Archive for April, 2014

“Solitary Nation”: Reflections on Prison, Then & Now

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

A Darkened Cell in Eastern State PenitentiaryWatching PBS FRONTLINE’s latest documentary “Solitary Nation,” all I could think about was my tour of the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Well, that and “damn, that is a lot of blood” – but more on that later.

I wondered if in 150 years people will tour the ruins of our prisons and the “solitary” units, or especially the solitary-only supermax prisons, and shake their heads in disbelief as I did when I toured Eastern State last year. What will the signs say as they describe how from the 1980’s the use of solitary confinement exploded in the U.S. to some 80,000 people in solitary by 2000? What will the audio tour say about the treatment (or lack thereof) of mental illness?

Will the Pelican Bay State Prison be open for tours in 2150, with a plaque describing the 60 day hunger strike in 2013 and how it was halted only with promises from legislators for hearings on solitary confinement and potential legislative reforms? Will there be mention of the countless family members, formerly incarcerated individuals, and advocates who sought reform? Will there be discussion of racial and class disparities in not only who ended up in prison, but then who ended up in solitary? (Filmed in Maine, the FRONTLINE documentary features all white prisoners and staff.) What of the working environment for the guards, in a place that exacerbates or triggers mental illness for so many of the imprisoned?

What will our great-great-great grandchildren think as they look back to the early 2000’s, just as I stood in cavernous corridors and empty cells thinking back to the mid 1800s?

The displays at the ruins of the Eastern State Penitentiary describe how the prison was built with individual cells for the imprisoned to be isolated in order to reflect and in the time alone, become penitent. Unfortunately the experience of Eastern State shows all too well the law of unintended consequences. The isolation drove people insane. And we have not learned. While the Quakers who influenced this system of isolation intended to bring reform, it was eventually abandoned. In the current resurgence of the use of solitary confinement, Quakers are among the most vocal proponents against its use. They have learned. When will we all?

Solitary confinement today means 23 hours a day in an approximately 6ft by 9 ft cell and one hour for exercise in a small cage. Food in through a tray in the door, shackled when moved, and very, very loud at times as “Solitary Nation” vividly conveys through its dramatic audio. Different systems have different names for solitary: Security Housing Unit (SHU), Special Housing Unit, segregation, administrative segregation, disciplinary segregation, protective custody. These are all polite names. You’ll learn a lot more from one of the names people in solitary call it – “the hole.” 

A Dismally Small Cell in Eastern State PenitentiaryAnd now back to “damn, that was a lot of blood.” I encourage you to watch the FRONTLINE documentary, but maybe do it with a friend or in a group so that you have someone to talk about it with afterwards. The documentary doesn’t hold anything back in showing the self-harm that some prisoners engage in. The film crew was given tremendous access and “Solitary Nation” brings to our TVs, computers, iPads, or phones a gripping glimpse into the brutal, non-rehabilitative reality of solitary confinement.

Whatever gets written for those signs in 2150 at the ruins of one of our prisons, I hope it will include description of the variety of campaigns throughout the country to confront solitary confinement.  To learn how people of faith are engaged to end solitary confinement and learn how you can get involved, check out this listing of state campaigns.
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TC Morrow poses with several flags: Star-bangled, Rainbow, Human-Rights-CoalitionT.C. Morrow is Director of Finance & Operations for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.  A life-long United Methodist, she is a member of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC.  She holds a B.A. in Physics from Vassar College and an M.Div. from Wesley Theological Seminary.

Music & Peace

Monday, April 14th, 2014

Part of human nature is a love of music.  Some, like me, take it to greater lengths, not content on simply listening to music, but performing it as well: singing and playing the guitar, albeit not professionally.  But while we enjoy music as integral to our daily lives, it is not often that we consider our encounter with it as life changing.  But that is precisely what happened to Tal Harris.  Now, who is Tal Harris?

Tal Harris is an Israeli; that’s right: born and raised in Israel.  He spoke at our class on Peace Paradigms at American University, where I am a cross-enrollee from Wesley Theological Seminary, doing the Master of Theological Studies program.  Now, what did he talk about? 

Peace.

Yes, peace in what we call the Holy Land — Palestine and Israel.  

Tal said that he grew up assuming that the conflict was some kind of a fixture that they just had to deal with as part of the natural order of things, like natural disasters.  He hardly had any contact with Palestinians who, ironically, were just an hour’s drive away from his home near Tel Aviv.  He grew up absorbing uncritically all the negative stereotypes of Palestinians that both local and international media peddled, until he met some Palestinians himself in, yes, a music camp.  The experience was so life changing that he did not even bother to say who organized the music camp that gathered together music lovers from Israel and Palestine, with the latter made up of Christians and Muslims.

A piece of abstract graffiti on an apartheid barrier in BethlehemThe participants enjoyed and made music together, realizing that they really had more in common with each other than they thought.  Like most of the participants, Tal was never the same after that.  When it was time for military duty, which is compulsory for all Israelis, he volunteered to be a medic, hoping that he would avoid combat duty.  He did not but grace smiled on him, as he finished his tour of duty unscathed.  When he came face-to-face with Palestinians, both as a soldier and as a civilian, he realized what was wrong with the situation.  While he is still afraid of the possibility that the buses he would ride on would be bombed by militants among the Palestinians, he also is aware of the overly disproportionate violence from his own kind that is perpetrated against Palestinians, victimizing mostly civilians.  He has also seen Palestinians evicted, forcibly and illegally, from their homes and farms in the West Bank.  Whatever violence committed by Palestinians, he believes it is ultimately a symptom of the oppression of Palestinians arising from Israel’s illegal occupation of UN-mandated Palestinian territories. 

Tal is now the executive director of One Voice Israel, which is part of the bigger organization, One Voice International, which has branches in Palestine, Europe and the US.  One Voice supports the two-state solution and the creation of a viable Palestinian state.  Though I personally prefer the original notion of one state in which Israelis and Palestinians live together and enjoy the same rights, I also believe that the two-state solution is the most doable at this time.  Moreover, it is supported by majorities in both Israel and Palestine.   How to translate this majority sentiment into the actual will of their leaders is the big challenge that lies ahead.  To achieve this, there have to be more ways in which Palestinians and Israelis can work together, maybe not as magical as music, but just as effective.  What are those other ways? 

Stay tuned.

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Haniel R. Garibay, Haniel is a home missioner and Cross Culture Common Witness Coordinator for MFSA. Born and raised in the Philippines, Haniel earned a BA from Philippine Christian University and an MA in international development from the University of Sussex, UK. His other involvements in the church include memberships in the boards of the Virginia Conference Board of Church and Society, the National Association of Filipino-American United Methodists (NAFAUM), and the General Board of Church and Society.

Learning to Love: First Time at West Virginia Day of Fairness

Friday, April 11th, 2014

"To Love another is to touch the face of God" {in Les Miserables motif}When writing about what it was like to be at the Capitol building for West Virginia  Day of Fairness in February,  I  had to think about it for a while because I wasn’t sure how to express how I felt and what I saw that day.  I, like many clergy, often try to avoid uncomfortable situations or being some place that our congregation would question or be upset about.  Going to the Capitol that day actually made me a bit anxious because I did not know what to expect.  What would people think?  How would people react to a woman running around in a clerical collar with LGBTQ people demanding to be treated fairly?

Well, I got to where I was supposed to be and was greeted with warm hugs and happy smiles.  A variety of people showed up and I saw that they had a bit of an anxious look about them too.  I came prepared, though, for a clerical collar possibly causing discomfort.  I had made silly little valentines cards for everyone, it being close to Valentine’s Day — a reminder that, regardless of who we are or how different we might be, we are worthy of being loved and treated well. 

As most conferences and events go, there was the usual shuffling about of people and time-frames but everyone jumped in with a smile.  As I co- presented I was able to interact with people who had amazing stories and lived unusual, yet loving, lives. 

I have to admit, it can still surprise me to see a transgender person (in this case, a transgender woman) and I found myself focusing on their make-up or their hands with painted nails.  But then, something happened.  I looked her in the eyes.  I saw her – really saw her.  I lost sight of the appearance and forgot stereotypes and gender expectations and just saw her.  The rest of the day was dramatically changed for me.  I was able to look each person in the eye and hear their story.  Their stories involved all manner of partnerships and family groupings.  Their stories involved some heartache and some joy.  They all involved love.  I heard love story after love story.  I saw family after family and I quit being worried about what anyone would think. 

I told stupid jokes and silly stories to get our minds off the cold and the shuffling around.  They figured out quickly that I was just a goof!  But they had looked into my eyes and had seen me too, so it was okay.

The bottom line for me, standing with people who demand to be treated fairly, is that within our scriptures and within our social principles we have determined that all people have the right to homes, jobs, and to be treated well.  Too many people never look past the differences and learn to love.  I am reminded of the line in “Les Miserable” that says, “To love another is to touch the face of God.”  Each time I am with LGBTQ people, I am thankful because I have been taught how to love and how to be loved in a deeper and more meaningful way than I ever dreamed of.

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Clergy-person Hyde in a collar & colorful shirtShauna Hyde pastors First United Methodist Church in Ravenswood, WV. She is committed to social justice work because, as Methodism's founder John Wesley said, "There is no holiness without social holiness." She has worked in Tent Towns, has lobbied at the Capitol and sits on boards and committees that are committed to establishing good living conditions for children and families. Shauna is author of two books: "Victim No More!" and "Fifty Shades of Grace."

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