Podcast: The first night in prison is not how you imagine

BTW LogoMy first night in prison I barely slept. It wasn’t so much that I was worried “dropping the soap” or getting attacked – it’s just that it was prison. But it was nothing like I expected.

That was just over seven years ago, but that first night stuck with me, and it seemed like a good starting place for a new podcast. Tune in every couple weeks to listen to me and my cohost – former corrections union president Lance Lowry – talk about Texas prisons and prison policy.

Here’s the link to subscribe

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A Reporter’s First Rodeo

The rodeo is in town in Bayou City. Every year, a three-week marathons of animals, carnival food and concerts floods Houston for the famous Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

Here’s some of the highlights of my week covering the big shindig.

A reporter’s quest to find the elusive rodeo jail

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Is this rodeo jail?

 

There’s a cracked painting of a bucking animal sprawled across one wall and a parched dirt floor underfoot. In one corner is a lone tattered boot with a star-shaped spur. In another there’s a mean two-headed rattlesnake with a gun in its mouth. The only food is raw hamburger meat wrapped in fried bacon, served three times a day. The only thing to drink is cowboy tears – and cowboys don’t cry.

At least this is how I envision rodeo jail.

Click here to read the full story. 

Speak, you said? A dog’s eye view of what the rodeo need

This is not my first rodeo. As a World Champion Disc Dog, I have been to a good number of these things — and I have six suggestions to make them less human-centric and more agreeable for canine visitors such as myself.

IMG_5449What does this adorable dog suggest? Click here to read the full story.

In tractor maintenance, a fierce competitor

In a sea of baseball caps, Sage Boettcher’s blond ponytail stands out.

It bobs beside the bright orange tractor in front of her as the 18-year-old bangs the back wheels in frustration.

It wobbles as she peers closely under the seat, searching for the problem.

It pauses as she remembers: The clock is ticking.

Does Sage win? Is she the fastest tractor-fixer in Texas? Click here to read the full story.

Border Patrol presence turns heads, creates worries at the rodeo

It started with what looked like an unnerving photo: windowless Border Patrol vans parked outside the Houston Rodeo.

And as the image spread online in the run-up to Sunday’s Go Tejano Day, it seeded fear and rumors of roundups in the local Hispanic community in light of President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown.

“They don’t need to be spreading fear or instigating further tension between people with different skin tones,” said Yvonne Hernandez, a Houstonian who comes from a family of immigrants.

Click here to read the full story and find out Border Patrol’s response to the online rumors.

In Real Life, War Can Sneak Up on You

The world was on the brink of another war, and Chuck Bowman headed out for a bike ride.

In any other decade, my great-uncle Chuck’s voyage might have been a leisurely sightseeing trip, but when the newly minted West Point grad trekked through Europe on a bicycle in 1939, he was seeing the beginnings of a global conflict.

As detailed in his war diary, Chuck’s trip seems ominous only with the benefit of hindsight.

Click on the image below to read the full story. 

hitler Continue reading “In Real Life, War Can Sneak Up on You”

“It Could Have Been Me”: Death, Loss, and a Life Cut Short

“No doubt it’s getting worse,” she told us. When I interviewed Vickie for an Ithaca Times story in the summer of 2014, the vivacious redhead was clean and spoke of the future with hope.

The story was an in-depth look at the increase in heroin use in Tompkins County and Vickie took the brave step of going on the record — using her name and picture — to talk about her own struggles and history with addiction. She was in early sobriety and told me that, if her story would help one person, it was worth going public about it.

“I’m rediscovering who I am and what I want out of life,” she said. She was going back to school and enjoying more financial stability. “I graduated drug court, which would have never happened if I continued using—and I’m just way more happy. Being a junkie is just miserable.”

In December, that misery ended, but in the worst way. Vickie’s addiction got the better of her.

Before co-writing that story, I’d known Vickie for years. She was bubbly and outgoing. She had a great sense of humor, even in some pretty miserable situations. We’d laughed a lot. We’d shared a love of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. We’d also shared a love of some really destructive things in life and, when we met, we were both in a bad way. Eventually I cleaned up and, in bursts, she did, too. But addiction is cunning and hard to beat.

It’s easy to get mad at someone in the throes of an addiction. From personal experience, I’d say addicts tend to do things they regret. Sometimes, I’ve found the easiest way to explain it is to say that an addicted person is a placeholder for the person they are when they’re sober. You can’t have the same set of expectations you would of them normally and sometimes they’ll do really shitty things — but with some people, even in the height of their addiction, it’s still easy to see hope and light shining through. And that was what I saw in Vickie. Even in the midst of her struggles, there was no mistaking that she was a great person.

After hearing of her death, I called up a mutual friend — someone I’d met through Vickie — to see how he was taking the news. That day, the same day she died, he’d gotten a Christmas card from her in the mail.

Even in the midst of an addiction, she’d remembered to take the time out for a season’s greeting. She wished him love for the coming year and, as he read the card aloud, we worried about her family.

“It could have been me,” he said. “There were days I shouldn’t have woken up.

I could say the same, as could an awful lot of my friends — those of us who are left. You can’t be a drug addict without seeing a lot of loss: loss of dignity, loss of hope, and loss of life. That’s a loss that Vickie’s family and many friends are feeling right now.

In the days after her death, her Facebook page was filled with a steady stream of condolences and fond memories. Some remembered her as a free spirit, some highlighted her compassion. Some remembered her smile and her vibrance. Some said that she’s another young person gone too soon.

They’re all right. So I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said dozens of times already when I close by saying: Vickie, you will be missed.

Obscenity, Addiction, and Lenny Bruce

“Satire is tragedy plus time,” said Lenny Bruce.“You give it enough time, the public, the reviewers will allow you to satirize it. Which is rather ridiculous, when you think about it.”

It’s been 49 years, but Bruce’s death—a morphine overdose—is still a tragedy. Though he was many things, first and foremost, Bruce was a comedian. Today, when we think of comedians who died of drug overdoses, it’s names like Mitch Hedberg, Greg Giraldo, John Belushi, and Chris Farley that come to mind. But, before all those, there was Lenny Bruce.

Ozzie and Harriet 

Bruce, who came into the world as Leonard Alfred Schneider, was born on Long Island in 1925. His parents divorced when he was five and then when he was 16, Bruce ran away from home and worked on farms before joining the U.S. Navy at the age of 17. He served aboard the U.S.S. Brooklyn in North Africa, but after three years, he was honorably discharged—after claiming to be gay—and eventually moved back home with his mother.

Then, at the age of 22, he did his first stand-up show at a nightclub in Brooklyn. After a stint in the merchant navy, he met Harriett Jolliff, the singer and striptease dancer better known as Honey Harlow. According to The New York Times, “The couple’s six-year marriage was Ozzie and Harriet as reimagined by William S. Burroughs …  They shopped for wallpaper. They injected heroin. She served jail time for marijuana possession.”

After getting into trouble with the law for a fundraising scam involving a leper colony in New Guinea, the couple moved to Pittsburgh, where they got into a serious car accident. In 1953, they moved to California, and Bruce’s comedy career continued gaining steam.

Bruce’s Style: Talking Dirty and Influencing People

Over the course of his 18-year comedy career, Bruce became known for his stream-of-consciousness style and his wry satire—and also for his obscenity. He stepped away from the family-friendly humor that preceded him and took on serious issues, issues that some people didn’t think it nice to joke about. He said, “All my humor is based upon destruction and despair. If the whole world were tranquil, without disease and violence, I’d be standing on the breadline right in back of J. Edgar Hoover.”

No topic was sacred. He called out censorship and the government: “Take away the right to say ‘fuck’ and you take away the right to say ‘fuck the government.’” He poked fun at religion: “If Jesus had been killed 20 years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.” He joked about his own Jewishness: “A lot of people say to me, ‘Why did you kill Christ?’ I dunno… it was one of those parties, got out of hand, you know. We killed him because he didn’t want to become a doctor, that’s why we killed him.” He talked about everything from sex to mothers-in-law to law enforcement.

As Paul Krassner, the journalist who edited Bruce’s 1965 biography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, told Rolling Stone in 2012, “What Lenny did as a performer was break through the traditional targets of humor and talk about things that really mattered. Everything from teachers’ salaries, racism and sexism to abortion rights and atomic testing – all different forms of injustice.”

The willingness to address those topics in and of itself created a new form of comedy. In 2013, The Guardian wrote, “Lenny Bruce was not the first standup comedian, but he did create what we now mean by ‘standup comedy.’ The idea of some guy on a stage, often some guy with problems, who finds himself at odds with the establishment and has only his wits to resist with: that all begins with Bruce.”

“Life is a four-letter word.”

In pop culture, the ’60s are remembered as a time of flowers, acid, and anti-war protests.

For Bruce, the ’60s were a time of obscenity trials and drug arrests. In September 1961, he was arrested after cops entered his Philadelphia hotel room and found methadone, speed, and needles. Although it made national headlines, that particular arrest did not lead to a conviction as the grand jury failed to indict; the comedian had prescriptions for everything he’d been arrested with. At the time, Bruce was convinced the arrest was retribution for his handling of religion in his on-stage performances. That would not be Bruce’s last drug arrest. In 1962, was arrested again for drug possession and in 1963 he was caught with heroin, methedrine, and syringes. 

Just about a month after the 1961 Philly arrest, Bruce was arrested for using the word cocksucker at a show in San Francisco. Although he was acquitted, that arrest was only the first in a string of obscenity-related arrests finally culminating in his arrest for a performance at Café au Go Go in Greenwich Village. That arrest resulted in a conviction and a four-month jail sentence, although the sentence was stayed pending appeal.

After firing his attorneys, Bruce began preparing the appeal on his own. One of the fired lawyers later observed that, as the comedian immersed himself in the legal process, ”He was a guy quickly sliding down, into drugs.”

The repeated obscenity charges made him almost unemployable; no one wanted to risk hiring him. Given his lack of work and the cost of repeatedly defending himself against charges in multiple states, Bruce had to file for bankruptcy.

On Aug. 3, 1966, Bruce found out he was going to lose his Hollywood Hills home. Later that day, he was found naked on the bathroom floor, a needle still hanging out of his arm. At the age of 40, Bruce had died of a morphine overdose. Regarding his drug use, Bruce is often credited as saying,“I’ll die young, but it’s like kissing God.”

Although he’d already been a drug user, some blamed his death on the continual legal battles he fought; he later came to be known as a First Amendment martyr. One of the district attorneys who prosecuted him in New York later admitted, “We drove him into poverty and bankruptcy and then murdered him. We all knew what we were doing. We used the law to kill him.”

As Bruce once said, “Life is a four-letter word.”

His Memory

While comedians today can anticipate that almost every performance will be filmed, put on YouTube, and shared on Facebook, that wasn’t true in Bruce’s day. Today, there’s only a handful of videos of Bruce performances, and most recordings are audio-only. Some are available in transcripts—such as those paraded out at his obscenity trials—but the net result is that his era’s technological limitations have diminished our collective memory of him. For many young people today, he’s never been a household name like Chris Farley or John Belushi.

Nonetheless, he’s had a lasting impact on the world of comedy. As Nat Hentoff wrote in Gadfly: “A long and growing list of comedians—actually, social satirists—owe a great thanks to Lenny Bruce. These include Richard Pryor (who came closest to meeting Lenny’s standards), George Carlin, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and an emerging number of young black and Hispanic fearless, funny commentators. Bruce opened the doors not only on the way we live, but also on the way we often cover it up.”

Posthumously, Bruce’s memory has not been covered up so much as it has been revised—for the better. In 2003—almost four decades after his death—New York pardoned his final obscenity conviction.

This story was originally published at thefix.com.

Camp for Children of Incarcerated Parents

Imagine you are six years old and your dad is in jail. You’re probably confused. You may not understand where he is or why he’s not there. You probably aren’t sure why you have to see him through plexiglass every week or why there are guards in room who won’t let you sit in his lap. You might even feel like you’re singled out, like you’re the only kid this has ever happened to. What do you do?

If you live in Tompkins County you can attend a summercamp program called Project RISE, and it’s dedicated to helping kids of incarcerated and criminal justice-involved parents get to experience a safe, understanding camp environment for free. Aislyn Colgan

The project, spearheaded by Aislyn Colgan, is starting as a part of the existing Village Camp, founded and run by Camp Earth Connections owner Susan Rausch. Rausch has owned the Freeville campground, located in Hammond Hill State Park, since 2002, when she took it over from Cayuga Nature Center.

Before taking ownership of the campground, Rausch founded Village Camp back in 1999 as a community camp. With help from Greater Ithaca Activities Center, Rausch began something that she said “is very different from other camps.” It’s a very outdoor-focused program and kids aren’t broken up into age groups. Instead she said, “We come together as a community and then we offer choices to the kids.” She added, “The Village Camp doesn’t really have a focus other than supporting kids who are disenfranchised in one way or another.”

Thus, when Colgan approached Rausch with the idea for Project RISE, it was a natural fit. Colgan said, “Project RISE is geared toward anyone whose parents are involved in the justice system in any way.” Kids with parents on probation, drug court, or behind bars will qualify for full camp scholarships. Over the past few months, Colgan has done the leg-work in terms of securing funding to make sure those scholarships are a reality.

Before moving to the Ithaca area in 2011, Colgan worked at Project AVARY (Alternative Ventures for At-Risk Youth), a camp for kids of incarcerated parents. Colgan was there for two summers and found the program inspiring, so when she moved out the area she decided she wanted to recreate it somewhere else.

Although Project AVARY included year-round activities, Colgan said that she hopes to build up to that point so that eventually there can be day trips or weekend getaways during the off-season.

“This is meant to be a focal point for parents and families dealing with incarceration to mobilize and help each other out and be more resilient,” she said. “Project RISE means ‘Resilience in Spite of Everything.’ So it’s meant to be a base for people to work together and build resilience among themselves and work against this system of mass incarceration.” She added, “It’s not like, ‘Let’s help these poor kids who are through no fault of their own are a victim of their parents’ behavior.’ This is like, ‘The system is targeting these kids.’ And this is to resist that.”

This year, the camp will be one week long, running from Aug. 17 to 21. Kids will be picked up at GIAC at 8:30 a.m. and dropped back off at 5 p.m. To enroll or get more information, contact Colgan directly atprojectrise15@gmail.com. •

This article originally appeared in The Ithaca Times.

“This Is What Freedom Tastes Like”

Prison Photography

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First Meal: Everything bagel with veggie cream cheese and a medium coffee from Dunkin Donuts. “I was craving a really good bagel,” said Keri Blakinger, 30, who served 21 months in female correctional facilities in NY. Blakinger, a vegetarian, subsisted mostly on canned vegetables and granola bars, which she received in packages from her parents. Since getting out, her diet has not changed much because she grew accustomed to not having to cook for herself. © Julius Motal.

There’s no shortage of projects about meals in the small corner of photographic practice concerned with prisons and human rights. Specifically, the final meals of condemned prisoners have stoked the macabre and outraged intrigue of artists.

Julius Motal‘s photographs of “first meals” are therefore something of a departure and a welcome addition to the visual narratives trying to convey the transitions out of prison and into society. Instead of an end…

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Christmas Requests from a Dog

Dear Human,

We really need to have a talk about the things you get me for Christmas. I do not like squeaky toys quite as much as you seem to think I do. Here, however, is a list of things that I do like and would very much like to receive this year.

  1. A bed. Not a dog bed. I have one of those. I do not want that. I want my own human bed. And I want you to sit on it with me so that you can pet me. However, onmy bed, you cannot force me to move when I “steal” the pillow. Also, on my bed, once I have appropriately rearranged the covers to my liking, you cannot “make” the bed again.
  2. A pet. Do you remember that a few years ago we lived in a house with many mice? I liked them. They were my friends. And then I ate them. I would like more. Mice, frogs, and spiders would all be acceptable.
  3. An additional steering wheel in your car. I want to sit on the side with the steering wheel. Every time I do, you insist that I move. I want my own steering wheel. If you get me a steering wheel, I promise I will stop touching the gear shift while you are driving. Probably. The window and mirror controls are still fair game, though.
  4. A trash can. You used to leave the trash can at a height that I could reach. I think you have moved it because I cannot see it anymore.  Please put it back or get me my own. I like to work on apartment decorating while you are gone and if you get me my own trash can I promise to have its contents artfully scattered about the room by the time you return.

    High Art
    This is one of my best art installations. If you put back the trash can, I can do more.
  5. Crampons. You know, those little metal spikes mountain climbers wear on their boots? I need some. This ice-like surface you call “hardwood floor” is patently unsafe. One should not live on something so slippery. However, since you seem to like living on a surface that offers approximately the same walking stability as treading on a slug (like the one I ate yesterday), the least you can do is find me some crampons. I would advise you to purchase some as well.
  6. My own toilet bowl. One without a lid. You keep putting the lid down, making the best water in the house completely inaccessible to me. This is unfair. Having my own lidless toilet bowl would remedy this injustice.
  7. Books. I do not think that you understand how books are to be used, but I would like more anyway. You seem to think that you should stare at books when in fact they are to be used as pillows. I have tried my hardest to communicate this to you by lying on top of or putting my face in front of any book that you stare at for too long. Someday you will understand.
  8. A poop sampler platter. Please include cat, dog, sheep, and chicken samples. I would also appreciate the inclusion of some of my own samples. I know that you have them because I have seen you pick up my poop and put it into a bag (you weirdo).
  9. Presents for my friends. As a dog, I find gift wrapping rather challenging. Thus, I would appreciate if you would procure and wrap the following presents for my dog friends:
  • A dead fish for Taigo. Taigo greatly enjoys rolling in dead fish. (Note that fish must be at least a few days old.)
  • A pile of socks for Matty. Ideally, the socks should be worn and smelly.
  • A chipmunk for Bailey. Specifically, this gift should be deposited inside Bailey’s house. She thinks that if the chipmunk is indoors, she will finally be able to catch it. This gift probably does not need to be wrapped.

Thank you for considering my requests.

Love,

Charlotte

Note: This article was originally published on ithaca.com. I know it’s completely off-topic in terms of what I usually post here, but it was fun so I put it up. Plus, Charlotte demanded that I repost it.