Prison and prisons

We have got to do this better.

We know that solitary confinement is torture, that it does nothing but push broken people to their breaking points–and how does that make society or any of us safer?  We know this and yet we keep doing it, even if President Obama recently banned solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prison (though I’m unsure of what this means for young people in state prisons or local detention).  Not only do we keep doing it, but when we run out of space we don’t look for alternatives, we simply double up people (including people with a history of violence or known to have a mental illness) in the same small, confined space we already know to cause healthy people to lose their minds.

Not to mention that “the three largest inpatient psychiatric facilities in the country are jails: Los Angeles County Jail, Rikers Island Jail in New York City and Cook County Jail in Illinois“–institutions that at best are ill equipped for mental health treatment, and at worst can be fatal.  These are preventable deaths.  We moved towards deinstitutionalization for a reason, and for very good ones, but we still haven’t quite figured out what to do instead, and how.

Even those who come out don’t come out unscathed.  Kids learn to become criminals, and I’m not sure what we expect people with criminal records to do if they can’t get or keep a job after they get out.

Not that there isn’t a need or a place for corrections, but when we fail to remember that the purpose is supposed to be making it safer for all of us, when we fail to take the long view…  We asked for a cheap (at first), quick bandage and that’s what we got.  I don’t know what the answers are but we better do something differently because this is death by a thousand cuts, times a thousand, times a thousand…


Accommodations and Defaults

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Saw this today. It’s not a secret but something wonderful that was handed private to a customer by a barista at a Starbucks in Leesburg, Va.” – comment on the PostSecret postcard above

There are policies about accessibility–and they are important, there is a place and a need for them.  There are technological solutions–in fact, you can order online and go pick up your order without really having to talk to anyone (which appears to be what this customer had done prior to being handed this note).  And those too, have their uses.

But this is so much better.  Instead of asking a person who has, I’m guessing, either a hearing or speech-impairment to accommodate everyone who does not speak sign language, this barista is making an effort to speak this customer’s language.

There is no reason that those of us with fully functioning legs could not walk up and down a ramp.  That those of us without arthritis could not use a lever door handle.  That children without disabilities could not play on a playground with features that make it safe and playable for all children.  There are plenty of cases where other factors may come into play, but the times when it’s a matter of choosing this or that type of door handle–why is inclusion not the default?  And if it is a little more effort to design something a certain way or takes a little more space or–why is it that we make people who have struggled their entire lives in a world not built for them, to work even harder to accommodate the rest of us?


Precision of Language: What do you say?

That’s so gay.
You’re retarded.
One day she’s hot, one day she’s cold.  She’s so schizophrenic!

There’s a scene in the movie The Giver where Jonas’s mother reprimands him about “precision of language” when he talks about feelings.  (Side note: I say movie as I haven’t read the book since fourth grade and can’t recall if that was the actual wording or just the script wording.  As to be expected, skip the movie, read the book.  Seriously, read The Giver.) 

There’s laziness in language–and I myself am guilty of it constantly.  Hey, can you toss me that thingamajig that’s on top of the uh, thing over there?  Or stuff.  I say stuff all the time.  I use certain phrases like muscle memory.  I’m sure the people who sit next to me at work and hear me on the phone are really sick of them.

Speaking of muscle memory and the things we don’t have to think about, and the things we don’t think about: there is laziness in language, and there is use of language that betrays the experiences and the people we’ve never considered.

Earlier today, I overheard someone say on the phone to a friend, “Oh, you guys are so gay.”  My head snapped around and I looked up to see if I was the only person who had heard this–which apparently I was.  And I could feel the red well up in me.  That stuttering that comes from the pit of your stomach and always seems to end in your guts awash on the floor and the other person mildly confused but none the wiser and mostly dry.

There’s saying “stuff” when you mean that pile of laundry or all of your belongings or all the household chores you need to do this weekend.  And then there’s saying “retarded” when you mean stupid or illogical or absurd.  Using the name of very serious illness to describe someone they don’t understand–something we do with mental illness when we’d never say, “That’s so asthmatic!”  Calling someone or something “gay” when you mean…okay, I’ve never actually figured out what exactly people mean when they call you that.

What do you say?

Sometimes I say something and sometimes I don’t, usually depending on how well I know the person or how brave I’m feeling at the moment.  I didn’t say anything today because I was angry and knew whatever I said wouldn’t come out right.  And I didn’t know if the comment was indicative of her being homophobic or being friends with people who felt that way or if it was just a habit she’d never paused to think about.  Laziness of language.

Precision of language.  Is that the tack to take?  To ask the person what they truly mean and try to offer some words that actually mean what they’re trying to express?  Buy them a thesaurus?

There was one time that Mike Huckabee was debating Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, and they clearly had very strong and different opinions but were having a open and respectful debate about it.  I don’t recall the topic, but I do remember Huckabee commenting at the end about how we needed more light and less heat.

More light, less heat.  I know in my head that one should strive to educate instead of launching a personal attack.  Because, “THAT’S SO OFFENSIVE, YOU JERKFACE!” rarely succeeds in doing anything other than convincing people that you are the super-sensitive PC-language police who wants to ban all the words.  It’s not about being politically correct or even just correct.

The PC-terms change.  I’m not even sure what they are half the time.  The r-word used to be the medical term.  But that was before people began using it as a slur.  Language evolves.  Words don’t have meaning without context.  It’s not about the labels or the names or the words.  It’s about the way in which we can flippantly denigrate whole groups of people and their very human experiences and make them other, make them less than, make them something other than human beings who bleed like we do.

In the heat of the moment, it is hard to remember that other people don’t need us to protect them and beat up people who might have been mean to them.  We’d be much more helpful if we educated people who could be allies.  Maybe they really are hateful, but usually people just aren’t thinking about their choice of words.  And we are losing an opportunity if we treat them as the enemy.  Then everybody just shuts down.

That being said–or more precisely, written–it’s one thing to know or write these things and to actually communicate them verbally when your diaphragm is a fist and it’s obstructing your throat.

What do you say?

Some days not saying anything heated in return is a small victory.  But any suggestions for things to actually say in person would be welcome additions to the toolbox.


How can we do this better?

My dad is a tinkerer. Not in the handyman sense, but in his approach to whatever he happens to be doing, whether it’s a lobby design or a meal. Like when he says he’s making Sunday dinner and that was three hours ago. Like when I started drafting that e-mail and have been writing and rewriting it for the past twenty minutes.

How can we do this better?

This is a question that drives me. It drives me to edit while I write. It drives me to spend hours tinkering with how an Excel spreadsheet is set up. It drives me to wonder at the simplicity of pen and paper and how years ago, as a volunteer in an emergency department, I failed to see that solution and kept asking this poor woman to verbally spell out her name over and over again so I could get it right on the EKG. Something about her jaw made it difficult for her to speak clearly. Why had I not thought to hand her pen and paper? Or to see if they’d already gotten her name on the chart? How many times had she gone through that same exact scene, different people asking her for the same information, noticing that she had difficulty speaking, and still demanding that she answer verbally? How many times just since her son first brought her into the hospital that day?

Which is why the same question inspires delight when I read or hear about someone connecting the dots across disciplines to solve a problem, especially when they look at it from the perspective of the end-user—like the students who created an infant warmer that didn’t require electricity for preemies born in developing countries. (There are plenty of newer examples out there, of course, but it’s still a good one and trying to look up a more recent one would have involved going down some type of time warped hole in my e-mail.)

Speaking of time warps, this question can sometimes drive me deeper and deeper down a rabbit hole where all time has stopped, and then I look up and it’s dark. Sometimes I am convinced there is a better way to do something and there probably is, but I run out of time or need to pull my head out and attend to something else that is actually my job or responsibility.

A couple years ago, someone asked me what my personal goal was for the upcoming year. I answered “to do more writing.” To which he responded that I wrote all the time (this was during a team meeting at work), which was true given my projects at the time. So I amended my statement to say that I wanted to do more writing for myself. Tinkering. I didn’t really follow through on that, but I continue to be constantly dissatisfied with how I or others do things and also fascinated when people connect the dots in ways that allow others to do something better.

And here we are.