AFSC (American Friends Service Committee)

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Now is not the time to despair

Fri, 2017-04-14 16:07
Building peace

It would be easy to become skeptical about the viability and efficacy of nonviolent resistance in the age of Trump. But this would be to ignore a number of incredibly hopeful trends.

The fact is that armed insurrection is becoming less and less common—and less and less effective. The fact is that more people around the world are turning to nonviolent resistance than at any time in recorded human history. We are witness to ongoing people power movements in Hungary, Turkey, Ecuador, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and the United States. In the past year, people power has led to the peaceful impeachment of presidents in South Korea and Brazil. In the past two years, we’ve seen people power lead to the removal of corrupt governments in Haiti, Romania, and Guatemala. Whether we agree with their causes or not, ordinary civilians are increasingly turning to civil resistance—not armed struggle—as a way to pursue their demands.

The fact is that we are better equipped than in any time in recorded history to summon the wisdom and the tools of nonviolent resistance for the peaceful transformation of our society. At our fingertips, we have biographies and autobiographies, children’s books, novels, documentaries, films, how-to-guides, online courses, and in-person trainings. This reminds me of a conversation I once had with Rev. James Lawson, one of my mentors and personal heroes. He explained to me that when he was involved in the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1950s, the only available text from which to derive a strategy was Gandhi’s autobiography. Rev. Lawson said he was impressed with the wealth of materials and research now available to contemporary organizers and activists, since they had the benefit of learning from the documented histories of millions of people who have engaged in civil resistance over the past century.

Speaking of research, never before have academics and researchers been so committed to the systematic study of nonviolent resistance. At the last International Studies Association Annual Meeting, which was held in Baltimore in February, there were dozens of academic papers presented with the aim of better understanding how, why, and to what effect ordinary people can use civil resistance to effect change in their scenes. This is a significant departure from my first ISA in 2004, where research on the topics of terrorism, political violence, and counterinsurgency dominated the program. And since November, I have witnessed a truly inspiring upsurge in commitment and enthusiasm among my fellow academics and intellectuals to do work that matters in the real world and to engage with their communities with attitudes of humility and service.

It is no accident that the United States is experiencing an explosion in community groups and coalitions, who are coming together in an unprecedented level of civic engagement to resist abusive, indiscriminate, and hateful policies. People living in the United States are using nonviolent resistance at unprecedented rates. Some of the stories of the struggle are downright inspiring. On January 21st, over 4.1 million people actively participated in the Women’s March. This included people in every state in the U.S., about fifty women in a retirement community in Encinitas, California, and over four hundred women who were limited in their mobility and participated online. Since January 21st, people in the U.S. have participated in thousands of nonviolent protests, demonstrations, and strikes, which we’ve been tallying at the Crowd Counting Consortium. These include actions like a “kindness march” organized by children in Boulder, Colorado; the nationwide Day Without An Immigrant strikes; protests to support funding to Planned Parenthood; the nationwide Day Without a Woman strikes; and even a daily protest by a man who stands alone every day in Oak Creek, Michigan.

I’m sure this man protests every day because he knows very well that he is not alone. He stands with millions of people around the world who remain committed to creating a more empathetic, humane, and just humanity; who remain committed to addressing with courage and creativity the problems of economic, racial, gender, and ethnic inequality; who remain committed to halting the destruction of our planet; who understand that to be progressive means that, in fact, we can and must progress.

In spite of what seems to be happening within the halls of power, we live in a time where civil society is rising up to reclaim the power to determine a more compassionate, fair, and sustainable future. History shows us that these are the forces that set the course for true change in the world. Now is not the time to despair. It is the time to organize and prepare.

Voices from the inside: Surely I am free

Tue, 2017-03-21 13:06
Ending mass incarceration

Note: This is one story in a series of stories about spiritual journeys in prison, written by incarcerated people. Read more here and here

My name is Dudley James Rue III and I am an incarcerated man who has been wrongfully convicted of a crime I didn’t commit. At the time present I have served 24 years, 6 months, 17 days and counting. However, the reasons for this writing aren’t to speak about the false charges that led to my incarceration. Yet instead, I come to you today to speak about my “higher power” and how he had continuously helped me in dealing with being incarcerated.

At the time of my arrest, initially I was lost. Knowing deep down within my heart I had done nothing to warrant me being in my current plight, I was upset and angry at the world. Having this mindset caused me to disregard any belief I had of God. Therefore, whenever I would speak with someone both on the inside and out in society (my family and friends) and they would bring up the subject of God, I would all but disrespect them, by either brushing off what they were saying or giving them every reason I could think of pertaining to why their statements were meaningless to me. I wouldn’t say that I no longer believed in God, but I thought he owed me something and my faith was weak. To me not acknowledging him was justified and I felt the need to wallow in my self-pity. Fortunately for me that all changed and my faith in God was restored.

I was in the county jail for about 6 months, when one day a Christian woman who was a pastor and volunteer came in to deliver a sermon. Prior to this I had seen/saw her come in on several occasions, yet I had never once even considered on attending. However on this day something touched me and moved me to want to go up to the classroom where the service was being held and see what was going on.

It took me a minute to muster up the courage to get up and make my way over to the classroom, but I finally did. I opened the door and as soon as I began to walk into the room, I was greeted with a warm welcome of smiles, handclapping and cheers. There were several older Christian brothers who had grown to know me pretty well and I also deemed friends, that shouted “Thank You, Jesus!” and “Hallelujah!” as soon as they noticed it was me, most of them having invited me to the service before and I had always declined. Therefore, seeing me there made them joyful and happy that I had finally come.

I sat down and joined in on singing a few familiar hymns that I knew, before listening attentively to the pastor preach. After the service was over I felt like a weight was lifted off of me and my spirit was renewed. The following day I sat in on a bible study being held in a cell of one of the older brothers I spoke of earlier. And for months to come I continued to attend many other services until the one day when I finally stood up during one of them and got saved.

 

In the years to come I thought I had grown in my new faith. I was attending service regularly, prayed several times a day, went to bible study routinely and stayed away from indulging in the carnal things I used to do prior to me becoming saved, but for some reason I was ungrounded.

After being in the county jail for merely 3 years the time had come for me to get shipped out to state prison. I went to the reception unit at Garden State and two days later I was sent to Trenton State Prison. When I was first told Trenton would be my destination, I was scared to death. Trenton was considered “the big house” or “the last stop,” the place where the most notorious criminals in New Jersey were housed and being 22 years old and approximately 150 lbs. Trenton did not seem like the place that would be the most beneficial to living a healthy and prosperous life.

The same day I arrived at Trenton State I met a middle-aged brother who was also a Christian. We were both on emergency housing therefore we were forced to shower at the same time. While in the shower, this brother asked me to pray with him. Due to where we were (in the big house) and the conditions of our surroundings, I was hesitant to do so at first, but then something inside of me told me to go ahead, therefore I did. From that day until the day we were moved to population, praying in the shower became a regular routine for us. The brother and I became friends and would later share our testimony to others.

Things were going pretty well for me for a while. I was going to church, praising the Lord and leading a righteous life. Until the one day I got moved to the unit my cousin was housed on. I started hanging with him and going to church less and less. In the beginning when he’d offer me “weed” I would turn it down. But then as time continued to progress, the no’s turned into yeses and the small tokes I started off with taking turned into me smoking blunts with him until the day I was eventually also smoking them on my own.

My fall from grace was a quick and lethal one. I had become a backslider and in doing a full U-turn I was back to leading an ungodly life full-fledged. Not only was I smoking weed but in the years to come, I also started selling it. And before I knew it the praying stopped and I was almost at the same place I was in the beginning of my incarceration.

Although, I have strayed from the original spiritual path I was, I believe that certain principles are transcending and apply to many religions abroad no matter what you believe in. One of which is that “either you are going to take time out to reflect on life and the direction you are going, or God is going to take you out of it, put you on ‘pause’ and forcibly get you to see things in the way you should.” Basically, whatever plan God has for your life is going to happen and there is nothing you can do about it and I would learn this soon enough.

On July 7, 2010, I was given an emergency transfer from East Jersey State Prison back to Trenton State Prison, where it all started from. But this time when I entered the prison I wasn’t put on emergency housing awaiting to go to general population. I was placed into a Management Control Unit on emergency housing awaiting to be placed on an MCU status. (MCU is a special unit within New Jersey State Prison. It houses the prisoners who are classified as the worst in New Jersey. Most are segregated. All are locked down 24 hours a day, except for 1 ten minute shower per day and a 2 hour yard period every 3 days.) This was as a result of a sexual relationship I was alleged to have had with a staff member at that prison and along with an extensive list of other institutional infractions that were said to have derived from our alleged relationship.

I spent approximately 5 years in MCU before I was finally released. During the time I was over there I lost everything I had. Prior to being placed into MCU I was married and had a wife who came to visit me both Saturday and Sunday every week. She brought my two children up to see me monthly and also their children (my two grandchildren) as well. My father would come up to see me periodically and so would several of my siblings. Overall I had a lot of support from my family, friends, and loved ones and I didn’t want or need for anything (financially or morally).

While in MCU I refused to cooperate or even speak with SID. Because of this they banned everyone on my visiting list, even my grandchildren (who were both less than two years old) in order to punish me. They froze my inmate account and would not allow me access to the fund I had in it, or receive any additional funds, because all my supporters were banned.

They also put my property on 'hold,' therefore I had nothing in my cell other than the change of under-clothing I came with and the bar of soap and roll of toilet paper that was given to me. For months I had nothing to eat, other than the meals they served to the inmates. Which were so bad I often had to hold my nose while eating in order to stomach then. There were several inmates on the unit with me that I knew, but none of them would do a thing to help me. I felt like I was in hell and being tortured for turning my back on God once more.

There was this guy who was a runner on the tier that I knew from population. We weren’t at all close back then, but we were friends with some of the same people, therefore we were acquainted. One day he came by my cell and I was sitting at my desk staring at the walls and counting the concrete blocks. He said "what's up?" which I thought to be strange, especially since I had been there for a while and he had never come by for anything other than what his work duties called for him to (trash pick-up, cell sanitation, supplies, etc.). I responded "nothing" and he went on to ask me, "Are you okay? You need anything?"

I thought it was a rhetorical question therefore, he didn't want an answer, especially since he was looking right into my cell, therefore he knew I had nothing. With my stomach growling and giving me pain because of it, I thought to entertain him by saying yes to see what he would say next.

To my surprise he asked me what I needed. I responded by telling him I was hungry and he told me to hold up for a minute, left from my cell and returned with a pack of Ramen Noodles. He even let me borrow a cup and his stinger to cook some hot water so I could eat the soup. All of which I was extremely grateful to receive and still thank him when I see him to this day.

As I sat at my desk and ate the Ramen Noodles tears began to swell in my eyes. No doubt I was appreciative for the meal, especially under the circumstances, but I couldn't help but think of my situation and how drastically it had changed. There was a time not long ago where I didn't eat anything 'off the line' (institutional meals). Now other than the soup that was all I had for months. I went from eating almost as good as when I was home, having dessert and a beverage with every meal, to eating food I wouldn't even feed my dog and drinking tap water to fill the gaps so that my stomach wouldn't be in too much pain as I went to sleep. In that moment, I had started feeling sorry for myself again. But this time just as soon as I did I regained my composure and thought to myself despite my situation I am blessed nevertheless.

I started thinking of all the positive things that were of benefit to me. My life, my health, my strength, my sanity! The discernment I utilized in being able to deal with the constant harassment of the powers that be and not retaliate and do something destructive that would only make my situation worse.

My family and friends who stood by me although they were unable to come see me. I had many blessings to be appreciative for and coming to look at it my current circumstances weren't all that bad after all.

In my state of contemplation and coming to the realization that things weren't as bad as I thought them to be. I looked over to the far corner of my desk and my eyes set upon a 'Holy Book'. It had been given to me shortly after my arrival when I had asked one of the guys on the tier with me if he could grab me something to read from the bookshelf out on the tier. And in seeing what it was I put it on my desk and never gave thought to it again. Yet now something was telling me to pick it up and read it, so I blew the small amount of dust that had settled upon it and I did.

I read for a couple of hours before I laid down and went to sleep. And that night was the first night for as long as I could remember that I went to bed with a peace of mind. The following day when I saw the guy who gave me the book, I called out to him and asked him if he could stop by my cell before he locked in.

He did and I asked him questions in regards to the book and his reasons for giving it to me. He gave me some insight on a few things and later assisted in making a transition into following it correctly. From that day forward I prayed every day, having a set schedule for prayer and never missing it. I have also acknowledged God in all that I have done giving him the praise he has always deserved.

I have been out of MCU for merely 2 years now and I am proud to say I have remained diligent in my walk and have not fallen short as of yet. I consider myself to be like the prophet Job who had lost everything and God gave it back to him ten-fold. Although I am no longer married, I am engaged to the most wonderful woman I have ever known. And we are awaiting to married, God willing, any day know. Several of my family members have gotten their visitation privileges restored, most importantly my father, oldest daughter, and grandchildren. I have gained just about everything I once lost, but most of all I have gained perspective. I now see things in the way they counting my blessing in a sense and naming them one by one.

Looking back at it all I see that God has always kept his promise to me by never leaving or forsaking me. Even in the midst of it all he was always there. Protecting me from adversity and giving me the strength day to day to deal with being incarcerated for something I didn't do. I realize that I couldn't have done anything without him.

I realize that I couldn't have done anything without him. And although I am incarcerated I still experience happiness and peace and despite the bars that surround me, surely I am free. And it is all because of him!

Related Content: 

Voices from the inside: Never in a million years

Voices from the inside: By the grace of God

God is in this work: A sister's story of the Pelican Bay Prison hunger strike

Update on Dakota Access Pipeline

Thu, 2017-03-09 12:46

At this time, the struggle to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline has moved into the federal courts and out from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's treaty territory and into the many areas across the country where Baakan and Tar Sands oil pipelines are proposed.   

AFSC is grateful to have been able to visit and support the prayer camps along the Cannonball River. A new model of resistance that is rooted in Indigenous resilience and commitment to the earth and the water, and grounded in prayer, has demonstrated the power of peaceful persistence. These teachings are essential as we work together in unity and with respect to support Indigenous people as they protect their sacred sites across the land, which has always been, and is still cared for, by them.  
 
Going forward, we are asked to divest from the banks that support these pipelines, especially Wells Fargo Bank, and we are encouraged to donate to the legal representation of the over 700 water protectors who are facing state and federal charges as a result of their peaceful, prayerful resistance. To this end, the AFSC has initiated a process to divest from the Wells Fargo Bank.  

We offer the following link to the Department of the Interior’s memo: Tribal Treaty and Environmental Implications of the Dakota Access Pipeline  

We also draw your attention to three recent interviews from Standing Rock. These interviews were done by Arlo Iron Cloud of KILI Radio, the Voice of the Lakota Nation! We thank Arlo for allowing us to link to KILI’s Sound Cloud and recommend our readers to return to it to check for additional interviews.  

Cody Two Bears 

After the council meeting on Tuesday, Valentines Day, [Arlo Iron Cloud] met with Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Councilman Cody Two Bears. Its a very short interview and hopefully it clears up some misunderstandings. 

Linda Black Elk  

Linda and her family have been instrumental to the movement in Standing Rock. She's been there to support and aid the Water Protectors. Join us in this conversation as we see what's happening in Standing Rock. 

Kandi Mosset, Indigenous Environmental Network  

We caught the ever-moving Kandi Mosset at the casino buffet and we got a few words in with her. She has been a part of the "Keep it in the ground" campaign for many years now. She is committed to stopping fracking and drilling. She is very supportive of clean renewable energies. She has been at Cannonball, ND since the beginning, trying to stop the Dakota Access pipeline. 

Links for divestment: http://www.defunddapl.org 

To support the legal defense of water protectors: https://waterprotectorlegal.org 

To support KILI Radio’s ongoing coverage of the DAPL: http://www.kiliradio.org 


Related Content:

We are our own medicine: an AFSC special report from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's land and unceded territory

Standing up for Standing Rock

What we're reading: repression and resistance at #NoDAPL Standing Rock occupation

Voices from the inside: Never in a million years

Wed, 2017-03-08 10:16
Ending mass incarceration

Note: This piece is one in a series of stories about spiritual journeys in prison, written by incarcerated people. Read more here and here

For those who knew me as a teen, prison was definitely not a destination they saw in my future, and being confined in a correctional facility was unequivocally not in my plans. However, after some relatively significant trauma that left me unable to recognize how seriously troubled I had become, things turned bad…really bad.  

Before turning twenty years old, I found myself charged with several horrendous crimes. After a long trial, I was convicted and sentenced to no less than sixty years in New Jersey State Prison. At that point, all of my aspirations became mere ephemeral romantic notions with no possibility of ever coming true. In addition, I had to resign myself to the fact that I would never again experience compassion, romance, or intimacy—feelings I treasured so much as a teen. Never in a million years would I find love again or be loved, not me, not in prison. At least that’s what I thought.  

To fully understand how difficult a task it was to rediscover love, it is necessary to understand how I ended up condemned and isolated from society. The descending path I followed to prison led me, in a few short years, from being a promising, accomplished young man my parents were proud of, to being someone many people were ashamed to acknowledge.  

When I was fifteen years old, one late spring morning, I walked to school with my friend Jay. He said he was very excited about taking Diane, his girlfriend, to the prom and almost equally excited about taking her in his father’s classic Corvette. That afternoon, Jay went onto a golf course with a shotgun, sat down on a picnic table, and blew his head off.  

Jay’s suicide made absolutely no sense. He was smart, athletic, and seemed to be so happy—at least he was that morning. I’ll never forget telling Diane what had happened and sitting with her in the aftermath. After that day, every single time I ran into her, I could still see sorrow in her eyes. Jay’s suicide, and the memory of the anguish I saw, is something that is with me to this day. 

Jay’s death was followed by a serious car accident. During a snow storm, four of us were returning from a football recruiting trip when I lost control of the car and crashed. Two of my best friends, Ray and Todd, died immediately and a third was injured. Since I was driving I felt responsible.  

Even though I was released from the hospital, I was still devastated by the loss of my friends, and I did not want to be alive. Along with the emotional trauma, the head injury I sustained had changed me. My demeanor, disposition, and way of regarding the world had been altered. I was no longer the same person I was before the crash. I barely recognized myself.  

I recovered quickly from a broken vertebra and ruptured spleen; but my behavior had been permanently effected. The long-term effect of traumatic brain injury isn’t something that can be picked up by a medical apparatus because what was lost was not physical or intellectual. Instead my temperament and the ability to govern my emotions had been severely diminished. I also lost the ability to relate to my own family, as if I did not belong with them or with anyone else. I even stopped feeling the same depth of love and connection to my girlfriend, Tanya. Feeling so “different” was disconcerting, but when I started having emotional swings way out of proportion to the circumstances, that made things worse. It was the first sign of troubles to come.  

Back then, experts did not recognize how devastating head injuries could be. These days, science recognizes that the combination of physical and emotional trauma in a developing adolescent is a psychically toxic and potentially explosive combination. Much of the recent understanding is the result of war. Many veterans have sustained closed-head injuries; many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and most have survivor’s guilt. Although I never went to war, the physical and mental scars I experienced as a teenager were no less severe.  

 As soon as I was physically well enough, I returned to school intent on making up the assignments I had missed and graduating. In that month of my convalescence, my parents had decided to move to New Jersey to help my uncle and his family because his wife was dying from cancer. Even though my father pleaded with me to join them, I refused. Shortly thereafter, they moved away—promising they would not sell our house until after I graduated. Soon after, a “for sale” sign went up in the yard and people started to view our home.  

My father would drive back on the weekends to check up on me and the house and Tanya would come over often, but most of the time I was alone. During this period, the situation at school started to deteriorate. Someone had started the rumor that I was drunk and that the accident was my fault, even though that was not true. I was ostracized by some and defended by others—and the conflicts that ensued began to tear the school apart. Then the mother of one of the boys who died in the car accident came over to the house and called me a murderer—she was screaming at me saying that I had killed her son and if she had a gun she would shoot me. Being blamed for the death of my friends was almost more than I could bear, but with the support and help from the few who stuck by my side, I struggled through.  

Later that spring my father informed me that the house had been sold and that I’d have to move out before the end of the term. Even though I was having a hard time, it was still set in my mind to graduate. My father’s edict just added to the stress and my sense of isolation because I had no place to go. A few weeks later, my mother came back to town so she could pack up our belongings. Suffering from bipolar disorder and in the midst of a manic episode brought on by stress, she screamed at me that I had ruined their lives, and it was my fault they had to move away. I already felt abandoned and lied to, and with the way the kids at school had turned on me, the verbal assault by my deceased friend’s mother, and my mother blaming me for everything, the betrayal was complete. Less than five months after the accident at the age of seventeen, I could not have felt more alone. 

The horrific crimes that followed took place more than two years after the car accident. I was nineteen years old at the time and two months removed from being released from a psychiatric facility. In that time I had refused counseling (despite my parents’ attempts to take me), had suffered another concussion (my third) while playing football for Fordham University, and had attempted suicide. While hospitalized after that attempt, I told the doctor that I tried to commit suicide because I could not control myself and was afraid I was going to hurt other people.  

In October of 1988, I was charged with killing my uncle and his companion. I was convicted of those crimes and have been in prison ever since. The specific events leading up to that ghastly incident do not bear repeating. Because nothing is gained by reliving the details of that tragedy, I am conditioned to refrain from talking about the actual crimes. In addition, infamy has the potential to glorify deeds that should never be glorified. The people who died, member of my own family, did not deserve what happened to them. I am ashamed by it and wish it never happened.  

During the first few decades of my incarceration, my emotions vacillated wildly from feeling sorry for myself and regretting the hurt I caused my family to intense bitterness or overwhelming guilt for all the pain I had caused. I often felt agitated or suicidal and looked forward to one thing—my own death. Sadness, more than anything else, was the prevailing emotion.  

As I grew older, I became acutely aware that I was missing out on meaningful relationships. While life for me was stagnant, out in the real world, old friends and other family members were getting married, having children, and living their lives. A deep-seated part of me hungered to love and be loved, to matter to someone. I wanted to share whatever good, decent part of me that was left with a significant other. I was lonely and hurting deep inside, but for several reasons I could not do anything about it.  

The first was fear. I had lost so many important people in the past I was afraid to open up. I also felt a mixture of shame and guilt, which crushed my self-esteem. Because of what had transpired in my life, before I could love anyone else I had to learn to love myself. That was going to be much more difficult.  

Overcoming these feelings in prison was difficult or impossible; with few women around and no chance for romance or intimacy, it was easier to bury my loneliness deep down in my psyche. What I didn’t realize was that by suppressing my issues and not dealing with them, I was causing them to fester—and poisoning my existence. 

Then, a few years ago, out of some administrative necessity, prison officials decided to establish a women’s unit right smack in the middle of a men’s maximum security prison. The women’s unit was secure and they were segregated from the men, but there were ways to see and communicate with them. When the women came into this facility, it caused quite a stir amongst the men; for me, their arrival marked the beginning of the healing process.  

Just like I had never contemplated being incarcerated, neither did I expect prison to be the place where I would remember what it means to love. Behind the tall granite walls of the most notorious prison in New Jersey, I met a compassionate woman brave enough to get to know me, strong enough to help me, and smart enough to know how.  

Mariea, an inmate facing her own sentence and her own problems, took on the arduous task of digging deep into my soul so she could help me figure out how to be at peace.  

We got to know each other as friends first, with literally hundreds of people watching our every move. When the women went out to yard, I could see them from a narrow slot in the wall that served as a window. Their yard was at the base of the six stories of housing units filled with lonely men and Mairea’s long, gorgeous hair immediately drew attention to her. Somehow, her best friend noticed me and helped make our acquaintance. Not long after, Mariea and I agreed to start writing through the heavily monitored prison mail system.  

A mutual attraction began to grow as we wrote back and forth, discussing our likes and dislikes, our pasts, our pains, and our greatest fears. Strangely, what we had in common, and what really seemed to pull us together, was our “baggage”. Despite the difficulty we had communicating privately, we quickly ascertained that we both harbored some serious issues that needed to be addressed.  

Mariea had been the victim of domestic abuse, and I thought maybe I could help her work through some of her aversions. She thought she could help me overcome my suffering and finally realize some peace. Since we both wanted to try to work through our issues together, we embarked on a mutually beneficial course that ended up doing more for me than I ever thought possible.  

Working within the rules of the institution, Mariea and I found ways to get closer. For example, we made up our own sign language to communicate when she went out to yard. I would wear socks on my hands so she could see me “sign” down to her from my window. Instead of writing about pop culture or gossip, we spent much of our time writing critiques about self-help books we both agreed to buy and read together. Or, we would fill pages and pages about the troubles we had that brought out the worst in us, sharing with each other what we did not dare share with anyone else. And, to make things even more personal, more intimate, we would also send each other poems, sketches, and photographs—things that came from our hearts; profound, meaningful tokens that cemented the promises and vows we made to never cause each other pain.  

On a handful of occasions, for a few brief seconds, Mariea and I came face to face with nothing but a few steel bars between us. It only happened when an officer was escorting her to work in the moments after I was called out to school to tutor. Our paths would cross, and there were only fleeting glimpses; but in those moments, everything and everyone else disappeared—it was just us.  

Mairea encouraged me to meditate and convinced me to take up yoga. Several stories apart, at the exact same time, we would practice and do asanas from routines she had developed. That was one way we could feel closer while still improving ourselves. She also encouraged me to enroll in correspondence courses to help me learn to love myself. Mariea signed up for the courses “with” me so we could do them together.  

Mariea did a lot to help me, but the most important thing she did was to encourage me to take on the car accident to try to come to terms with the loss of my childhood friends. With her support, I finally worked up the nerve to go into counseling to deal with the post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor guilt that had burdened me for twenty-five years. Through all the tears and the heartache, she was there for me, writing to me and asking how things went after every session, telling me it was okay to let go, and never, ever making me feel weak or inadequate for letting my emotions flow.  

No one has ever loved me so much or cared about me so deeply yet asked nothing in return. Although the things we did together required me to put forth plenty of my own effort, it was all made meaningful because Mariea loved me enough to care. Her effort proved to me that I was worth saving, worth loving—and she planted the seeds that got me on the path of learning to love myself.  

In the time Mariea was here, we never touched—no matter how badly I wanted to hold her hand or hold her in my arms. We never kissed, no matter how often I prayed, entreating a Higher Power to give me that one precious moment to feel her lips pressed against mine. Even without physical contact, I fell deeply in love with that sweet lady because what we were able to share made me feel human.  

Mariea doesn’t know it, but I am alive today because of her kindness, her patience, and her love. Since our time together, I no longer wake up screaming from dreams where I’m crashing a car and killing the people I love. Also, I can now sleep soundly at night without taking medication. She would never accept the credit for this but I believe these changes came about because she loved me and proved to me I was worth loving. Because of her I no longer hate myself.  

Never in a million years could I have predicted that in a maximum-security prison I would fall head over heels in love with a beautiful, kind, spiritual woman who dared to love me despite my past and my flaws. Never in a million years could I have predicted that she would come into my life and convince me it was okay to forgive myself, that I should love myself, and then prove to me that I was worth loving. Never in a million years would I have guessed that I would once again be able to smile.  

Unfortunately, what Mariea and I shared did not last, but what did endure was the metamorphosis; a transformation brought about by unconditional love, where, for the first time in a quarter century, my soul was at peace. 

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Lifting up the sky: Resisting injustice, creating sanctuary

Wed, 2017-03-01 18:44
Building peace Defending immigrant rights Ending discrimination

I visited my friend on Friday. As I stood on his doorstep I looked at the rosy, streaked sky. Chimney swifts flitted by. He opened the door and let me in. We have been creating for one another sanctuary, a place to ignite our political imagination, to speak our fears and our aspirations, to tell each other stories. We grow stronger together to resist and create.

It’s not the only place I experience this: in a small community committed to experiment with radical faith, with co-workers, sometimes just in a conversation on the way to work. People are being real, open, extending their hands, weaving a net of connection and resistance.

Two Sundays ago, I went to a Sanctuary in the Streets training presented by the New Sanctuary Movement in the basement of a Catholic church. Two hundred of us told stories of how working for social justice came to be important to us. We heard one woman’s story of three of her family members being deported, targeted, harassed. We wept with her. Then we learned how to stand in the way of deportation raids. In my group we linked arms and obstructed those portraying Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. I felt strong, determined.

There have been six ICE raids in Philadelphia in the past two weeks. On Wednesday the first text came calling us to show up for a raid. The young woman who called said ICE officers were pounding on her door. The call dropped before the receiver of the call could get her address, so we were summoned to the ICE headquarters at 16th and Callowhill.

Before I arrived a man was brought into the facility. Four more people were transported to a detention center. We gathered and sang. We chanted, “We have come this far, We won’t turn around, We’ll flood the streets with justice, We are freedom bound.”

It was hard, daunting. The wall is already so high. The infrastructure for cruelty and harm is already so intricate and normalized. I became more determined to stand in the way… and more aware of how hard it will be. The media came to cover the incident, we stayed so the word would be spread – we were late, but we will show up, stand up, muck up the harsh system as much as we can. The circle will grow.

At the end of the training in the church basement, Maria, an immigrant and community organizer said, “The sky has fallen.” We all reached down and together we lifted up the sky. Maybe if enough of us stand at the door when the men in blue come for our neighbors, if enough of us join hands, create sanctuary for the birth pangs of justice and love, for an emergent political and spiritual reality, we too can lift up the sky.

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Voices from the inside: By the grace of God

Tue, 2017-02-28 13:34
Ending mass incarceration

Note: This piece is in a series of stories about spiritual journeys in prison, written by incarcerated people. Read more here and here

"Good morning ladies and gentlemen, my name is Lester Shakil Alford and I am the Plaintiff in this civil matter. I am a Pro-se Plaintiff which means I will be representing myself throughout this entire trial, acting as my own attorney. I am proceeding pro-se because I am unable to afford and or retain a personal attorney to represent me in this case and the State is not required by Law to appoint me on in a civil matter. "

The above is just a small portion of my thirteen-page opening statement from a civil trial, deriving from the most traumatic experience I've ever went through in my life. I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention the fact that the same traumatic experience is what led me to repent and seek God.

Here is my story. My name is Lester Shakil Alford. I'm 44 years old. I was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey to a single widowed mother (my father was murdered a couple of months before I was born so I never knew him). I have two siblings, an older sister and younger brother, we were raised in the projects between the cities of Elizabeth and Newark. I guess I can say that life began for me at the young age of twelve at my first arrest and thirteen when I left home to be on my own. I'm pretty sure in hind sight, that decision is what landed me in prison seven years later as an adult.

I am now a convicted felon serving a 50-year sentence with a 30-year stipulation for murder. I have been incarcerated for a little over 23 years of my sentence this time, not including the time I spent in prison as a juvenile. I can sadly say that I've spend more time on this earth as a prisoner than I've spent as a free man. Why? In the past, at times, I was the best at making a bad situation worse, and this time was no different. I just didn't know how drastically my life would change or why for that matter.

On the date of June 16th, in the year of 2006, I was placed in a specially designed steel caged cell, something similar to a huge dog kennel. I remained this way for three years until July 19th, 2009. At this time, there was no other caged cell like this in the State of New Jersey and I was the only inmate to have been subjected to this treatment. For the three years I spent in this caged cell, I was completely isolated from any human contact and prohibited from even talking to anyone who may have passed by the caged cell, included inmates and staff alike.

I was forced to live under extremely harsh, atypical condition as compared to any other prisoner in New Jersey. I remained this way without being told why I was being treated like this, other than from time to time being told that my placement came from the Big Boys who run the Department of Corrections. What bewildered me about my placement in that caged cell was the fact that, although I was not a model prisoner by any means, I was not amongst the worst of the worst. In my 23 years of incarceration, I have never harmed, attempted to harm, threaten, or used abusive language toward any officer, staff, or employee of the Department of Corrections. In 23 years of incarceration, I have only had two physical altercations with another prisoner. So I have no clue as to why someone felt the need to place me in a caged cell like an animal and treat me the way they did.

As I began earlier, on June 16th, 2006 while housed at Northern State Prison in a cell under normal conditions, in the wee hours of the morning I was awakened from my sleep by several officers dressed in riot gear and operating a hand-held video camcorder. I was ordered by one of the officers to get off my bunk and strip naked for a cavity search, then ordered to turn and face the wall and get on my knees and place my hands on my head with my fingers interlocked. (I complied.) After several minutes in this position I was told to get dressed, then handcuffed and shackled and placed in an armored truck, with no windows, lights, or ventilation. When asked where was I going, I was told to shut up! (I did as was told.) Anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour later, I was dragged out of the armored truck with the realization that I was then at East Jersey State Prison's intake unit. I was then escorted by officers dressed in riot gear operating a hand-held video camcorder to Alpha unit of the Administrative Segregation Unit (ad-seg) and placed in a caged cell known as 126 with NOTHING but the boxer underwear I had on. The rest of my clothes were withheld from me for almost 2 months.

There were 176 prisoners on this unit but I was the only one to be placed inside a specially built caged cell.

After having the handcuffs and shackles removed I was told to strip naked yet again, grab my genitals and lift them up then bend over and spread myself for inspection and this occurred not only in front of the officers who escorted me to this caged cell with the video camcorder, but in front of all 176 prisoners as well. (And for the next three years I was forced to strip naked in front of 176 other inmates and compelled to expose myself and open my orifice for all to see whenever I was asked or ordered to exit and enter this caged cell.)

After the strip search I was placed inside the cell and the door was secured and locked, then the cage door was secured and locked with a padlock. It was ordered that I remain this way indefinitely and that under no circumstances was I to have any human contact with officers, staff, civilian, or inmates. NO HUMAN contact period. I was to be video recorded at all times. It was also ordered that a special log book be kept of all my actions and interactions.

The caged cell that I was placed in was not fit for an animal, let alone a human being. The caged cell was video monitored 24 hours a day, documenting my every move, including whenever I used the bathroom. The cell contained no light switch or no fire sprinkler. The cell leaked from the ceiling. The walls were infested with mold, and fecal matter. No shelves, no locker, or anything needed for a person to live in the cell. The toilet backed up with feces and urine whenever other prisoners flushed their toilets, and the smell was horrible.

There was no ventilation, so in the summer I was so hot that I could barely breathe and in the winter I thought I would freeze to death, it was so cold in there.

Now with all that I have just described to you, I was still denied for three years air in the summer and heat in the winter, the right to clean or sanitize this caged cell. I was denied the right to wash my personal clothes or my sheets and forced to live in unsanitary conditions.

The caged cell also had its own shower which was to only be occupied by me and no one else. For three years I was denied the right to clean or sanitize this shower and forced to shower in the accumulated stench and mold around the floor. I was denied the right to receive a haircut, to shave or be shaven or groomed by someone else. I was denied a comb, brush, pick and even a toothbrush.

I was denied the right to religious access and materials and to practice my religion. I was denied the right to speak with a chaplain, an Iman, or any persons in any faith or religion.

On occasions I was denied recreation for whatever reasons they could come up with. And to further humiliate me and add insult to injury, sometime they would send a female Special Investigator to film and record me being strip searched, totally naked, exposing my genitals and orifices. This was done even as I expressed the wish not to be filmed by anyone, let alone a female in front of 176 other prisoners and have to bend over and spread myself for all to see. This process occurred whenever I was removed from this cell and again when I returned. I had to repeat the exact same process of the strip search, although I had never been in contact with anyone or out of anyone's sight and filmed the whole time. Yet I was compelled to strip again, and again.

For three years, 90% of the time, I ate cold meals, because I was locked in a caged cell which had a padlock securing it and no one had access to the key except a high ranking supervisor, so whenever meals were served I had to wait for a supervisor to arrive with a key to open the cage to feed me. For whatever reason they always took their time coming with the key, which meant I either ate a cold meal or I didn't eat at all.  

Whenever I was served my meals, my tray and trash was left inside my cell until it was time to feed me again, which meant my breakfast tray was left inside my cell until lunch, my lunch tray and trash were left until dinner, and my dinner tray and trash were left in my cell until breakfast the next morning, leaving my cell to smell foul from the uneaten food in the trays. Again I was denied the right to clean or sanitize my cell.

I was denied any type of contact with my family, friends, and loved ones. My family was denied visitation. I was denied the right to correspond with anyone via mail. My mail was taken and read, then discarded.

Everything that other prisoners were afforded I was denied; every privilege or right that other prisoners received, I had taken away from me. I have experienced the true definitions of loneliness and abandonment and I wish that feeling on no-one else in this world. I believe that it was by the grace of God that I survived this cruel and unusual punishment and that I didn't go crazy in that caged cell. I am and have always been, since the day of my birth, a sane person. Never have I had to take any type of medication to subdue me, nor have I ever acted insanely towards another human being. Nevertheless I was placed in a caged cell like a rabid animal and stripped literally of my humanity, manhood, and every right and privilege that I was entitled to as a human being.

I wish I could tell you that I remember the exact date and time of my transformation but I can't. I can't because I didn't realize it was happening until I noticed a pattern in my daily routine of sitting inside the empty caged cell with nothing but my own thoughts. I began to pray more than I ever did in my life. I began to ask God to help me because I felt like I was losing my mind and I was so afraid of that feeling. I felt lost and abandoned. I felt like I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders and I didn't know what to do. I felt like I had no one and nothing in the world, with nowhere to turn to for help. I've never felt so alone in my life. I started thinking to myself, "maybe this lonely feeling is why some people kill themselves." Years after my experience, while trying to explain to one of my family members what I went through, I told her that if she really wanted to know, all she had to do was wait until no one was in the house with her, then lock herself inside a closet and sit there for a couple hours and tell me how she felt when I called back. I felt bad that I asked her to do that because she cried like a baby the next time I talked to her.

While in the cell I began to pray more, getting on my knees and praying until I would find myself crying, begging God to help me. I could not rationalize to myself why this was happening to me. I tortured myself for a long time with thoughts of my past wrong doings in life, from my adolescent age until adulthood, thinking along with every thought, "Maybe that is what I'm paying for." I think I was trying to find justification for what was happening to me, as if that would have made things more bearable for me. As time went by I became more and more numb to my situation, what was going on around me and I towards life in general I guess.

My prayers were answered one day when I awoke to find a small, blue, pocket-size Bible sitting on top of my lunch tray. (I found out a few days later that one of the correctional officers, who happened to also be a pastor, felt sorry for me and ask the Sgt. to give it to me when he delivered my lunch tray.) You would have thought I hit the lottery that's how happy I was to have gotten something to read to occupy my time and take away the loneliness. I read that Bible back to front, not really understanding everything I was reading. But I understood enough. I understood that I had to change my life, and to do that I had to give my life to the Lord. I knew I had to repent and accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior. I also knew it would not be easy. I started telling myself that everything I read in the Bible that a real follower of Christ was suppose to do I was going to put a 100% effort into doing it. I started by getting on knees and telling God that in order for me to succeed in what I needed to do, I was going to need his help, and a lot of it. I told him that from that point on, everyday he blessed me with I would dedicate it to changing my life and I meant every word.

Things remained the same for me for awhile, but for some reason I didn't feel as lonely as I had before once I realized that I wasn't alone in that cell. I got to know God and myself a little more and it was an amazing learning experience. Then out of the blue, three years and three days after being placed inside the caged cell, the door opened and they told me that I was permitted to be amongst other people again. I cried and walked out of the cell feeling lost, not knowing what to do or who to talk to first.

A few days after being released, I began to learn the law so I could file a lawsuit for the wrong that was done to me. And I did, in fact I'm the only prisoner to ever succeed in suing the NJDOC pro-se.

That's just a little bit of my journey. There's so much more that transpired in between the three years spent in that caged cell. It's been 10 years since that happened to me and I'm still trying to keep my promise to God with every day he blesses me with.

In hindsight, here is how I know that although I felt alone in there I really wasn't. I was 33 years old when they placed me in the caged cell. I was released 3 years and 3 days after they put me there. I read in the bible that Jesus was 33 when he was persecuted. I can't wait to see what awaits me with my new life...

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