Victims, Criminals and Floaters

Who would volunteer to go visit a prison?  Hardened criminals, manipulative and egotistical minded individuals locked away from society for good reason.  Those people behaved badly and did things they knew were wrong, they knew better and should be punished.  Why would anyone volunteer to go visit a prison?

I would, and I did go.  For me, I don’t carry the typical view of Americans incarcerated like the description above.  From years of working with youth, I have watched children learn from violence, addictions and unstable environments.  I have seen them removed from their homes and placed in worse conditions in some foster-homes and group homes.  I have noticed the pattern of getting in trouble with the law starting early in life when kids don’t have proper role models.  I have observed the discrepancies which take place in how youth are dealt with based on race and socioeconomic backgrounds.  I have been disappointed by the influence mental health has on effecting behaviors which get ignored in the judicial system.  I don’t judge youth as being bad seeds, I can see the good in them and understand who they have become is a reflection of what they have been through.  They way kids think, speak and behave couldn’t be any different.  They honestly don’t know ‘better’ it’s the only way they know how to be.

It’s easy for us to have pity on children and have sympathy for the situations they have been through.  Why does this stop with children?  We accept kids don’t know better, and somehow by the age of 18 magically people should now know right from wrong, how to handle anger or cope with stress, how to create a substantial income legally or who to trust not to lead you down the wrong path?  It’s hard for me to buy this, if their circumstances were different I know their actions would be different too.

In America we have established a system of ridiculing, harshly judging and locking up victims of unfair circumstances.  Victims of abuse, addiction, trauma, poverty, learning disabled and mentally ill.  Justifying the incarceration of hundreds of thousand non-violent offenders.  Encouraging wealthy investors to build prisons and profit off the contracts to incarcerate some of America’s most oppressed population.  This is occurring at such alarming rates we are leading the world in locking up our citizens.

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From a class I recently took, volunteers were invited to attend a prison and visit with the inmates as a celebration of Vesak, a Buddhist holiday celebrating the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha.  (For my first story on this click here.)  On the day of the prison visit I felt nervous, not in fear it would be dangerous, it was more related to how I would manage my own frustration with the prison system and maintain equanimity through the experience.  It wasn’t until I showed up for the ride to Leavenworth when I found out we would be going to the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, the Department of Defense’s maximum security military prison.  According to Wikipedia: Only enlisted prisoners with sentences over ten years, commissioned officers and prisoners convicted of offenses related to national security are confined to USDB.  As I would later hear from the inmates, this is the most dangerous prison in the United States since all of the inmates are trained to kill.

To me, this visit suddenly took on another level of social justice problems.  These inmates were more likely to be incarcerated for violent crimes, yet I still hang on to the notion they are also victims of their circumstances.  Being in the military trains them to be violent, asks them to go to war and causes them to witness unimaginable trauma.  It is impossible not to be effected by these circumstances, and many individuals are mentally unprepared to cope.  The military has seen a substantial increase in the rates of domestic violence, assault, murder and suicide in the last ten years – directly related to tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Countless enlisted men and women joining the services to serve and protect their country end up with their lives ruined by war.

On the drive to Leavenworth I road with a fellow classmate and talked about gardening, TV shows and travel.  We shared our anxiety about what we were going to see and I confided I desperately wanted to know the circumstances of each of their crimes and what lead to them, even though I knew I wouldn’t ask.  We presented our id’s at the gates to Ft. USDB2002Leavenworth and caravaned with other vehicles through the base up to the prison.  It seemed to be the furthest possible location on the grounds passing officer’s homes, army barracks, a cemetary lined with identical and symmetrical tombstones, down long winding roads, dead-ends and finally approaching ‘The Castle.”

We entered into a quiet building about 7:15pm and climbed a staircase to a front desk manned by two guards in combat uniform.  The lobby felt like a high school with lockers, restrooms and a seating nook overlooking the dense wooded area beyond the parking lot.  We each had to be cleared with a background check ahead of time and present our identification to get a visitors badge.  Our group of 15 people were escorted by another guard, entering only a few at a time.  One giant glass door slamming locked behind us so the next giant locked door could open.  After the breeze way another guard with a baby pimpled face asked if the first guard would need assistance escorting us to our meeting room.  I was sure these two finished their varsity sports, attended senior prom and put in resignation at McDonald’s about 12 months ago before heading off to boot camp, completely unaware of the commitment they had made and how deeply it would impact their life.

We walked down a long corridor, passing metal doors with small glass windows to other wings of USDB, it reminded me of entrances to different sections of the state mental hospital where I used to work.  There were some inmates passing us in the hallway, none were handcuffed or escorted, and I got the impression I wasn’t in danger being there.  We entered a room, about the size of a classroom with two long tables set up for us to eat and visit.  The prisoners we would be visiting were already in the room and waiting spread out amongst the folding chairs.  I shuffled in shyly with the other guests, waiting for instructions which never came.  Eventually assuming the responsibility to find a spot to sit down and introduce myself to those around me.  My classmate and I sat down next to each other for some security and comfort.  We overly smiled and shook hands with the prisoners across and next to us and then felt the awkwardness sink in unsure of what to talk about.  I bit my tongue to prevent the question of “What did you do to get here?” from blurting out.

At the start I was painfully conscious of my body positioning and every word I uttered into conversation.  We shared how each of us started taking the Basics of Buddhism class, both those from the outside and those from within the prison. We related on why we started a meditation practice and how the practice was going.  The prisoners shared the need for meditation to help calm their minds down, cope with emotions and come to terms with being at USDB.  During dinner I felt by apprehension fading and my body relaxing.  Two of the prisoners I had met were born in other countries, one joining the Navy from his home in California and was last stationed in Hawaii, never imagining he would end up incarcerated in Kansas.

Another prisoner I spoke with told me about being from the East coast, stating he quit college half way through to join the Marines.  He had been enlisted for almost a decade, traveling the world and completing three tours to war.  We discussed the paths of life, influences which shape us and how everyone makes mistakes.  “It would be boring to be perfect,” he remarked, “No one is perfect.”

“Everything is perfect,”  I challenged his view.  I explained my perception, nothing could be the way it is now without everything else which fell before it.  Perfection is neither good nor bad, it is just as it should be.  We couldn’t have been at the table meeting each other in USDB had any circumstance in his or my life been different leading up to that day, not good or bad, just perfect.  The veteran agreed and said he has become keenly aware of situations in his life, choices he has made and what has lead him to where he is at right now.  He feels it is exactly what was supposed to happen and put him in touch with life again.  We talked about people who are aware of their past, intention and purpose.

“And then there are the floaters,” he said.  “Don’t get me wrong, I was a floater for a long time too.”  From the discussion I took that a floater refers to a person who is existing with indifference to themselves and the world around them.  Someone who is oblivious to their impact or lack of impact on others.  Individuals who don’t carry attachment to relationships and situations, rather busying themselves with getting by in life without thinking or place value too highly on material things.

There are victims of crimes and then there are the criminal victims of circumstance.  Their actions are not legal and are not to be condoned, yet our judicial system is not creating a healthier society.  The problem will continue to perpetuate as long as there are floaters unaffected by what is happening and stay disengaged from these conditions in society.  We need to help each other wake up to stop judging criminals, change the criminal system and correct the errors which lead individuals to do bad things.

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If this post peeked your interest and you want to learn more, here is some recommended reading:

The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of Slavery?      From Global Research

Locked Away, Army Struggles with Wounded Soldiers     From The Gazzette

I’d also recommend checking out The House I Live In a documentary regarding the war on drugs:

Finally, out of curiosity: Have you ever been a floater and what helped to wake you up?

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Our Country in Crisis

dalailamaAt a time our country is in crisis, another city stricken with terror and fear, I thought this quote stood out as a reminder not to take action from a place of fear and anger.  What happened in Boston is tragic and it’s effect will continue to ripple through our society shaping our view of safety, causing us to feel insecure and allowing us a false justification to judge others.

We cannot make determinations about individuals by looking at them.  We cannot view ourselves as better than, above or more noble than anyone else we encounter.  We cannot understand anyone else’s actions, connections, opinions or beliefs.  We cannot allow our fear and anger of situations we see publicized dictate how we engage with each other and with the world.

The very best message I saw on television following the bombing at the Boston Marathon was a short clip from a late night TV news broadcaster I had never seen before.  When I heard his comments it was the reminder I was meant to hear and something I wish all Americans could have seen.  Following 9/11, many American’s condoned torture as revenge for the killing, injuring and terrorizing we all felt on that day.  Except 12 years later we can reflect on the torture which was carried out, the lack of insight gained from it and the knowledge that many tortured were simply as innocent as the Americans caught in the towers.  Out of fear and anger unthinkable actions were allowed to carry on in the sake of maintaining our safety and capturing “evil-doers”.  This time we must learn from our mistakes.  We have to rise above the devastating emotions and act with compassion or we will be turning our terror into terrorism.

Please watch this clip from Chris Hayes and spread the word. (here)

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Time to Take a Stand

Political crap you don’t want to read about, right?  Just hear me out.  Avoidance develops ignorance and reflects as tolerance.

Guantanamo Bay is not a place I think about on a regular basis, as I am sure most American’s can relate.  I know it was constructed to detain terrorists and protect the world from their lethal plots.  I know there has been controversy surrounding who is actually being held there and how they are being treated.  I know, and still Guantanamo Bay is not in my mind.  The individuals residing there for over ten years have no face, no name and no presence in my life.

Until the other day I was struck by a news story on the radio about a hunger strike taking place at Guantanamo Bay.  The story was brief, explaining several dozen prisoners had chosen to withhold eating starting back in February as a means to draw attention to the fact they have been held without trial for eleven years.  Immediately it reminded me of hearing cases of men who had been farmers, cooks and drivers with nothing to do with acts of terrorism who had been sent to Guantanamo Bay.  HELD WITHOUT TRIAL FOR ELEVEN YEARS.  The news story reflected the government’s position as downplaying the severity of the hunger strike despite admitting eight inmates had been placed on feeding tubes due to their declining health.

I researched more on the situation going on at Guantanamo Bay and was saddened to find there weren’t many news sources reporting on it.  What I was able to discover is of the 166 prisoners the majority have been participating in the hunger strike, most of them have not been Camp_x-ray_detaineestried (85 prisoners there today have been cleared for release since December 2011),  and over 80% of the prisoners had not been captured by the U.S. military in combat.  Of the 779 detainees brought to Guantanamo 80+% had been turned in by Pakistanis and Afghans in exchange for a $5,000 bounty provided by none other than your United States government.  This means no proof, no evidence, just one man’s word over another who was in the wrong place and the wrong time to be turned in as a terrorist.  My stance is not all prisoner’s at Guantanamo Bay are innocent, there are likely some who have bad intentions and justifiably should be punished.  However, for those who have been captured, interrogated, locked up and not allowed an opportunity to return to their homes – it’s sickening.  And this is without even mentioning the reports of beating, torture, abuse and humiliation which the U.S. denies despite claims be substantiated by other investigative agencies.  This has been an eleven year nightmare I have turned a blind eye to, demonstrating tolerance in allowing this to continue.

A hunger strike by the detainees represents a means to an end of the suffering.  An effort to draw attention to the injustice of criminalizing innocent people we have accepted as part of the conditions of being at war or to die and slow and miserable death by starvation.  It is tragic the American people have not been offered the honest facts happening at Guantanamo.  Or is it more related to our judgement and fear related to terrorism which is publicized and overshadows the terror our military has imposed on others?  In either case, this has to end.

We have more to fear in the United States about violent acts of crime committed by other desperate Americans.  Americans cope with poor education, sexual and physical abuse, lack of proper medical care, astronomical rates of mental illness, addictions and the inability to sustain themselves financially.  We are constantly faced with situations to condition fear, anger and hatred of others.  The terror is happening at home with Americans in conflict with each other, yet trillions of our tax dollars have been spent overseas to fight a war with no end in sight and to imprison innocent men at Guantanamo Bay.  Our American troops are terrorized too, their lives and their families lives are forever impacted by the missions they have been ordered to carry out.  Soldiers are returning home carrying the stress of fear and guilt, causing depression, addiction, violence and suicide.  We are more at risk of an act of violence by an American then by an “act of terrorism” from overseas.

I’d like my tax dollars to focus on making America safe by providing for the next generation to learn to love, ensuring everyone has a proper standard of living, education is a priority, healthcare is affordable and social services are easily accessible for those who need it.  Enough is enough, it’s time to take a stand.

If you agree and want to take a stand with me, please share, voice what you know to others especially when you hear someone making judgments without the proper facts.  Silence is acceptance of the status quo, please don’t accept the crimes against humanity happening for the last eleven years.  It’s time to release them from their suffering and to bring our tax dollars home.

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Healthcare Reform, Too Little Too Late.

When I signed up to study abroad in Australia I had to pay a tax to their socialized healthcare system since my health insurance would be exempt for the semester.  At the time a gawked at the fee and saw it as a waste, which luckily most students going abroad don’t end up needing.  Two months into my travels I ended up in the emergency room one night and a few days later took an ambulance ride back.  I spent two nights in the hospital after being diagnosed with pneumonia.  During my stay I had chest x-rays, doctor’s visits, respiratory therapy and was given medication to which I never received a statement of what the total cost of my illness was.  The experience did leave me with a very pro-socialized healthcare mentality.   So you might think I am pro-Obamacare as well…  and I have to say it confuses me a great deal.   

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Towards the end of June my mom asked me for some advice about her friend.  Gayle and her husband are exactly the kind of family meant to be targeted in the Obamacare package.  They are a hard-working blue color family with no healthcare benefits and no extra spending cash for medical expenses.  Gayle told my mom she had been in a great deal of pain with her hip and needed medical attention she couldn’t afford.  The concern in my mom’s voice when she talked about how Gayle slurred her words on the phone made me wonder if she feared Gayle was inappropriately medicating her pain somehow.

After talking with me about Gayle’s situation, my mom passed along information she gathered about The Kansas City Free Health Clinic.  (http://www.kcfree.org/)  This organization was established in 1971 to support Kansas City residents who have no insurance or are under-insured.  They provide basic health and wellness services for medical, dental and mental health.  While I didn’t know if they would be able to cure an ailing hip, at least she would be able to see a doctor and take a step in addressing the pain.

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Ironically, the crisis Gayle was experiencing fell at a time when our United States government is in crisis over our health care system.  To vote for or against a repeal of a healthcare package meant to bring assistance to people like Gayle, her family and 34 million other individuals in similar situations without proper healthcare coverage.

The debates about healthcare reform still seems to skirt around the real problem with our health care system.  I believe everyone should have access to affordable healthcare.  There in lies the problem which Obamacare doesn’t seem to be addressing – the affordability issue.  Why is healthcare in the United States so expensive?  Our country spends exceedingly higher rates per capita on healthcare than any other nation, yet the overall health of our country does not reflect this.  Circulatory diseases, respiratory diseases, mental health issues, diabetes and musculoskeletal system diseases are all treated/maintained and cured at higher rates elsewhere in the world.  It’s like we are paying for the lease on a new Cadillac yet driving a Ford Focus.  It will get you around town, maybe, though it’s no Cadillac.

In my common sense ideas of healthcare reform, the target would be to eliminate the power given to insurance providers and pharmaceuticals.  Stop allowing the healthcare system to be a business of making money and return the CARE back to healthcare by allowing it to be a service.

Medicine, in it’s intended purpose, is necessary.  In the cloud of drugs becoming a get rich quick scheme for companies to legally market and distribute with horrendous side effects and prices to match – is out of control.

In my common sense mind the profitability of drug companies needs to be eliminated.  There should be caps on the amount medication costs, rather than the expense being a reflection of its novelty, recency to the market, or availability of generic brands.

Penalties would be great for drug companies who “accidentally” released a medicine which was later found out to be too dangerous or risky.  It seems all too often, pharmaceutical companies are in a rush to release a product and build their bank instead of ensuring safety.

Those who are driven in this field to line their pockets would likely move on.  Those left working in this industry would be in it because they cared about making people well and curing illness.

And the other evil of the industry being ignored by healthcare reform is insurance providers.  It’s hard to pinpoint which industry is most responsible for the increase in expenses since they seem to feed off of each other in a competitive manner and both are equally out of control.

Insurance companies have all the power of who, where, how much and if they will cover your health.  Those who can afford insurance pay too much in premiums to not get a say in how they want to receive it.

Insurance companies hinder how providers would provide services because everything revolves around the cost.  Preventative measures are avoided due to billing and often lead to even greater, more expensive problems later.

To me, there is no sense in allowing the health insurance industry to continue having so much power and control.  Insurance should be a service, not a money-making business.  This would ensure healthcare to be affordable for all.

Healthcare reform seems to be opening up 34 million Americans to a corrupt and flawed system.  Insurance and pharmaceutical companies will continue to take advantage of opportunities to profit and 34 million more of us will be subject to the stresses of what it takes to “get well” in American healthcare.

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As for Gayle, my mom called me within days after our phone conversation.  She reported Gayle didn’t make it to KC Free and instead had to go to the emergency room over the weekend.  They found her hip was fractured and she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  With such a fear over the medical expenses and being uninsured she hadn’t been to a doctor in years.  Gayle never left the hospital, she was placed on hospice and passed the night of Forth of July.

Her four-year old grandson, who she was helping to raise, struggled to understand where his GiGi went.  When his family tried to console him and tell him she wouldn’t be coming back he verbalized anger towards doctors and hospitals as if they were the ones responsible for her death.  For him and his family, their lives are forever changed because of a disease untreated.  A wife, a mother of 3, a grandmother and a friend is gone because of the lack of affordable healthcare.

For Gayle, healthcare reform in the United States was too little too late.  What I hope Americans realize and demand politicians to address is access to doctors and hospitals is a symptom of the greater problem.