole,” because these individuals could only be released to parole supervision by the Board of Parole: Gov. Pataki instituted what came to be called the “Pataki Rule,” in short, deny everyone convicted of certain crimes parole.  For those serving an indeterminate sentence of 15 years to life – this is a true story: parole panels repeatedly denied this individual, adding 25 years to the 15 years before he was released to parole supervision! – where there was an expectation to be released to parole supervision after the minimum period of imprisonment of 15 years, found themselves being repeatedly denied parole.  Some of these individuals died before a parole board made a determination to release them.

The research mentioned above revealed that the people being released at a percentage below 5% when the Pataki Rule was enforced had the lowest recidivism rate when their release rate was above 50%.  I know it sounds Kafkaesque, but below is dialogue from two true stories.

(A repeat offender – pardon the language, but I’m making a point – for “minor” crimes is interviewed by an institutional parole officer.  Towards the end of the interview, the following dialogue takes place.)

Repeat Offender:      

What do you think my odds are of making parole?

Parole Officer:                       

They’ll [the parole panel) probably let you go because they know you’ll be back.

(The same Parole Officer has a similar conversation with a First Timer, convicted of felony-murder as an unarmed nonkilling accomplice, who’s served 20 years, who is going to the parole board the same month as the Repeat Offender.  He has a stellar prison record, the poster child for “rehabilitation.”)

First Timer:

What do you think my odds are of making parole?

Parole Officer:

Fifty-fifty.  They know you’re not coming back.

This dialogue is indicative of a system designed to fail, with or without a life sentence.

Posted in being a teenager, crime, ezwwaters, Justice Chronicles, juveniles, Lest We Forget, Life Sentences, Murder, Parole, parole board, Politics, race, raising black boys, Reentry, remorse, Streets of Rage, urban decay, Urban Impact | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Anatomy of Advocacy – In High Heels

In 1998, the New York State Legislature passed Jenna’s law, named after Jenna Grieshaber, a 22-year-old white female nursing student killed by Nicholas Eugene Pryor, a Black male who had previously been on parole. 

Governor Pataki exploited Jenna’s tragic death to get determinate sentencing in New York for Index Crimes, framed as “violent felony offenses.” Pataki’s real motivation for pushing for determinate sentencing was to secure block grants made available by the Federal government to the states for passing “truth-in-sentencing” laws.  When politicking for this change in sentencing laws, Pataki was clear that it had more to do with dollars and cents than public safety.  In fact, the so-called “crime problem” in New York, specifically in New York City, was seen as rural upstate New York’s profit.  Indeed, Pataki’s predecessor, Gov. Mario Cuomo, began to build an economic infrastructure in chronically economically depressed rural areas in New York by building prisons, with funding from the Urban Development Corporation because New Yorkers didn’t want to fund prisons though bonds, to provide employment.  When it comes to dollars and cents as they are connected to crime and punishment, both Democrats and Republicans are bipartisan, or equally guilty.  The pot of money Pataki sought originated in the presidency of Bill Clinton, a Democrat, who proved that he could be even tougher on crime than Republicans.

In any event, a rider was attached to Jenna’s law, eliminating the possibility of release from parole supervision for people convicted of certain crimes that carried a maximum sentence of life.  Sentencing laws are complicated, and this is not the platform for discussing it.  Suffice it to say that the sentencing structure in New York State militates against, for the lay person, fully understanding them.  Simply put, people on parole supervision with a reasonable expectation that they would be discharged form parole in full satisfaction of their sentences after three years on parole supervision learned that they would be on parole for the rest of their lives because of this rider!

This is a much longer story, one that needs to be told, but I want to uplift one woman, Diana Ortiz, who was instrumental in successfully “overturning” the change in law and having it restored to its pre-1998 form.

At this time Diana and I worked together for a nonprofit.  In fact, I was her direct supervisor.  I noticed something in the reentry industrial complex vis-à-vis formerly incarcerated women.  They were treated differently than their male counterparts, often by women not impacted by or impacted differently by the criminal legal system.  Much of this has to do with, I discern, how these nonprofit women leaders view women who have been trafficked or involved in sex work.

I’ll jump ahead.  I know why the caged bird sings, and unlike some nonprofit leaders and managers, I open the cages and let the birds fly free to reach whatever heights they may attain. Diana is one of these “birds.”

Re Executive Law 259-j

Diana and I were the primary leaders of the Ad Hoc Committee on Lifetime Parole, and although many people were behind our successful advocacy and reinstatement of Executive Law 259-j, only three people that I know of, Diana and I, and the late Chair of the Division of Parole, Bob Dennison, have the proclamation and one of the pens Gov. Paterson used to sign the bill into law so people released from prison could be free.

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On the Brink

Justice in America seems to almost always be on the brink of being realized.  More accurately, what we think of as justice. . . .

Justice, sometimes, intersects with poetry. At the crossroads of justice and poetry, I met Kathy Boudin. Kathy, as I, is also a poet, and a change agent for a just society. Although poetry brought us together, we were part of an amazing ad hoc committee that changed a law. (I’ll write about that in my next blog post.)

Kathy is an educator. She has a Ph.D. from Columbia University. Citizens Against Recidivism, Inc., has an award in her name, the Kathy Boudin Research and Scholarship Award. Before she earned her PhD, I invited Kathy as a guest speaker to a class I taught, “The Impact of Incarceration on Society and Families,” at York College. Actually, because I taught this class in the Psychology Department, the title of the class was, “The Psychological Impact of Incarceration on Society and Families.”  In it, I bought a Hall of Fame group of guest speakers, including Kathy. A week before the class, one of the students with a tenuous connection to law enforcement said, “You’re bringing her to speak to our class?”

Kathy’s reputation preceded her. She was connected to the Weather Underground, and was convicted of felony murder for her role in the Brink’s robbery of 1981.

One of the fundamental problems of the criminal punishment system in the U.S. is that punishment is endless. There’s a start date, but no end date in sight. Collateral consequences of a criminal conviction follow an individual for life. Everyone convicted of a felony becomes a lifer. Although Kathy had served her sentence – some people thought she shouldn’t have been released, despite her “minor” role in the crime as a nonkilling accomplice – for some people, the twentysomething years she served was not enough. For the record, fortysomething years wouldn’t have been enough for these people. Needless to say, Kathy made a positive impact on the students in my class.

We live in a society so punitive, punishment is equated with justice. Anyone who knows anything about justice knows that punishment is not the be all. Punishment is the least effective measure to achieve justice.

Yes, we are on the brink. . . .

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The Prison Portal

Poets are on a quest to find a word that is worth a thousand pictures. 

I don’t know if there’s a poetry gene, but there’s connective tissue joining poets.  Even before I know a writer is a poet – a poet is a writer, but a writer isn’t necessarily a poet – I feel simpatico with him or her.  When I met Jan A. Nicometo, and she’s another amazing poet and kind soul I met through PEN America’s Prison Writing Program (PWP), I immediately felt connected.

Jan and I, often called upon by Bell Chevigny when she was the Chair of PWP, would show up at PWP events honoring PWP Award Winners, and read their works.  It was at one of these events, more than 15 years ago, Jan said something I’ve never forgotten, and what I think is the best description of “reentry.”  I don’t know if this came to Jan in the moment, but it could’ve been a Eureka! moment, at least it was for me.  Jan, in describing reentry, rhetorically asked the audience if they were familiar with the sci-fi movie, Stargate.  Returning from prison, she said, is like walking through the Stargate.  I have written elsewhere that prison doesn’t change one’s DNA, but it fundamentally alters something in the brain and the body that science can’t explain.  I imagine going through the Stargate involves molecular changes.  In any event, Jan described the event, and I went through the Stargate with her.

Since then, my thinking around crime and punishment has evolved.  Still, I hold Jan’s reentry description in my mind, and recently I began to refer to prisons as planets, prison planets.  Anyone ever in the prison orbit can feel its powerful gravitational pull, but that’s a much longer dissertation-like conversation.

As stated in the beginning, poets seek to find a word that is worth a thousand pictures.  In that one word, Stargate, Jan captured the essence of reentry. As a footnote to Jan’s description of reentry, one of my Eureka! moments came while reading William Safire’s “On Language” column in the Sunday Times.  This column was on quantum physics.  Safire quotes a physicist, who gives a definition of a quantum jump: “going from one state to another with nothing in between.”  That, I said, is the perfect description of reentry!  Who would’ve thunk that quantum physics would perfectly describe reentry?

Reentry has pulled many people, providers, and the people they serve, in the reentry industry, down a rabbit hole. I invite you to come though the prison portal Jan and I created for a deeper, out of this world explanation of the phenomena of reentry.

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I’m Driving as Fast as I Can

Bell Gayle Chevigny is another woman I met through my work with PEN America Center’s Prison Writing Program (PWP).  She is also the editor of Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing, an anthology of some of the best writing submitted to the PWP Awards over that period.

Bell, without an “e” – she’s no Southern Belle – served as the Chair of PWP during the time I volunteered.  As the Chair, Bell was committed to writers writing from prison, above and beyond their writings.  A glaring absence in the life of writers in prison, most of them self-taught, is professional and constructive feedback of their works.  PWP would ultimately provide writing mentors to the men and women who won awards, received honorable mentions, or showed promise.  I’m not sure if this began under Bell.  Bell, though, I know, got PEN to do more in the way of advocacy for PWP winners, especially around parole.  Bell also maintained contact with men and women in prisons across the country, even in the Death Penalty States.  In Doing Time, there is a section on writers on death row.  Writing from death row, your calendar marked with the day you are scheduled to be executed, must be the most daunting day on any calendar.  (Writers, don’t complain about deadlines!)  What would you do if you knew the exact date and time you would be put to death?  I’ve read letters of people with the date of death on their calendars, and if they were writers, they wanted to write as much as they could until the Executioner showed up at the cell to take them away.  Many would prefer to write their last words over a last meal, a meal that wouldn’t even be fully digested when they met death!

Bell, I also think, has a deep and profound respect for writers writing from prisons and jails, as well as the works they produce.  I wrote elsewhere that I would often state, in the company of my PEN PWP colleagues, that as we spoke there was someone in an American prison laboring over what could become the next “Great American Novel.”  For the most part, I don’t think this claim was taken seriously, in that there is some elitism in the literary world.  I respond with Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn.

A few years ago, Bell and I, and two others, including an English professor from Vassar College, presented at an American Studies Association Conference held in Connecticut.  We were making the argument that “prison literature” is a subject worthy of study in the Academy.  I told the story elsewhere how our panel was scheduled at the same time as Angela Davis’, which, of course, resulted in fewer attendees coming to our panel.  What I didn’t tell, was our road trip to Connecticut.

Bell and I decided to share the driving on our trip to Connecticut.  We drove her minivan.  When we were halfway there, I took over the driving.  We are on Interstate 95, and I’m driving as fast as I can, that is, the speed limit.  Bell, as if she was reciting a poem with the refrain, “Drive faster!  Drive faster!” kept saying that.  I knew we were in no jeopardy of being late, and when I’m driving, I don’t need or listen to a copilot.  I almost turned to Bell to tell her, “I’m driving while Black, and you have no idea what that means!”  So, I listened to her siren song until it stopped, and the needle stayed at 65 mph, the speed limit, for the duration of the trip, and we arrived, safe and sound, without an incident.

I won’t say it felt like doing time riding with Bell, because I genuinely like her and her body of work, and her commitment to writers writing from prison!

Posted in crime, ezwwaters, Justice Chronicles, Lest We Forget, Life Sentences, Murder, Parole, Poetry, Politics, race, raising black boys, Reentry, Relationships, remorse | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Poets Are Revolutionaries: Drop Poetry, Not Bombs!

The Poet as a Revolutionary, Circa 2001

Poets, at heart, are revolutionaries.  In addition to being incurable romantics, they are idealists.  Even in their poetry, they seek the ideal.  They are always in search of the ideal.

I also met Susan Rosenberg through my work with PEN America’s Prison Writing Program (PWP).  A fellow poet, we sat on the PWP Poetry Sub-Committee, which judges PEN’s annual Prison Writing Awards, poetry being one of the categories.  As a fellow poet, I immediately felt simpatico with Susan.  (And, of course, we are both cerebral Libras!)

Before I met Susan, I knew her by reputation, a self-styled “radical.”  One thing I have learned during my odyssey, is that you can’t judge people by their book covers.

Susan is a gentle soul.  It’s part of her DNA.  A stint in prison doesn’t change one’s DNA, or character.  And any ideas of “rehabilitation” are despite, not because of, the prison system.  People, men, and women, forge themselves in the fiery furnace that is prison.  All the prison provides is the fire.  As Norman Mailer wrote in the introduction to Jack Henry Abbott’s New York Times bestseller, In the Belly of the Beast, America not only locks up the “worst of the worst,” but also the brightest, the boldest, the most unbroken of, mostly, the poor, Black and Brown men (and white people who ally themselves with Black and Brown folk).

Despite being sentenced to a ridiculous amount of time in prison, 58 years, Susan remained unbroken.  Since America doesn’t respond to poetry, one day Susan found herself in possession of a large cache of explosives, and firearms, including automatic weapons, for the Cause.  She was linked to the May 19th Communist Organization and had been sought as an accomplice in the 1979 prison escape of Assata Shakur and the 1981 Brink’s robbery.

The only redeeming thing President Bill Clinton did in terms of crime and punishment, was to commute Susan’s sentence to time served on January 20, 2001, his final day in office.  She had served 16 years.  (Not really an aside, but white folk in America who ally themselves with Black folks – and it’s a long history, just use the revolutionary abolitionist John Brown as a starting point, Jewish people during the Civil Rights Era, and revolutionaries during the 1960s and 1970s – are targeted and imprisoned or killed.  Compare their treatment with the January 6th Insurrectionists!)

I wish America responded to poetry.  This is an overstatement, but poetry, in all its revolutionary and even radical glory, could be our salvation.  Drop poetry, not bombs!

Posted in Black Shadows and Through the White Looking Glass, ezwwaters, Justice Chronicles, Lest We Forget, Poetry, Reentry, remorse, Revolution, Urban Impact | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment