Thursday, January 26, 2017

Entering the Hall of Remembrance

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By Mathew Aho

My Grandfather is the glue that holds our family together. He raised three daughters, but was never given the son he wanted. Ironically, all three of his daughters would grow to have sons of their own. My Mother and her sister would end up raising their sons as single parents. My Uncle and my Father had their own agendas and were not around. My Grandfather stepped in as the male role model, and father figure, that my cousin and I needed.

I would only see my Grandfather a couple times a year, but I remember counting down the days until it was time to visit. He took me fishing at the local creek, Big Greek, where I caught Crawdads, small Trout and Sculpines with him for hours. He also taught me how to tie and bait a hook. He took me fishing for salmon and Sturgeon, and crabbing on the Columbia River. He taught me how to shoot a bb gun, and even let me shoot my first real gun, a .22 caliber revolver.

I loved fishing so much, and still do. Being in the woods and surrounded by silence except for the sounds of nature—and Grandpa's quiet knowledge of local trees and plants, how to read a river and the tides--this is when I was happiest. Grandpa recognized my passion for fishing and being outdoors. He took me to Alaska one year, driving us all the way there from Oregon. We stopped at every lake, river and puddle so I could cast my line a few times. In Alaska we dug for Razor clams, fished for Halibut in Cook Inlet, Chinook and Sockeye on the Kenai and Russian Rivers.

Grandpa taught me how to run a chainsaw and split firewood, to stoke a fire. He taught me how to ride a dirt bike, a Honda XR 80. I remember how he laughed at me when I dumped it over while riding through a large mud puddle. I was embarrassed, discouraged, and soaked to the bone but he made me get back on and try again. He taught me to never give up.

But I was just a young boy in those days. As I got older, I started getting into trouble with the law and using drugs. Grandpa never turned his back on me, but instead sat me down and explained that I had a choice to make. He reminded me of the good times we'd shared and explained that one direction included all of those things, and the other way none of them. The choice was mine. I chose wrongly.

I continued down the path of destruction, a life of crime and addiction. Several felony convictions later--including a couple gun charges--and I‘m serving a sentence of 17 1/2 years in prison.

The trouble with being a hard-headed and drug-addicted youth is that you don't realize your own mistakes until it‘s too late. My biggest mistake wasn't in missing out on creating more good memories with Grandpa. Rather, my biggest mistake was in not realizing the hole I had dug for myself until it was too deep.

Grandpa deserved a better grandson than me. I regret most of all not being able to show him the man I have become. He will never be able to witness my redemption, and I will never hear him say he's proud of me. I am finally on the path I should have been on a long time ago. I have sworn oaths and dedicated the majority of my time to self-improvement and education, for the sake of my own children. But my Grandfather will never get to see me succeed.

Cancer is consuming his body. I can't help but feel an overwhelming sense of guilt because my family needs me and the man who taught me so much needs me for the first time. But I cannot be there for them, for him.

I will never be able to take my Grandfather fishing, as he did for me so many times. Whenever I receive a Jpay message saying I should call home, my stomach churns and my thoughts immediately go to the worst. Will I even get a chance to tell him goodbye? Or will a sergeant appear at my cell front one day bearing the news I have been dreading? I do not want to hear it from DOC staff, especially the Chaplain.

I worry about my Grandmother. Who will make sure she is okay, that the wood is split and the fire stoked? I look a lot like my Grandfather. Could my presence comfort her? My Mother and aunt will need my help since they still live on their own. Yet I cannot be there for any of them.

I feel like a failure. I have failed my family, failed to make proud the only man in my life whose opinion of me matters. Regardless of what I am able to accomplish or what type of degree I walk out of this prison with, the pride I gain from it will be stained with the residue of my failures. 

Doing time used to be easy. I used to hear others—and myself--say, "A three-piece? A nickel? Shoot, I can do that standing on my head." But not now, not after being given this sentence. Sobriety and reality have set in. The realization that my children won‘t have their father present in their lives until they are adults made me focus on truly making it this time. The days melted together, the past five years becoming a blur. But now that I am so close to reaching my goals, time has all but stopped. I am haunted by the thought of losing my Grandfather. What if something happens to my family? My children? I am now painfully aware of every day I am serving, and with the passing of each another set of memories I am missing.

I am trapped behind a red brick wall and razor wire, unable to do what needs to be done. I hate that I am helpless in this regard, and have only myself to blame. I will carry this guilt for the rest of my life.

In the belief system of my ancestors, which I also follow, there is an afterlife. Reserved for those who have lived honorable and courageous lives, Valhalla is also for those warriors who have been slain in battle. Those who’ve shown no fear, honoring their ancestors and descendants through their deeds in life and actions in death.

Highly sought after and filled with glorious souls, Valhalla is literally the hall of the slain. Throughout the day there is much drinking, feasting and celebrating. At the end of each day the warrior souls, known as Einherjar, fight to the death only to be restored the following day so they can repeat everything again.

Upon entering this great hall you are greeted by the god Bragi, the divine Skald who sings of your exploits and welcomes you, reuniting you with your ancestors. You fight, feast and die everyday, in preparation for Ragnarok: the final battle, and end of time as we know it.

In the poem "Havamal," Odin tells of the importance of living honorably, being hospitable and having our deeds remembered: "Cattle die, kinsmen die, and everyman himself will die. But the one thing that never dies is the fame of a dead man's deeds." 

We honor our ancestors at days of remembrance, at Blots and at Sumbel. We tell their stories at family gatherings, commemorating our lineage.

When I was told that my Grandfather, who had been the only steady father figure in my life, was sick with cancer and only had six months to a year to live, I began to question whether I would ever see him again in eternity or not. To what part of the afterlife would he make it? Would he gain Valhalla? Does Odin's hall hold a seat for him? For me?

Valhalla, taken literally, can only be reached by those who are chosen or have died in battle. But what is Valhalla symbolically? Access to the hall requires honorable acts worthy of story or song, deeds worth reliving until existence itself ceases.

I believe Valhalla represents the importance of being remembered. To become a memory or have one‘s story written is symbolic of gaining Valhalla. Living an honorable life, leaving a mark on the world, will earn our exploits and deeds a place in the halls of the living. We live on in the minds of those we have affected. Our battles will be relived and refought every time we are remembered. A mead horn will be lifted in our honor, and we will each be celebrated in the minds of our descendants, our family and friends. To inspire those who follow in our footsteps, making them strive to emulate or continue what we‘ve accomplished--that, I believe, is the essence of Einherjar.

To gain Valhalla is to become unforgotten. Becoming memorable is gaining Valhalla. According to Odinist beliefs, a glorious death is defined by martyrdom or dying in war while fighting. But what about battling cancer? What about battling addiction, or fighting to feed, protect and provide for your family? Fighting life‘s obstacles without fear- persevering and striving forward, unwavering in the face of adversity. Are those deaths worthy of song? Worthy of being turned into stories passed down until the end of time as we know it?

Our ancestors strived for fame and renown so they would live on forever. They did not fear death, but rather welcomed it. If I die, went their reasoning, it will have been my time. Why worry about when that time arrives? Embrace life, and accept the inevitability of death.

I could attempt to trace my lineage back to All-Father Odin, as some kinsmen have done, and brag about being a direct descendant. But I need not go back further than two generations. For being a descendant of Kenneth Hoagland is worth bragging about. My heart swells with the pride and honor of calling myself his grandson. Without the gift of his blood in my veins, I would not exist, nor would my children. How can someone ever repay another for such a gift? All I can do is strive to become even half the man he is and offer this:
Grandpa, you will never be forgotten. I will not let your memory die. I will make sure that your descendants, my descendants, know you and love you. Even though you may never see it, Grandfather, I will do all I can to make you proud.

As long as Valhalla‘s gates still shine for those who deserve remembrance, I know he will be welcome there.

I will do my best to see you again, Grandpa Hoagy.

Update:  My grandfather passed away the morning of December 25th, 2016.  He will be missed...

Mathew Aho 841807
WSRU D-224
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777
I am 35 years old, and the father of three wonderful children. About halfway through a 210 month prison sentence for firearm and burglary charges, I'm utilizing my time by earning a degree from Seattle Central College through University Beyond Bars at Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, Washington. I'm nearly there.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Dreaming of Oxen

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A novel of the '60s by Burl N. Corbett
(Copyright 2016)

"If an ox herder were to take opium, he should dream of oxen." From The Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Thomas De Quincey

Chapter One

Breakfast at Julio’s

On an early May morning in the spring of the 1967 "Summer of Love," Sean McClaskey looked up and down Bleecker Street for any spoil sport cops before he pushed his ruined sofa off the fire escape outside his fifth-floor loft window. Nothing was stirring, not even a narc, and the only sound was that of the traffic light at the Bowery intersection clicking through its changes with the dry, pulsing insistence of a gigantic insect. By mid-morning, a scrum of competing winos would be at its feet waylaying stopped motorists for "donations," pawing awkwardly at the windshields with filthy rags, hoping for a quarter or dime to buy another punch on their one-way tickets to oblivion. But at 4:30am, they were sleeping off their drunks in the doorways and vestibules of the Bowery: the shabby seam where the aesthetic sensibility of Greenwich Village butted heads with the brutal indelicacy of the Lower East Side, a vile slum that the media in the journalistic equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig had dubbed "The East Village."

"How's it look?" Sean shouted down to his roomie, Mark Fetter, a native Brooklynite serving a summer's internship as an apprentice beatnik before deciding whether or not to cannonball into the countercultural waters. "All clear?" 

"Bums away!" Mark punned, giving Sean a double thumbs up.

Sean double-checked the street; it was deserted. The city's fauna had gone to den; nary a teeny-bopper or hippie was in sight, not even a toked-out beatnik or a brain-dead junkie. With a chuckle, he tipped the decrepit couch over the rail, then watched with satisfaction as it gracefully descended, revolving exactly 360 degrees to land with a God-awful crash on its legless bottom. A billowing cloud of ancient dust bunnies, marijuana residue, and many decades of grime mushroomed upwards, then slowly drifted toward Washington Square Park.

"Like, wow, man!" Mark yelled, bouncing foot to foot. "What an outrageous gas!"

Sean thought it pretty cool, too. He glanced at the row of lofts on the opposite side of Bleecker to see if any late-night heretics might hold differing opinions, but not even a heat pipe coughed, let alone a disgruntled beatnik/hippie/pothead hipster choking on a lungful of Acapulco Gold. Evidently, a Zen tree had fallen in a Zen forest and no one had heard it.

Chortling like a pair of mad bombers, they smoked a nightcap in their cold-water, direct current, shower and bathless loft, rehashing with joy their exploit. Mark turned on WBAI-FM, a listener-sponsored radio station that was a great favorite of the hip set. Absolutely non-commercial, it didn't run annoying ads, air boring public service announcements, or pretend to be objective. Since it accepted no public funding, it had no obligation to present opposing views. It was anti-war, anti-Establishment, and didn't care who liked it. Besides the eclectic political content, which ranged from Ayn Rand-libertarianism to New Left autocracy, they played a lot of groovy music, some of which you could actually dance to, not that there were very many besmoked heads up for a quick boogaloo or shimmy.

As Sean passed a fat doobie to Mark, the disc jockey announced the commencement of the station's semi-annual fund drive.

"Aw, shit, man!" Mark bitched, reaching for the dial. "Not another two weeks of that crap!"

"Wait a minute," Sean cautioned. "Let's hear him out. There's a rumor going round that they have a new scheme planned to get our bread. Turn it up."

"Dig it, all you cats and chicks, we gotta raise some bread to operate," the dee-jay explained, "but instead of bringing down your heads by begging and hassling you, we've decided to play nonstop, as in twenty-four hours a day, that all-time favorite of all you patriotic hipsters, Sergeant Barry Sadler's "Ballad of the Green Berets," until we reach our goal!"

"WHAT?" Sean shouted.

"He gotta be putting us on, man," Mark hoped, frowning.

But the fiendish disc jockey had already cued the record; the first verse blared out in all its martial glory:

"Fighting soldiers/ from the sky/ Fearless men who jump and die...."

"ARGGGH! Turn it off!" Mark moaned. "If I gotta hear that shit all day long, I'll jump out the window and die!"

Sean unplugged the radio. "Well, either we chip in a few hundred or listen to another station for a few weeks."

"I vote that we find another station," Mark said, climbing the ladder to his platform bed. "I need my bread for dope."

Sean hadn't the money for either, so he flopped onto his floor mattress and fell asleep, dreaming of sofas parachuting from C-130s, gung-ho for glory. 

The warehouses and businesses on the shitty end of the Bleecker Street stick opened at eight, and shortly thereafter the tourist buses and taxis and delivery trucks began their day long crawl from the Village to the dead-end intersection at the Bowery. The defenestrated sofa was dragged to a basement landing where its skirts and lining were crudely eviscerated by desperate wino numismatists who mined eighty-two cents in change, including two buffalo nickels, one fairly scarce Morgan quarter, and five Indian head pennies. A reputable coin dealer would have bought them for enough money to finance a four-day spree, d.t's included, with enough left over for a carton of smokes. Instead, the thirsty treasure hunters settled for a pint bottle of "Pete's Five-Star," an unspeakably foul double-fortified muscatel that by state law could only be sold in New York City. The pulverized residue from broken bottles frosted every sidewalk and stoop from Cooper Union to Canal Street with a glittery rime, over which the legions of drunkards unsteadily navigated, a brain-dead army stumbling towards their personal Little Bighorns.

As these benighted outcasts slowly drank themselves into historical oblivion, a new swarm of future casualties began filtering across the bridges and through the tunnels: the hippies. A bastard offspring whom the remaining Beats denied fathering, and the media denied birthing, they began to infiltrate the two Villages by some weird sort of cultural osmosis. However, the West Village--the traditional haven for aspirant artists, musicians, writers, and quaint eccentrics--was a bit pricey, even for well-heeled suburban kids mooching off their parents. On the other hand, despite its terminal seediness, the East Village was eminently affordable. And there these naive pilgrims from gentler shores found refuge, only to become the prey of vigilant take-off artists, native junkies, Puerto Rican street gangs who despised longhaired maricon "heepies," gung-ho police narc squads, and greedy slum lords. 

Acting as if they had invented happiness, these flower-bedecked, unshorn naifs blithely pranced and gambolled past the stumbling, odoriferous bums much as the pioneers had trudged past the wind-pierced, sun-bleached skeletons of starved horses and mules, thinking, Nah, that won't happen to us. Instead of seeing the godforsaken wino tribe as living warnings against overindulgence, the hippies merely accepted them as colorful denizens of a shared ecosystem, picturesque oddities akin to animated cacti, ragged sun-stunned owls disoriented by the midday sun.

Sean woke up just before eleven, splashed his face with cold water, and walked down the block to his friend Sam Hardy's loft, skipping nimbly over pools of urine and caked vomit, rebuffing panhandlers with a practiced ease. Under Sam's second story window, Sean called his morning greetings.

After a minute or two, Sam's curly-haired head and stubbled face cautiously peered out, his brown eyes squinting in the sun. "Shit, man!" he groaned. "It's like so early, man! I," Overwhelmed by inertia, his voice faded to a stop. 

"Throw down your key," Sean said. The shaggy head vanished, then a roach clip keychain with a single key flew from the window, narrowly missing a passing rabbi. Sean picked it up and entered the building's open vestibule, only to find an unconscious bum blocking the door.

"Jesus, what next?" Sean muttered. The man was either sleeping off a drunk, or dead. Waking a comatose bum wouldn't be easy, but dealing with a dead wino would be a hassle of a much higher magnitude. Police would have to be called, boring questions answered, and besides the time wasted, there would be the future risk of being called for a coroner's inquest. Any way you looked at it, it was a horribly inconvenient way to start one’s day. A real "bummer" one could say, he-he-he.

Fortunately, after a bit of prodding by Sean's genuine Pakistani water buffalo sandal (with a big toe loop), the choice of discriminating beatniks from San Francisco's North Beach to New York City's Greenwich Village, the forlorn bum regained a sort of insect awareness and lurched erect, reeking with an appalling effluvium of unwashed clothing and decaying flesh pickled in wine puke and well-seasoned with urine and badly wiped excrement. Peering about, his dead and rheumy eyes portals to a vast emptiness; he staggered past Sean into the sunlight, his very existence an insult to humanity, and possibly God as well. Within an hour, resurrected by a few drinks, he'd be working the squeegee hustle at the traffic light, a proven tourist attraction in his busted clothes and exploded work boots that had never known a lick of work harder than dragging a soiled rag across the windshields of stopped cars.

Sean unlocked the door and entered the cluttered downstairs hallway. On the right was the storefront apartment of Dave and Donna Bonner, long-time Village residents whom had once witnessed Jack Kerouac during one of his monumental and pointless binges. They had been unimpressed. "He just wasn't cool," Dave had recalled, easily separating the myth from reality.

"Yeah," Donna added, "he seemed so sad, so frantic. Definitely uncool."

Their heresy had surprised Sean. When he met Sam on his first day in the city the previous year, Sean still cherished a naively romantic view of the Beat forefathers, unaware that Kerouac, Ginsburg, and Burroughs had spent as much time uptown as down, or that Kerouac preferred to share a jug with Bowery bums rather than hobnob with the Washington Square folksinger set that Sean wanted to join. Wounded internally, Kerouac had retreated to his mother's nest in the early '60s to die, and his sporadic visits to the Village entered legend as the peripatetic wanderings of a flawed saint. But as Sean was to learn, even saints have their sceptics, and heresy is an all-inclusive religion open to all. So far, Sean neither worshipped with the true believers, nor stood with the agnostics: He remained unaffiliated.

At the bottom of the stairs, a suspended low-watt bulb burned night and day, illuminating dusty political posters from the '30s depicting noble farmers and factory workers surging forward in the heroic stances so beloved by the hack illustrators of the Old Left "Communard School." Exhortations in Cyrillic which Sean mistook for Greek, urged the masses to rise as one and overthrow whichever running-dog capitalist scheme that was then afoot. That linguistic ignorance proved advantageous one smoky evening when an unappreciative neighbor who had a thing about loud music summoned two of New York's "Finest" to squelch the decibels.

The cops invited themselves into the downstairs hall where they quickly spotted the lurid posters. Peering about warily, as if expecting Fidel Castro or Ho Chi Minh to leap from behind the mounds of junk waving a hammer and sickle, the older officer poked the curled edge of a fly-specked poster and asked, "What the hell's that say?"

"Beats me," Sean confessed. "I can't read Greek." The mollified cop then delivered a boilerplate warning about "keepin' it down, fer Christ's sake," blah, blah, blah. His younger partner examined the posters with a more worldly eye, smiling wryly to let Sam and Sean know that he recognized Commie propaganda when he saw it, but didn't give a damn, knowing that nobody outside of the John Birch Society took seriously the leftover claptrap nailed up forty years ago by an unrepentant Trotskyite. The cops did take seriously, however, the drug laws, so Sam skilfully maneuverered them back to the front door before they decided to investigate the source of the loud music. But chickenshit complaints like this one were a pain in the ass for the cops, too, and after a last half-hearted warning, they split to catch a few z's at their favorite back alley "coop," leaving no one worse for wear except the whining neighbor who would now live in dread of some sort of nefarious beatnik retaliation.

"Whew, man," Sam whewed after the squad car drove away. "That was close! I'm just glad that you told him that the writing was Greek instead of Russian. We don't need the fuzz thinking we're Commies as well as dope fiends." They went upstairs, fired up a celebratory joint, hurled a few threats out the window to the subdued complainant, and turned down the radio a half-decibel.

That was then, but this was NOW, and past the posters and up the creaking stairs Sean raced to Sam's loft, pushing open the knobless, lockless door to enter a beatnik lair of stupefying disorder. Amid a scree of crumpled cigarette packs and sheets of discarded notebook paper, dirty clothes and dirtier clothes, sat three sofas as ratty as the one thrown from Sean's fire escape. They formed a rough "U," its throat open to a blackened fireplace last used to burn the collection of parking tickets accumulated by Sam the last time he had "owned" a car, and usually bedded overnight guests who had ventured one toke too far over the line. Actually, Sam had "borrowed" the car—a Volkswagen Karman-Ghia --from a storage garage when its owner left for a hitchhiking tour of Europe, using it to tool around the Village picking up girls, "junking" for discarded goodies on uptown trash set-out nights, and zooming to Jersey for the odd carpentry job to pay the rent. Eventually the local junkies stole the battery, then the wheels, and until the city finally towed it away, it sat forlornly on the corner of Mulberry and Bleecker serving as a "bum" shelter, pun intended. For a brief time Sam fretted over his friend's future reaction to the loss of his "short," but then word came across the Atlantic that his hitchhiking pal had gotten busted in Portugal for possession of hash, and very probably would not be returning for a while, and just like in the movies everything sorted itself out nicely.

Sean found Sam sitting full-lotus on the floor, fiddling with a radio he had Frankensteined together from parts scavenged in the streets. It glowed and hummed like a jury-rigged robot in a low-budget sci-fi B movie, but it was better than nothing. It perched on a wooden crate that served double-duty as a table and a stool to reach the ceiling fan switch. Once it had a chain, but Sam figured that replacing it would enmesh him in a long, complicated series of boring tasks, each more onerous than the preceding one: Schlep to a hardware store, find a chain, and pay for it; schlep back home only to discover that the goddamn chain doesn't fit because the fan is almost fifty-years-old and obsolete; schlep back to the store and get involved in a "no return policy" scene with the uptight cat behind the counter; then after an incredible hassle, get back the goddamn ninety-six cents and schlep home again (by now, it's fucking raining!); roll a joint and get high. So why not just skip the preliminaries, say "Fuck the chain'," chill out in comfort, and toke up?

Sean pushed aside a heap of mildewed tee shirts and flopped on the opposite sofa. "What's happening, man?" he asked.

No reply. Sam was totally engrossed in a radio scene, turning the tuner to and fro with a screwdriver, staring at Sean with his typical unblinking, penetrating gaze that Sean at first had found profoundly unsettling until he realized that it wasn't some sort of weird intimidation ritual, only Sam's normal method of socialization. After sailing through seas of static and dead air, the tuner found WBAI, which of course was playing Sergeant Sadler's mindless paean to die-at-the-ramparts patriotism.

"What a bummer!" Sam moaned. "They've been playing this crappy song all day! What's the point of it anyway? Don't they know how many heads they've brought down?"

Sean laughed. He brushed back his almost-to-the-shoulder brown hair, pulled at his moustache, and began cleaning his round, wire-rimmed glasses on his semi-clean tee shirt, explaining the while how WBAI decided to blackmail their listeners into ponying up their ransom bread.

"What a total drag," Sam pronounced, fruitlessly attempting to find the classical station. "Fuck it, man, let's get breakfast at Julio's," he said, yanking the cord from the outlet and springing to his feet.

With youthful vigor, they galloped down the stairs and exploded into the glorious sun of a New York City day, where anything was possible, instant gratification imminent, and enlightenment waited just around the corner.

Julio's was a long, narrow Latino eatery wedged incongruously in the middle of a block of anonymous warehouses and mysterious offices in which nondescript workers conducted enigmatic tasks of an unfathomable nature. Lower Manhattan was dotted with similar four and five-story buildings, many sporting ornamental cast iron facades and Grecian-styled concrete friezes and cornices. Once imposing, they were now soiled and eroded by smog and time. The restaurant seemed vaguely out-of-place, like a blacksmith shop plunked down in the midst of uptown's "Diamond Row." But Julio served good, cheap food only a half-block from Sam's loft, and, best of all, extended credit to anyone with the cojones to ask, which Sam had in spades.

The first time that Sam had stopped in, he made the honest mistake of assuming Julio was a Puerto Rican. He had been instantly corrected. "No, no, amigo! I'm Mexican, not Puerto Rican! They no damn good!"

Sam, a typical "Ban the Bomb" liberal and civil rights supporter, found Julio's prejudice not only perplexing, but counter to the liberal mantra of "racial solidarity," a basic tenet of the "Movement." Puzzled, Sam concluded in a not untypical bit of "Progressive" rationalization that it was just a "Spanish macho trip, man. What more can I say?"

Sam had been elucidating his convoluted theories of racial politics ever since Sean had come to the Village the previous summer with only a Martin 00-16C guitar, a child's suitcase with one change of clothes, and a fuzzy desire to follow in either Bob Dylan's bootsteps or author Henry Miller's pecker tracks. With the optimism of a nineteen-year-old, both had seemed possible. But now, a year later, neither seemed likely and Sean was content just to have fun.

"Hola, amigos!" Julio called as Sam and Sean entered and took counter seats. "The usual, no?" Sam lifted two fingers and grinned. With a smile, Julio began frying slices of ham, potatoes, and sunny side up eggs.

"Uh, do you mind putting it on my tab, man?" Sam asked.

Without turning, Julio switched the spatula from his left hand to his right and pencilled on the wall another two slashes, then resumed cooking, humming along with the jukebox. The present tally was nine meals--$7.20. Old tallies from months past were scribbled over, never erased. It was an unusual arrangement, given that Sam and Sean were Julio's only gringo customers. Sam often wondered where all the Latino patrons came from; the nearest barrio was several blocks away in the Lower East Side, aka "The East Village" or "Alphabet City," a seething slum that began at Avenue A and grew progressively worse as one traversed Avenues B and C en route to the unmatched squalidness of Avenue D. Beyond that nadir of crime and poverty was the East River, and perhaps dragons. But at Julio's that fine May noon, no one was worried about social inequality or racial injustice, or even the breakfast tab. When Sam or Sean scored some extra bread, they'd square things away with a tip and a sincere "Gracias, Julio," and a few days later, broke again, the score would begin to mount once more.

After wolfing down their food, they went outside to smoke and watch the steady stream of humanity pass by. Sometimes Sean felt like he had wandered into a documentary on comparative religions. Down the sidewalk came Orthodox Jews and their Hasidic brethren; preoccupied rabbis muttering in Hebrew; pairs of black-habited nuns, fingering their rosaries as they placidly tacked through the throngs of believers and heretics and the neutral; gaggles of Hare Krishnas ommming and chanting and tinkling their silly bells, the slap and scruff of their flip-flops accompanying their weird incantations; the bearded and burnoosed of arcane sects; the Arabs and Sikhs and Hindus; the stray itinerant preachers from their church of one; and, for all he knew, Jesus in disguise, bringing in His anger a terrible judgment.

But today, that vengeance was held in abeyance; the apocalypse postponed. As they came to the corner of Mulberry Street on their way to Sean's loft, Sam asked Sean if he felt like checking out a few Canal Street junkshops.

"Sure, I have a few bucks to blow. I'm planning to work at Minuteman tomorrow anyway," Sean replied. "Who knows? Maybe we'll find a magic lamp with a stoned genie." 

They turned right onto Mulberry, and a few blocks later entered a foreign country.

To be continued...

Burl N. Corbett HZ6518
SCI Albion
10745 Route 18
Albion, PA 16475-0002

Born 6/9/47 in Reading, PA.  Raised on a 123-acre sheep farm only three crow miles from John Updike´s famous sandstone farmhouse of “Pigeon Feathers,” The Centaur, and Of the Farm.  Graduated from Daniel Boone High School in 1965.  Ran away to Greenwich Village to become a beatnik in 1966 with only a Martin guitar and the clothes on my back.  Lived among the counterculture for 3 years, returning disillusioned to PA for good in 1968.  Worked on a mink farm; poured steel in a foundry; chased the sun as a cross-country pipeliner; drove the big rigs, baby!; picked tomatoes with migrant workers; tended bar on the old skid row Bowery; worked as a reporter, columnist, and photographer for two Southeastern Pennsylvania newspapers; drove beer truck (hic!); was a “HEY, CULLIGAN MAN!”; learned how to plaster, stucco, and lay stone; published both fiction and nonfiction in several nationally distributed magazines and literary quarterlies; got married and raised four children; got divorced and fell into the bottle; and came to prison at the age of 60 with no previous criminal offenses other than a 25 year-old DUI. The “crime”? Self-defense in my own house without financial means to hire a decent lawyer.  Since becoming the “guest” of the state in 2007, I have won four PEN Prison Writing Awards (two first and two honorable mentions); the first and only prize of $500 in the 2013 Eaton Literary Agency short fiction contest; written a children/young adult book, Coon Tales, recently published by Xlibris; a novel of the 1967 “Summer of Love,” Dreaming of Oxen; a magic realism novel, A Redneck Ragnorak, and many short stories and memoirs.  My first novel, A Haven from Violence, is available at or

Authors note: Dreaming of Oxen is a 52-chapter, 556-page tour de force in search of a literary agent or an independent publisher willing to disregard my present circumstances and focus instead upon my art.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Time to Dance the Thirteenth Step

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By Jeff C.

1. Thirteenth Step: Call an Optimist, He’s Turning Blue
When you go into court you are putting your fate into the hands of twelve people who weren't smart enough to get out of jury duty.—Norm Crosby
Being rejected is never pleasant, whether it’s for a duty few want anyway or something else entirely. Being rejected over something you did two decades ago -- and knowing that those rejections will keep coming -- isn’t hilarious either. 

My sister told me to not send in my jury summons paperwork because, allegedly, if you never respond to the first one then they soon give up and you’ll never have to do it. But I actually want to participate in jury duty. I want to serve, to be called to serve, and likely be immediately dismissed by the prosecution. (Though they might be stupid in doing that because if I were to serve on, say, the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board—think parole board with a softer name—I’d be harsher on those guys that continue to keep the recidivism rate above 66 percent. I might be the same way on a jury: harsh toward those who deserve it.)

Early in 2016 my CCO (Community Corrections Officer—think parole officer with a softer name) told me that due to a recalculation of my sentence I would no longer have to be “on paper” until March 2018, but instead would be done with the Department of Corrections exactly two years after I had left Work Release, over 400 days early. My immediate response when he told me that this would happen December 10th, 2016 was, “Damn, I’ll just miss the election.” 

I had tried to sign up to vote earlier in the year (at a My Morning Jacket concert at The Paramount in Seattle) and got a nicely worded letter from the Secretary of State of Washington telling me that due to my conviction 20 years ago I was not eligible to vote. I received the same response a few months ago when I did, indeed, send in that first jury summons paperwork. Due to my conviction 20 years ago I was not eligible to be on a jury of my peers. Or maybe I didn’t have any anymore.

But in four days from this writing, on December 10th, 2016, I will be “off paper.” I will be done with the Department of Corrections; able to leave the state without advanced permission, to vote, and to be denied in person the privilege to serve on jury duty. Also, I will be able to own a gun and travel to Canada. Oh, wait, scratch those last two, permanently.  

2. Thirteenth Step: Mistook the Nods for Your Approval
And I don't care much for wishful thinking
It's heavy as I breathe
Because I don't believe in second chances
It's heavy as I leave—“Heavy Is as Heavy Does” by Menomena
Being denied the chance to vote for Hillary Clinton due to a poor decision 20 years ago is one thing (thankfully Washington state managed that without my vote, sadly the rest of the country didn’t follow suit). But being denied the chance to meet someone in person who is otherwise interested in dating you because they Googled your past is another thing entirely. Both are disheartening…and yet at the same time galvanizing. At least I was eventually stirred to action, you know, after the sting of the first few rejections.

Though I’ll not go into the why of how and the how of why I became single again this year (and, regular readers, please do not offer condolences or ask), I will say that dating in the modern internet era, for a convicted felon, is fraught with atypical obstacles. A decade ago, when I thought about dating after I got out, I figured I’d wait for “the third date reveal” which I envisioned as somewhere between getting to know each other and the physical stage.  Just enough time to reveal who I am, without actually lying about my past (only skirting by it with some carefully placed omissions). 

Basically, reveal it when the time was right. That was the plan. Then came reality. 
The modern reality is that Herr Google is very good at sussing out your past if you’re not actively lying about your identity. And I didn’t. I gave my first name and actual, real, current pictures of me to the various dating websites I was using (by the end it was five, perhaps six). And when I offered to meet people (or they offered to meet me), I gave them my last name. With my picture and full name it’s not too hard to figure out, if you’re willing to put in a modicum of work, that I have a felony conviction. Well, a twofer, but still.

The problem is that I don’t get to “control the message.” And as I’ve figured out in my line of work: when I get interrupted in my pitch to give them a free vacation, if you’re not able to tell the story, to dole out how the information gets out, to reveal a carefully honed out good then bad then good pattern…you lose control of the situation and people hang up. Or, in the online dating world, they block you or tell you that they’re not going to meet you. Not because you lied to them but because they can’t handle the truth.

Some, of course, got to learn about my past from me in person. The most visceral response I got from this revelation was from someone that I will call T. She and I did meet in person and she asked me a question that there’s no way to answer untruthfully: “So how did you get into all this criminal justice reform advocacy volunteering?” I had honestly expected T. to have checked me out before we met. We’d bonded through our commonality of nonprofits. I’d mentioned that one of the three nonprofits that I was on the board of was hiring a new executive director and because she had experience (though I learned later not at that level), I’d sent her a link to the job offer.  The name of the organization clearly shows that it’s prison-related, and if she would have clicked onto the website she’d have seen a picture on the first page of me in prison. But she did not.  So while T. and I were at in a crowded restaurant sitting across from each other in a booth, I answered her question and told her the brief(er) version of my past.  She physically cringed in her seat. I’d never watched someone go from being attracted to me, literally leaning in, to being scared of me in a few minutes, pulling back (almost clutching her non-existent petticoat). It was rather horrifying to see. Yet I’m actually grateful for her lack of a visible social filter; I got to see what specific things made her face curdle. And found out how some people truly feel about convicts. 

There were others I met in person (I don’t know the actual count because for about nine weeks I was, as I affectionately called it, “non-violently ‘aggressively dating.’” When they would ask, “How’d you get into that [criminal justice reform volunteering]?” I’d tell them the truth.  I’d usually get, “But you don’t LOOK like you were in prison” or other unoriginal remarks (as if we all get spider web and teardrop tattoos on our necks and faces). Many didn’t exactly know what to say and I get that. I truly do. But a few questions about “what it’s like” is fine—a two-hour interrogation, less so. Ignoring it completely is also a bit off-putting. But that’s okay; it’s not exactly a dating situation one often comes across. 

I also had a few dates with one person who -- even after I’d read out loud a text about her to my badass chess playing friend in Australia, in which I’d said she was great but not very inquisitive -- never asked anything Which would have caused me to reveal my past.  It’s possible I could have gone on dating her and she never would have asked. But that showed a sense of aloofness, or possibly selfishness, to never really ask follow up questions about me. 

One totally went mad hatter on me when I’d requested that phone number before we met (because, as I told her, I’d been stood up by someone who maybe wasn’t even a woman because I thought I’d be the gentleman and not care that her profile picture was of a landscape). After she gave me her phone number and we were texting, she found out about my past, she asked how I didn’t know that she only gave up her phone number reluctantly so that I’d not cancel.  But because people can stalk you with just your phone number and since I’m a felon isn’t it obvious that she was right in doing that. She then added the obligatory, “oh, I’m sure you’re fine,” but still cancelled the date before we ever met in person. Friends who saw the screenshots of the texts said I’d dodged a bullet. 

But not everyone was thoughtlessly reactionary. Back when I was on just one dating app, another person, let’s call her S., and I hit it off quite well.  We exchanged long, letter-length correspondences within the dating app (a way to communicate without having to give up your phone number to a stranger). She was a musician and I liked that she could understand my creativity, such as it is, and after a few weeks she wrote: “Another thing I wanted to mention, as it’s been on my mind, has to do with this digital age and the visibility of individuals’ information. As I mentioned to you previously, I am not worried about you knowing who I am (as long as you’re not a psycho killer, ha!), because I have nothing to hide (I think I mentioned hidden husbands/kids, criminal records, and social media gaffes). It has become pretty common to research people online when considering whether or not to meet him/her in person. I do this mainly through Facebook, to see if a guy shares mutual friends with me, so I could potentially find a further connection or even a testimonial to a good guy. It’s also a very good way of finding out if the person behind the profile is simply promoting a prospect who doesn’t actually exist. But there are other things that can come up. One guy who approached me online recently, for instance, had many posts on his Facebook wall that directly conflicted with my fundamental views and even my rights. That was an easy e-mail to craft to him, letting him know that we would not get along very well, based on what I found. And then, there are other things we can find in our innocent little investigations. // You might know where this is leading. If so, I’ll allow you to explain. If not, then I guess I might have to be more direct. I’ll let you respond at this point.”
Then, of course, I confessed all. I genuinely liked her, and I genuinely liked her way of bringing this up. And then she responded with this: 

“Honesty is very important to me. And it’s very helpful for me to know how long you were incarcerated (whether the sentence was just or not), and especially how long you have been out. While I am no better than no one, I am also not able to truly empathize with everyone. I can try, and I wish I could. But I’m just being honest when I say that I have no idea if I can be in a relationship with someone who has been through what you have been through. I am very fortunate in that no one in my family or circle of friends has ever been even just arrested, that I know of. Yes, I know this makes me pretty naïve, but I’m not afraid to admit that it’s a comforting feeling. // As this dating site thing is designed to help narrow down choices and find the best fit, I’d have to say that there are a few ways I can see how this revelation would show that I’m not the right match for you. And vice versa. But I think you would do much better with someone who could at least conceive of the world you’ve endured. I just can’t. // While I’ve really enjoyed our correspondence, there are a couple of reason I don’t see things moving in a romantic direction. One is that I honestly can’t fathom what you’ve been through. Another is that I’ve been sharing a lot off-line with a particular guy I’ve met here. I mentioned to you before that we will be meeting soon. As I usually am when things start so well, I am cautiously optimistic. We’ll see. // I do think that you are doing wonderful things within the community and that you have much going for you. I hope nothing but good things for you.”

Because of this S. and I never met in person.  She never got the chance to see if she could, in fact, empathize with someone who had been through what I had been through. S. never got to see if I am more than what I went through. She never got to see what many who know me say: that I do not “seem like” I was in prison, let alone for 18.5 years. Though S. was by far the most reasoned, thoughtful of rejections I got before ever meeting them, she never got to know who she was truly rejecting. 

There’s one more to tell: the classy response. This woman, who I’ll call E., and I had a conventional first date. She, unlike many American women, doesn’t know how to take a selfie (which means that she looks like her profile picture). We had coffee which became brunch which became a walk around a park where she explained about her nonprofit water reclamation educational work. Of course, I had to “show off” and give her my nonprofit business card when we were done with the date. Our second date got postponed. I went to Nashville, Tennessee for a few days because 1.) our nonprofit had a grant to send our outgoing executive director to the national conference on higher education in prison, 2.) I asked to pay my own way (to a resounding “yes” from my board), and 3.) because I wanted to. And when I came back her mother was in the hospital for a few weeks and one night I ended up offering a drive-by hug to E. who was at a hospital which is between my work and my home. We talked for over two hours. By the time our third date happened we’d been texting and talking for a few weeks.  On that third date I kept throwing things out there that I’d expect someone to question. I was TRYING to do that third-date reveal naturally …but she wasn’t going for it. She’d ask all kinds of questions, but none that would lead to me being in prison. So I had to say, after the first (and possibly only) lull in our great conversation, “I’d hoped that this would come up naturally but there’s something about my past that you need to know if we’re going to continue,” and she said, “I know.” She had, of course, used that card to Google me after the first date and knew by our second date, but said nothing. 

A few dates later (one where I got to see her sing in a band) I asked to go “exclusive” a few days later she accepted my offer and I uninstalled all five dating apps from my phone and I happily haven’t looked back. E. and I are very happy and we’re meeting each other’s friends and families and even going on a vacation together after Christmas on a drive to the coast. 

3. Thirteenth Step: Clever Got Me This Far, Then Tricky Got Me In
Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore): What do you do for recreation?
The Dude (Jeff Bridges): Oh, the usual. I bowl. Drive around. The occasional acid flashback.—“The Big Lebowski”
Speaking of driving, when I began dating I realized it would be a major turn-off to most women if I didn’t have a car. So, in a matter of a few weeks I took and passed my written and driving test and bought a car. When I was shopping for a car I asked people who knew me what kind of car they saw me in. Though coincidence I did end up getting the car that five out of seven people said that fit me: a Prius. But this is Seattle; so that’s not all that unusual. 

Nor is it all that unusual, I imagine, for someone with, um, as limited of a driving record as mine to embrace, uhhhh, driving in the specific way that I have. Well, actually, two ways: 

Ever since my first car ride in almost 16 years, which was about 29 months ago I would repeat when we’d come close to oncoming traffic: an involuntary shudder and/ looking away or closing my eyes entirely. I felt like we were going to crash, head-on, with the oncoming cars. Or I felt like we were going to hit an object on the driver’s side (guard rails, what have you). This was so apparent that whoever was driving would notice. Considering I used to drive HUMVEEs across narrow-road Germany for three point five years, I’ll admit that my fear was a post-incarceral occurrence. And I’ll admit that, in small part, it contributed to me staying with the bus and bicycle thing for what ended up being 21 months. 

But once I got my license -- and past my over-cautious ever-readiness -- and, really, when I went down to Nashville and rented a car that had a wee bit more punch to it than a hybrid Prius, I had a different car experience. One of the best parts of that trip to Nashville (my first vacation on my own), was driving on curvy backroads with great visibility on a clear fall day doing…um, exactly the speed limit. Promise.  

There is a beautiful freedom in having a car. It’s surprising how I never knew that. But that’s partially because of my driving history: I owned my first car in Germany for all of 90 days before I got rear-ended and it was my fault (trying to turn left basically across a highway entrance/exit).  My second car I had all of eight days before I creeped out into foggy traffic to clip the side of a car.  It was decommissioned for six months before I got the bumper put back on, only to have it working all of 27 days before I committed two concurrent felonies in it, and totaling it and getting a few bullet holes in it. So, driving is really rather new to me (not counting the whole Germanic HUMVEEing in a convoy). It’s no wonder that this week, the first week of snow on the roads since I’ve been out, my Mom has been texting me advice and concern about my driving in the snow and ice. It’s okay, Mom, when not on a curvy Southern road with no cops in sight, I’m a very good driver. Promise. 

4. Thirteenth Step: You Know it’s There so Don’t Neglect it
After all, even in prison, a man can be quite free. His soul can be free. His personality can be untroubled. He can be at peace. […] Personality is a very mysterious thing. A man cannot always be estimated by what he does. ― Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism
So I went back to prison this year, albeit briefly. One of the nonprofits that I’m a board member for is the University Beyond Bars (which I wrote about in my very first MB6 piece entitled “Time to Learn”). They had their yearly graduation ceremony and I was allowed special permission by the Department of Corrections to go back in and attend. I, of course, dressed in my best outfit and got to see many of the guys that I’ hadn’t seen in over two years since I left for Work Release. It was more surreal hearing everyone ask if it was weird, than it was going inside again. But, certainly, there were a few moments when it hit me (leaving through the sally port, alone, to go use the bathroom was one of them as it was different than when I was with the crowd). It was also odd to hear so many people say that I seemed taller.

In a few days, on December 10th, 2016, the first thing that I’ll be doing when I’m officially “off paper” is applying to go back to prison on a regular basis. My two co-best-friends are getting married and I hope to be there for Loretta and Atif’s marriage. And then I will join them on a regular basis in the same visiting room where I used to get visits from my family in; but this time I’ll be the one leaving out the front door when the visit is over, not getting strip searched before going back to a concrete cell. I’ll get to experience some of what I put my own family through during the 18.5 years time that they had to do with me. And I’m looking forward to it. 

5. Thirteenth Step: With Your Halo Slipping Down
Hold my hands, feel them shake
I fear I'm showing my age
All my love is in one place
Now I, I'm not so brave
And I fear, oh I fear, I'm showing my age—“Oh Pretty Boy, You’re Such A Big Boy Now” by Menomena
I’m heavily involved, with no slowing down or end in sight, in criminal justice reform issues. That’s not only because I genuinely care about these nonprofits, their causes, and the people effected by them, but also because I have found over the two years that I pretty much don’t care about most so-called entertainment. Most of it I find tasteless (as in bland) pablum for the masses which, considering how our electorate voted this election, seems to work on them to distract them from the real issues that we have: one of which is the mass incarceration of Americans. We have 4.4 percent of the world’s population and house around 22 percent of the world’s prison population. We incarcerate more people, for longer sentences, and have a higher recidivism rate (sadly, a word that all too many Americans don’t even know) than other countries but more importantly, than we should. We should do better. In the two years I’ve been out I’ve spoken at the state capital three times about various criminal justice issues and plan to do so again; some people complain about the problem: I, and the people that I proudly surround myself with, are tilting at windmills trying to elicit the change that we believe can and will come. Change that we know, through evidenced-based research, works: such as how the recidivism rate drops from 66 percent to 11 percent with an Associate of Arts degree; it drops to 4 percent with a Bachelor of Arts degree. This is the answer, people—do you get what the question is? “How to stop the prison-industrial complex from strangling America?”

Doing this is more than a hobby and it’s not simply just because in all this volunteerism I can’t say no (though that’s certainly a part of it); doing this is now a part of who I am. (Though I do have to learn how to say no sometimes since I’ve been known to not know how to strike a healthy balance.) But I don’t know or care enough about much of anything else to do that oft-talked about but seldom-done thing: change the system. I’ve begun; have you? What have you done in the last month that has helped make this imperfect world a better place? As they say to prisoners petitioning for clemency: “What have you done that is extraordinary?” Well, yeah, what have YOU done?

6. Thirteenth Step: Vanishing Like a Cyan Sunday

"Good morning, and in case I don't see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and goodnight.”—last line of “The Truman Show”

Last words of a free man.

1. I’ve been writing for Minutes Before Six since April 28, 2012 when I first talked about the University Beyond Bars and how great of a program it is; one that I still believe in by being a board member for it. 
2. On June 11, 2012:  I wrote “Worse Than Senseless” about a Shakespeare play put on in the prison, my review of the crowd in attendance, and the near-violent reactions to my review. 
3. On December 12, 2012: I wrote “Beyond Hope” about Obama’s Re-election campaign returning my $20.12 donation and other ways in which the prisoner in America is treated as less than human.
4. On February 13, 2013: I wrote “The DOC Does Not Have a Sense of Humor” about just that and how I got the infractions that I can count on my thumbs from them. 
5. On April 26, 2013: I wrote “Cherchez la Femme” about a doctor who believed that prisoners shouldn’t breed or be in relationships outside of prison. 
6. On August 30, 2013: I wrote the third part of “Thoughts on Education Part 1” with other writers; my part was entitled “Forging a True Community” about why the University Beyond Bars is more than just a classroom in prison. 
7. On September 20, 2013: I wrote “The Right Way to Say Goodbye” about two separate men I knew in prison: one who committed suicide and one who was executed. This was part of a series with other writers called “Set Me Free” also writing about William Van Poyck, the MB6 writer who was executed by Florida. 
8. On March 27, 2014:  I wrote “10 Things I’m Going to Miss About Prison” about, well, that. 
9. On January 1, 2015: I wrote “Beginning Anew: Part 1 (of 2): ‘Quasi-Freedom’” about coming out of 18.5 years of prison and going to Work Release.
10. On April 16, 2015: I wrote the second half entitled “Prisoner No More: Beginning Anew: Part 2 (of 2…or maybe 3) ‘Freedom is…’” about the busyness of life on the outside and all the addictions that come with freedom. 
11. On July 9, 2015:  I wrote “13 Three Paragraph Vignettes” about living a free life in awe. 
12. And on December 17, 2015:  I wrote in “Impure No More” about, among other things, being denied the chance to donate blood because I was a felon.

All that recap (which was hopefully less painful than the one in the first 20 minutes of “The Godfather Part III”) was to both offer up a collection of my 12 previous pieces on Minutes Before Six in one easy place and to preface to what may well be my final confession: this may be my last written piece for MB6. Thirteen entries seems perfect (and not just because I turned 13 on Friday the 13th and that number has never scared me…even when 1313 North 13th Avenue was my address at the prison in Walla Walla, Washington). 

Certainly if anything ever comes up where I’ve got some righteous indigestion (sic) about the criminal injustice (sick) system that I feel shows the ways in which it continually berates those who are just trying to put their lives together I’ll ask to write an epilogue, as it were, to this. But I think that just as this week the DOC is done with me, I’m done with writing for MB6.

I want to thank everyone who has been such a major part of my MB6 writing career: Dina, my editor and friend. Thomas, my friend and the impetus of this amazing site. Maggie, still and always my friend. The writers who have inspired me: Thomas Bartlett Whitaker, Christi Buchanan, and William Van Poyck. And the writers who I invited to join MB6: my friends Jeremiah Bourgeois and Steve Bartholomew and also Tim Pauley and Art Longworth. And thank you to all the readers who have left both positive, and, um, other, comments. Thank you for reading and making Minutes Before Six something more than us just talking at a blank wall and thank you for making me feel like I was never being rejected.

Because I have always done my best thinking with a pen (and now on a laptop), I am a better man for having written for Minutes Before Six.

--December 2016

Jeff C.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

A Passage

Page 258 of Suttree by Cormac McCarthy.  
Dedicated to the memory of Christopher Wilkins, executed by the State of Texas on January 11, 2017

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Sixty-six and Counting...On Justice Reform

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By Isaac Sweet

She is a sixty-six year old, cancer-surviving, type-two diabetic. She is also the World's Greatest Mom. As a young woman she put aside dreams of a career in archaeology to raise a family. Though plagued with a multitude of obstacles including, health concerns, divorce, financial instability, etc., she faced each one with a courageous smile. She led by example. She had to - she had six of us.

As I reflect on just how many sacrifices Mom made for us when we were young, I cannot help but be amazed. I remember complaining about having to wear second hand clothes, but come to think of it, she was in rags. I belly-ached about the food, but at times she didn't even eat. She was faced with hard choices but she always made the best one. She handled each situation with superhero composure - even when we kids were in trouble. Though we were too young to understand most of the life lessons, we knew she did an amazing job. We had everything we needed: toys, ample attention, and most importantly, unconditional love. Mom didn't show us how to play sports or ride bicycles and skateboards, but she did teach us character, values, resolve, and perseverance. She even taught us how to scream and jump up onto a chair every time she saw a spider, especially if it was big and mean looking - oh, one the size of a dime or so. Yeah, Mom is awesome. I wish there was more I could do for her now. I am, as she often reminds me, her only son.


In school I was the chubby, awkward kid with glasses. I really wanted to fit in and be cool. Instead, presented an easy target for practical jokers and sometimes worse.

A few weeks after my eighteenth birthday, I was befriended by a man eight years my senior. I liked him because he was adventurous and personified "Joe Cool." He liked me because I was an easily manipulated teenager with a truck. One day he gave me an ultimatum, and I made the wrong choice. Chose compliance over courage and participated in a crime genuinely wanted no part of. I drove the getaway vehicle. Instead of graduating from high school, I was convicted of conspiracy, burglary, and assault, and given an exceptional prison sentence of nearly thirty-six years.

Each day, I climb in and out of a cage like a well-trained animal. It doesn't even feel like punishment any more. Over the years I've grown accustomed to it. I have gotten used to some of the angry bullies working as prison guards, and I've even conditioned my palate to the institutional gruel. The real punishment is being separated from my loved ones as they grow old, suffer, and pass, sometimes without saying goodbye. One day, I returned from my prison work detail to find a post-it note on my bunk from my counsellor that said: "Call home - your Grandpa had a heart attack." When I finally got to a phone, I tried every number knew to no avail; they were all at the hospital. Years later, I got a surprise visit from my mom and sister who both began to sob at the sight of me. They had come to tell me that my dad only had a few hours left. A few years after that, a guard woke me in the middle of the night and told me my Grandma had died. But nothing could prepare me for what happened in 2015. On my way back from lunch, I was summoned to my counsellor’s office. My baby sister, the one who had previously come to tell me about my dad, passed away just two months after her thirty-fifth birthday. My stomach didn't stay full for long. A few months later, I was summoned to the Sergeant's office. Heather, my big sister, hadn't made it through the night. She was forty-two.

I survive decade after decade in prison, often wondering what it would've been like to live a normal life, or to have a family of my own. Would I have been a good husband and father?


Roughly two generations ago, a criminal justice revolution swept our nation. It was fuelled by fear of largely fictitious "super predators," and by criminal justice experts who claimed rehabilitation was a "myth." The big idea dominating the trend was "determinate sentencing." Endorsed by the federal government as the solution to punishment disparities, determinate sentences were embraced by most states. However, as parole boards were being eliminated all across our country, so were the incentives for convicted felons to pursue self-improvement. We are still suffering the consequences of that paradigm shift.

The term "mass incarceration" commonly accompanies disturbing statistics such as "the United States has five percent of the world's population and twenty-five percent of the world's incarcerated population." From my prison cell, I lack the resources to qualify the numbers but live in an environment densely populated with men serving draconian prison sentences. In 1984 the Washington State Legislature produced the "Sentencing Reform Act." Thus began our state's era of politically influenced, purely punitive justice. This legislation introduced a one-size-fits-all determinate sentencing scheme and provided prosecutors with their greatest bargaining chip yet - the other death penalty: life without the possibility of parole. To accommodate angry voters and further political careers, members of the legislature have revisited portions of the S.R.A. every year to stiffen penalties and lengthen sentence guidelines. At some point, people have gotten desensitized to the overwhelming number of years or lifetimes imposed. Our criminal justice system has spiralled out of control. For substantive proof, simply google prison growth in Washington State during the final thirty years of indeterminate sentencing (roughly 1954 to 1984) and compare that to prison growth of the past thirty years (roughly 1984 to 2014). Mass incarceration is the result of a system restructured around punishment.

Returning to an indeterminate sentencing model would improve public safety, reducing recidivism by reintroducing the fundamental concept of rehabilitation and incentivizing it. Rehabilitative treatments, classes, programs, or training are important, but incentive motivates people to apply themselves in earnest. The opportunity to earn freedom would provide incarcerated people compelling incentive to pursue positive change. Increases in individual improvements will yield safer communities.

Washington State can reduce mass incarceration by returning to a parole based, sentencing system. A large number of prisoners, such as myself, are serving exceptionally long or lifetime prison terms, have matured beyond any further criminality, and no longer pose a threat to public safety. Despite the emergence of aging prisoners as the most expensive prison population demographic, we quietly remain in prison. To serve decades in prison past the point of our reform serves no benefit for society.

For several years, I have worked to become the best person I can be. I am focused on pursuing education and preparing for my future. I continue to develop character and mature with integrity. Contemplate my actions and consider how they will affect others. I strive to be courteous, make responsible decisions, and set a positive example. I continue to learn each day and encourage others to do the same. While there is nothing I can do to change the past, I hope to use my life experiences to help prevent others from making similar poor choices. Maybe I can make a difference.


Over the years Mom has aged pretty well. The color has faded from her hair, and she has slowed down a little bit but she still gets around okay. She isn't hopping up on chairs anymore, but I'm sure she can still muster up a loud enough scream to scare any old spider away.

Losing my two precious sisters deeply affected Mom. She seems to have lost a little motivation and sometimes speaks in monotone. She's not as talkative or optimistic as she used to be. This year I turned 39 and it marks the first birthday in my life that Mom didn't send a card. I'm concerned about her. She's pretty smart, and given her health history she knows she probably isn't going to break any lifetime records. Recently, she went shopping for another car, but she didn't bother looking at any brand new ones because, she said, it will probably only need to last her three or four more years.

Mom still smiles and waves when she gets honked at in traffic, and she says "Excuse me," when hurried shoppers bump into her at the grocery store. She really is the coolest little old lady. Not long ago she took a bad fall at the gas station and lost one of her front teeth. There was no one to call, and she had to drive herself home. I wish I could've been there. Unfinished projects are piling up around her house and now she's hoping the roof will last another winter. I wish I was there to show her how much I appreciate her, to reciprocate the love and protection she has always given me. She certainly deserves it. Instead, regardless of the difficulties involved, she'll continue making a few trips each year to whichever prison warehouses me, and she'll do it in champion form.

Please, before it's too late, help provide me the opportunity to be there for the World's Greatest Mom. Contact your local legislators and ask them to pursue and support legislation to undo the damage of the Sentencing Reform Act. Ask them to replace determinate sentences with indeterminate sentence review boards and reinstate Washington's quality control release mechanism: parole. Ask them to legislate solutions to mass incarceration that would inspire people to pursue personal positive change. You can find any necessary contact information by typing: into your search engine.


Isaac Sweet 752399
WSRU D-2-27
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777