Friday, April 12, 2013

Medical Facility at Butner Federal Correctional

Friday, April 12, 2013

4:19 a.m.

In four hours I will be on my way to Butner Correctional Medical Facility (BCMF), in Durham, North Carolina

Usually, and surprising to most people, I have very little anxiety about entering a correctional facility, but this one is different.  My mind has been racing all evening into the early morning hours.  I can’t sleep and the thought of entering the facility brings me to the brink of tears.

I can pretty honestly say, I have been a wreck most of night.

BCMF will be an all around different experience.

Here, is where many of the inmates at Butner Federal Correctional will relocate if they become seriously ill or are dying.

The thought of someone spending their last days slowing dying in a cold, lonely place is incredibly disheartening.  There are some inmates who might qualify for medical parole, but that is not the majority of cases.

I have read several articles written by nurses who care for terminally ill inmates and the overwhelming consensus is that while they are undoubtedly compassionate for the victim’s of the offender’s crime, the inhumane way of dying alone, without a loved one, without the very basic need of our human element: connection is a very sad reality. (Note: most nurses who wrote about the conflicting compassion expressed intense guilt for such compassion towards the inmates. (This shaming is sad and unfortunate.).)

This may be a touchy subject for some. Some will have little sympathy for these terminally ill patients.

Let us dare to ask though, how we would want our loved one: our son, daughter, father or mother to spend their last moments before dying? Alone? Scared?

Absolutely not.

Can we not afford incarcerated patients  equal worth?

I ask that we all try to be mindful and carry a compassionate, open heart.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

A Boy Named Freedom

A Boy Named Freedom

There was a boy, his name was Freedom

A funny name of sorts

His parents, Law and Justice

Never really knew him

His father stoic, dry and lacking warmth

His mother blind.

There was a boy named Freedom

Like every young boy

In search of who he was.

Defined by others perceptions

Liberation was as foreign as his father acceptance

There was a boy named freedom

Who stood on the shore

Looking for the girl he loved-




Rebuilt in a more beautiful and breathtaking design.

A design that never could have been imagined in a different place and time.

This is your blueprint:  use color

Be fearless and draw your lines askew

Outside the box.

Hell, draw a circle if you want.

In your canvas use texture and never forget its feeling.

Appreciate the Cool, rough and bumpy

Imagine. Despite all you think you don’t have.

There is always more in the art of life we don’t see.

Cusped in your hands

Is warmth.

Create a beautiful and breathtaking design.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

In the sanctuary of education, you don’t have to be a prisoner:

In the sanctuary of education, you don’t have to be a prisoner:

Recalling defining moments of our visit to the Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison


“There is a resilience of human spirit that even a small number of those men and women in hell of the prison system survive it and hold on to their humanity. “ –Howard Zinn


 There are many of us who have seen stories of San Quentin prison depicted on “reality” television shows whose claim to fame is to bring outsiders a “truthful” look inside a notorious institution. An institutional juggernaut of violence, addiction and gangs.

My goal here is to not discount everything that is depicted. There is some truth to the conditions of prison life. It is not a place to be or to call home.  Prison is painful, exclusionary and sad.

Try to imagine it.

The lack of human affection; of love.  The absence of the warmth of your lover’s body wrapped around you at night, the inability to hold your child…these are all lost human connections. Sometimes replaced with actions of violence, against oneself and others; feelings of vulnerability, shame, fear and anxiety to conceal the maddening loss of autonomy, respect and loving connections that compose our humanity.

There are gangs.

 There is violence.

There is addiction.

 There is mental illness.

 There is death.

There is despair.

 There is sadness.

 There is remorse.

 There is guilt.

 There is shame.

And there is regret.

There is also something else.

Hope. Courage.  Determination.  Strength.  Resilience.

This is the story within the walls of San Quentin I want to tell.

That despite its conditions and limitations the inmates in general population at San Quentin find themselves in, there is an unyielding journey of repair, self-discovery and determination to not let mistakes define who they are.

Our visit to San Quentin Prison was to see first-hand the structure, dynamics and interpersonal relationships that occur and develop within the Prison University Project (PUP).   We were nothing short of blown away.

Jody Lewen, Executive Director of the Prison University Project, met us at the gate before escorting us through the prison clearance routine. Meeting Jody was like reuniting with a long lost friend. I had corresponded with Jody through several emails and telephone conversations prior to our visit out to the West Coast. Jody wanted to ensure we were all aware of the rules and dress codes at the prison but also extended kind gestures of transportation, food and networking. She was even more warm and welcoming in person than she was over the phone.  After exchanging hugs, Jody thanked us for visiting and thanked us for our pursuits advocating for education within prisons.

Truly a warm welcoming especially compared to the intimidating infrastructure of historical Spanish architecture that now housed thousands of California citizens under state correctional supervision, towering in the background.

Several guards dressed in dark-green military style uniforms met us at three different identification check points and security scan before we could even actually enter the prison. Not to mention slamming prison gates that mimicked infamous Californian earthquakes.

Despite the warmth and kindness of Jody, all the intimidating factors started weighing in.

How does one truly prepare their psyche to encounter what is a reality to so many but so far removed from outside society?

After all, this was the notorious San Quentin Prison! I think I can speak for myself and my colleagues, that walking through the corridor of the prison, down the descending pathway and around the corner of the long prison wall we were expecting to see a scene of "thugs" ballin' it up in the yard, lifting weights and pockets of racially segregated groups.

We approached the yard and nothing could have been further from the truth.

What we did see was amazing and a powerful testament to the value of the Prison University Project. We saw men lining the outside walls of the educational trailers.

Armed with books.

 Books in white mesh book bags thrown over their shoulders. We saw a table set up to encourage other inmates to participate in a democratic dialogue of concerns and community building within their walls. We saw staff writers and editors passing out the current edition of the San Quentin news; one of the only newspapers in California, possibly in the nation written entirely by inmates.

We saw men approach Jody, bid her good evening and strike up conversation as if they had been friends for a lifetime.

Their attitudes were contagious. At every corner, there were not rival gangs defending their yard territory, there were men engaging in conversation and debate about what social psychology theory best applied to the anticipated night’s lesson, men sitting independently proofreading papers to turn in for class, men reviewing notes from the last class.

During the several days we visited San Quentin, we had the opportunity to sit in on higher education classes all taught by professors and graduate students from Stanford and UC Berkley, some of them driving over an hour to and from to teach….voluntarily.  The dialogue was challenging and thought-provoking. The PUP students were held to the same academic parity as fellow graduate students from Stanford or Berkley.

During a break in one of the seminar classes I had the privilege to speak with a PUP student, Kenyatta (what I didn’t know at the time was that Kenyatta was the valedictorian of his graduating class for his Associates Degree). He inquired about our visit and relayed to us that the PUP was literally a lifeline for him.  He said that “education was the most worth having possession he could have.”

In our time we also had the opportunity to attend the preparatory reading, writing and math classes. I have sat for weeks trying to find the right words to express how sitting in those classes watching grown and sometimes frail, old men struggle to read or do simple multiplication made me feel.

Is there a word for sadness so deep it burns a picture into your being? I will never forget those men. Struggling but remaining hopeful. Frustrated yet persistent.

Each time we left the facility during our visit there was an array of emotions to sort through. Whether we travelled back into the city by car, train, cab or ferry our conversations were filled with reflections about the classes and social dynamics within the program that trickled out into general population.  

Documenting mentally and on paper the stories behind the Prison University Project has helped me further advocate for the benefits of educational programs in prison. Furthermore, our visit has empowered me with greater knowledge and a deeper understanding of the dire importance to aid in the deconstruction of social misconceptions of those incarcerated. Misconceptions generate a fear; creating an unhealthy divisionary reaction of seclusion from one another and our communities; placing members of our society into categories of us and them; the worthy and the un.

I want to make clear, prison is no playground and there is definitely a need for reform. It is sad and painful. There is little rehabilitation and in some pockets, breeding grounds for further criminalization. But understand this; there are more people than not who are holding on to hope and doing the very best they can in their circumstance to change the course of their lives. There are men incarcerated at San Quentin who do community fundraiser to help at risk children, they organize walks, runs and prison baseball games to raise money for fellow inmates with cancer. They are not all bad people; some have just made mistakes (or been in the crossfire of bad law and policy). They are human beings who work against our societal grains of letting their mistakes define who they are. It is ridiculous and sad that these stories are not what we see in the news and media.

I am thankful to Jody for all of her inspiring work and relentless dedication towards stimulating public awareness and meaningful dialogue about higher education and criminal justice. The Prison University Project at San Quentin is one of the guiding models the Guilford College Higher Education in Prison Initiative hopes to learn from.
The following link is a video reflection of the research and visit to San Quentin and the Prison University Project. Enjoy!

For more information on the San Quentin Prison University Project and the San Quentin newspaper please visit: and