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.

Posted in crime, Justice Chronicles, Lest We Forget, Life Sentences, Parole, parole board, race, Reentry | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Black Shadows and Through the White Looking Glass, ezwwaters, Justice Chronicles, Poetry, Reentry, Sometimes Blue Knights Wear Black Hats | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Poets, Prison Writing, and Pantoums

Poets feel deeply, oftentimes too deeply. Sometimes they’re overwhelmed by their feelings.

Poets are incurable Romantics. They love Love. They’re always on a quest to find Love.

Poets are human, deeply human, as human as can be, with all the human frailties.

I met the poet Rachel Wetzsteon through my work with PEN America’s Prison Writing Program (PWP). We both sat on the PWP Poetry Sub-Committee, which judges PEN’s annual Prison Writing Awards, poetry being one of the categories.

It was Rachel who encouraged me to flirt with forms: sonnets, villanelles, and pantoums – oh my!

I quickly took to the pantoum, a Malay form, perfect for elegies. My next and completed book of poetry, The Black Blood of Poetry, the title poem, which I’m shopping around, is anchored by a pantoum.

Rachel died at 42.

Found dead at her home in Manhattan.

Methinks it was the heaviness of life,

Of love lost that’s been labored over.

Clear-eyed with a mordant wit

Couldn’t protect her from depression.

Love is a heavy thing.

It weighs some down,

Like an anchor around an ankle,

Dragging one to the depths.

RIP

Rachel Wetzsteon

(Nov. 1967 – Dec. 2009)

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Portrait of an Artist as a Woman

Artists have an antenna, a radar of sorts, where we can detect another artist in our midst.  It’s a look in and from their eyes, as if they aren’t there, while at the same time being everywhere.  I know, because I instantly feel simpatico.

When I first met Jessica Chambliss, I felt simpatico with her.  My antenna went off.  My internal radar detected a fellow artist.  I didn’t know then – I only knew that Jessica was an artist – but Jessica is an artist, a painter.  I dabbled with that art form, but my mind is wired differently.  As a kid, I wanted to be an architect, actually went to school for it.  To this day, I have a subscription to Architectural Digest.  I can still read blueprints, probably could design a building if I put my mind to it.  (This is a different story, but I’m proud of the architects who took a stand declaring that they would not design prisons.  If you’ve ever wondered why all the prisons built in New York in the 1980s are cookie cutter prisons, look no further than the Revolt of the Architects.  Perhaps we’ve come a long way since the Panopticon.  But I digress!)

I met Jessica in 2015, when I began my work at The Fedcap Group.  Jessica, as I, worked with youth.  Jessica had been working with youth for quite some time.  Three, five, and even ten years later, the young people Jessica had connected with would reach out to her, mostly to share their accomplishments, not to ask for anything, although some were in the job market after completing college.

A few years ago, Jessica retired.  She is now painting fulltime, what she is truly hard wired to do.  She’s shared some of her present works with me, some I share here.

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words.  Poets attempt to draw a picture with as few words as possible..

I would like to hear a word or two from you about Jessica’s art, which I’ll share with her.

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The Dead Can’t Bury the Dead!

In Shakespeare love often happens in the context of a tragedy: Hamlet and Ophelia in Hamlet; Romeo and Juliet in the play of the same name; Othello the Moor and Desdemona in Othello; Aaron the Moor and Tamora, Queen of the Goths, in Titus Andronicus.  (The last two, in part, are stories of interracial love, which is worthy of a post of its own, how the Bard treated this subject.) Shakespeare’s “love stories” happen in the context of comedy: As You Like it; The Merchant of Venice; and Measure for Measure.  Note that many of Shakespeare’s comedies have strong women, including Rosalind in As You Like It, and my favorite, Portia, in The Merchant of Venice.  Many of these “comedies” end with weddings.

When I think of our baby brother, I try not to think of his story as a tragedy.  He was one of the funniest people I’ve known.  When I think of his untimely death – when is death ever on time? – I laugh more than I cry, thinking of things he said, and how he said them.  He had the perfect timing like the best comedians.

When my brother proposed to his fiancée, Cynthia Credle, it was both beautiful and funny.  He shared this moment with his families, his biological family, and his extended families.

Cynthia makes it into my Hall of Women during this Women’s History Month because she loved my brother, and my brother loved her.  For a man, and I’m speaking as a man, to be truly loved by a woman is one of the most precious gifts we receive.

Dying young is tragic.  Dying two months before your wedding makes it exponentially tragic.  Still, I don’t think of my brother’s life and story as tragic.  We shared many great moments, most of them funny because my brother was a comedian at heart, and he had a good heart.  His numerous friends can testify to that.  And I know that there’s no consolation for us, his families, in his untimely death, but when our brother “shuffled off his mortal coil” and we celebrated his life, because the dead can’t bury the dead, we witnessed how so many people loved him.  This brings me happiness, because not only did he know love, but he was loved.

My brother was the best man at my wedding.  If you look at the pictures, especially at the Church, he is standing watch like a security guard, his body language saying: anyone trying to stop this union must go through me!  I was going to have the honor of being his best man.  That’s just how the Waters Brothers roll!

The sad thing is that I won’t ever roll again with my brother on this plane.  If there’s a Heaven, I know he’s there, and I know the angels and the heavenly hosts are cracking up at something he’s saying.

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“We Are Family!”

Wanda & Cheryl

If you have been following my posts, or you know my family, then you know that I have three sisters.  Jeanette Waters, the Matriarch, of course, you know, from my tribute to her.  Today, though, I want to uplift my other two sisters, Cheryl, and Wanda.

People who know my sisters don’t think of Cheryl as a fighter.  But she is the original fighter among the Waters sisters.  Cheryl was a preemie, not expected to live.  When she pulled through, the doctors called her their “miracle baby.”  Cheryl is my “Irish twin,” though not in the strict sense, in that we were born in different years.  But for four months out of the year, we are the same age. As kids, during this time, we had to explain to adults who asked our age that we were not twins, that we have the same mother and father.

Cheryl, I think, embodies our mother.  Jeanette says she’s the best person she knows, so uncharacteristically Gemini.  Well, Jeanette, Cheryl should have entered the world in September, not June.  This explains your sentiments.  Jeanette can get astrological reading the signs and the stars in the sky.  Maybe, just maybe, this explains why Cheryl is not a “typical” Gemini.

Wanda, the youngest, the smallest and the shortest of my sisters, is a fighter.  Let’s say she’s the feminine version of Napoleon.  Mommy would say, “Something is wrong with you!  You’re always fighting.”  (Black women have always had to fight, for everything, especially their dignity and respect, in these here United States.)  Actually, Wanda is like a ninja, not Napoleon.  In fact, let me give my baby sister an African attribute.  Wanda is like Nzinga Mbande, who was Queen of the Ambundu Kingdoms of Ndongo and Matamba.  Among other things, Nzinga was a military strategist, a fighter.  For the record, many of Wanda’s fights were in defense of our baby brother.  I think Whitney, not Houston, learned this, and that anyone who gave him any problems, he knew he could send Wanda after them.  Whitney and I could not have three better sisters.  They have always had our back because we are family!

Remember when downloading ringtones was all the rage?  My sisters don’t know this, but on my phone they all had the same ringtone, Sister Sledge’s title song from their 1979 album, “We Are Family.”

Wanda, Me, Cheryl, Jeanette

We are family

I got all my sisters with me

We are family

Get up everybody and sing

Everyone can see we’re together

As we walk on by

(And) and we fly just like birds of a feather

I won’t tell no lie

All of the people around us they say

Can they be that close

Just let me state for the record

We’re giving love in a family dose

We are family (hey, y’all)

I got all my sisters with me

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She Invited Me into the Red Tent

Shawnee Benton Gibson has a special place in my Hall of Heroines, for two reasons.  First, we share the same Born Day, different years.  I can always expect a call or a text from her on our special day!  How cool is it that I share the same Born Day with three women I’ve met during my odyssey? Shawnee, and my two “white sisters” I mentioned in a post.  Second, and more importantly, Shawnee invited me into the Red Tent.

The Red Tent is where the world begins. Under this tent one finds music, magic, and miracles, including the miracle of birth.  Under this tent one finds loss and grief, those twin towers of life, and how to deal with them.

Shawnee is a Womanpreneur – love that term! – Community Leader, Healer, Vision Coach, Author, Artist, and Inspirational Speaker. She is also the Co-Founder and CEO at Spirit of A Woman (S.O.W.).

Shawnee has been sowing seeds that have borne much fruit. I met Shawnee through my sister Jeanette.  When you have extraordinary sisters, you are bound to meet extraordinary women, one of the many blessings of growing up with and having three sisters.  Yes, I know why the caged bird sings; yes, I know how to be a friend with women; and yes, I know that women will lay it on the line in ways men cannot even conceive.  In one of my other posts, I stated that if I ever needed a lawyer, then I would first call my women lawyer friends, not any of the male lawyers I know.

Women know something, they have this knowledge that has kept the species alive.  If the world were solely left to men, I wouldn’t be writing this right now.  We would have destroyed it.  Why would any male be resistant to the leadership of women?  I especially like how Shawnee is an advocate of women’s health, especially Black women, raising health concerns the medical profession has ignored or minimized.  Women are more willing to have deep talk around matters that touch hearts and souls, while men will get all enthusiastic about sports.  I also like that Shawnee won’t hesitate to call out the foolishness of women, especially women of color, who think that we, men and women, are not in this together, for better or worse.

Shawnee, call me or text me on any other day than our Born Day!

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