Archive for February, 2011

I had been eager to get back to the prison last Thursday. Been thinking about what I would say to the custody officer who checked us in—wondering if it would be our regular guy and if that would make it easier or harder to say, “I’m sorry for all you guys up here must be going through since the murder.” It occurred to me I’ve never known anyone who has been murdered. I’ve known people who have died, a few even tragically in car accidents or by fast and furious diseases for which medical science had no answers, but never anyone who was murdered. I didn’t know the custody officer who was murdered at the prison either, but perhaps because the prison community is small and whether you know a certain staff member or volunteer or not you feel connected to anyone who goes in and out of those steel slamming doors, I feel a deep awareness of the complex grief and anger likely permeating the prison and its employees right now.

It occurs to me that I know more murderers than murder victims thanks to the make up of our prison group. It occurs to me that this is odd.

We didn’t get to go into the prison on Thursday after all. On Wednesday, another inmate in the special offenders unit (SOU) attacked a mental health worker. According to the paper he claims to have wanted to add another felony to his record in an effort to stay in prison longer. He’s likely succeeded in his request.

I feel I could spend a lifetime going to the prison, reading about prison, getting to know prisoners, prison staff and prison volunteers and never understand what motivates a man to violence any better than I do now. In fact, I wonder if the longer I do this work the less I’ll understand.

The prison is now back on lockdown, or at least the areas of the prison that had come off lockdown or been on a modified version of lockdown are now back on the full program. The guys we meet with have never come off full lockdown on account of the murder happened in their section of the prison. Weeks now they’ve been locked in their cells all day, all night. Is it fair? Punishing the whole for the inexplicable action of one other? Probably not. But as much as I wish for their lives to return to normal (or what constitutes normal within a prison) I understand that the lockdown is likely not about the inmates at all, but about the needs of the staff who need time to grieve, time to decide if they can continue to do their job, time to decide if they can forgive the whole for the actions of the one. Even I have had to stop to consider, is it worth continuing to do this work when there is no way to discern which inmate at which time might decide you will be the target for the rage (desire?) boiling inside?

I want to go back inside. I want our guys in our group to know that we are not afraid of them, even if I now harbor a new respect for the caution I should have in getting to know them. I want to be able to reassure myself by the sound of their voices and the way they will (I hope) still meet my eyes that these men I have come to know are not capable, any longer, of such a random, act of violence. I want to know they would protect me, not harm me. I want to know they respect the life in me, not fantasize about the ways in which they could take it. That’s what I want. What I know, however, is that prison is not the place to go to get what you want. At best, prison is controlled chaos. At best, we are all lucky the inmates, staff and volunteers play along with the illusion of order and control as well as we do. That’s what I feel the prison is waiting for…the illusion of order to settle back in behind the walls. When that happens, however it is one decides peace in a peace-less place has been restored, I will go back inside and I will tell the officer who checks us in thank you and I’m sorry for your loss and then I will go and shake the hand of each man in our group as he comes into our classroom.

When my doctor told me in late mid-2007 that the funny looking mole I’d had removed from my right shoulder was actually the outward manifestation of melanoma cancer cells hurriedly making their way toward malignancy I wanted to know why. What had I done wrong? And if I wasn’t specifically to blame, then who or what was? Did my parents not protect me from the sun when I was young? Did it begin when I visited my aunt in California when I was thirteen or fourteen and was sunburned while kayaking? Was it Florida’s fault? I’d lived there for three years after high school, and though I never became a beachgoer or sun worshipper per se, there was no avoiding the constant and insistent sun in Florida. Perhaps it was one pool party too many? What about my diet? Organic and local food didn’t make their way into my consciousness until I was well into my twenties—had the damage already been done by then by too much pesticide-laden food, too many antibiotic filled factory meat? Was it my brief stint as a not-very-dedicated smoker during college? Was it the air I breathe, polluted with God knows what? Or was the cause something subtle? Stress I wasn’t acknowledging? Sadness I wasn’t addressing? Did I know on some level I needed to make a change in my life, but because I was dragging my heels my body, suffering the quiet emotional consequences of being stagnant, became sick in an effort to force me to act? Was I simply not a good person? This last question of course was one I kept to myself and struggled with answering quietly while attending doctor’s appointment after doctor’s appointment.

I asked my doctors for answers. They responded with questions of their own that, though probably not meant to be blaming, came across that way. Do you always use sunscreen (no, do you?)? Have you used tanning booths (once)? Were you sunburned as a baby (I don’t know)? When I pointed out that I’ve lived most of my life in the northwest and that the mole was on my shoulder where clothing nearly always covered it, the doctors would eventually relent and say some version of, we don’t actually know why.

The journey of asking the question why when applied to any tragedy is a necessary, but often fruitless, endeavor. Occasionally, there are answers…or half answers or answers to related questions, but more often than not we are left to shrug our shoulders and admit there is no answer that satisfies the human need to place order and reason on the chaotic and unreasonable.

The scramble by the Department of Corrections and Governor Gregoire to find a reason for why the guard at the Reformatory was murdered this past weekend strikes me as a quest that will lead to eventual disappointment. A news article today revealed that the accused murderer was discovered with blood on his clothing, a bite mark on his finger and scratches on his buttocks. The article also revealed that the system-issued clothing the inmate was wearing wouldn’t have allowed for scratches to appear on the skin. The theory at the moment is then that he didn’t have his pants on at the time of the attack. So, the question of why, which he has answered thus far by saying he was attempting to escape (which seemed a dubious answer at best anyway), appears to not hold water at all. We must all now wrestle with the truly horrific idea that the guard was not only murdered, but murdered during an attempted rape attack and that she was targeted specifically for being female and alone in the prison chapel.

What is the why of that reality?

For a while during my cancer journey I radically changed my diet. I remember eating an enormous amount of blueberries for a while. I cut out all sugar. I started seeing a naturopath who, while overall quite helpful and encouraging, gave me a litany of supplements to take. I ran a half-marathon for crying out loud. Anything to prove that I had reformed my ways and deserved to live. Knowing all along that in general, while aiming for better health is always a good idea, no amount of blueberries and fish oil were going to prevent me from ever battling a recurrence of my disease.

I also left a relationship. Moved. Threw myself into my graduate work in writing because clearly I had to prove that I was going to make the most of whatever time I had left by being committed to what I loved. I started therapy. I had difficult conversations with my parents. I started volunteering at the prison—work that I’d always wanted to do.

Many of the changes I made in response to my cancer were for the better. Some have fallen by the wayside. Others proved to be destructive in their own ways. None of them answered the question of why I got sick in the first place.

The prison is still on lock down this week as investigations and independent reviews continue. The blame has thus far been directed at state budget cuts, understaffing, overcrowding, the ineffectiveness of so-called rehabilitative programs and the ways in which inmates can manipulate the reward system for “good” behavior. No doubt, all of these things, in one way or another contributed to the guard’s death. Ultimately, however, the “blame” lies with the man who committed the act—a man with a history of sexual violence against women, a man serving a life sentence, a man with a shadow side many of us prefer to not imagine or even ignore altogether. We’ll never understand his reasons why even if, like I asked my doctors a million times, we ask and ask and ask.

The prison will implement new procedures. The Governor will issue proclamations. I wouldn’t be surprised if our state government passes some new reactionary law, which promises to prevent something like this from ever happening again. But it will happen. If not at this prison, at another. It will happen at a frat house on some campus. In a park while a woman is out jogging at night. After a first date with a guy she thought she could trust. Between a husband and wife. And we will never be able to fully answer the question, why.

Eventually, we will learn to live with not knowing. Until the next time, when the quest for answers to the unanswerable questions of human existence and motivations for violence will start all over again.

Somberly, inquiry into prison officer’s slaying begins

Monroe inmate, suspect in officer’s slaying, has long history of violence

The murder of custody officer Jayme Biendl at the Washington State Reformatory this past weekend saddens all associated with the prison, even though of us who know the inmates better than we know the guards. Byron Scherf, the man accused of killing Biendl has thrown an already vulnerable system into a state of grief, shock and a desperate search for answers. The prison has gone on lock down for the week, and we all await the both necessary and perhaps reactionary changes that will come due to this incident. I had wished to be able to go up and meet with our group of men this week. Especially once I knew that it was not one of our students who committed the murder (I’m not naive enough to think that it wasn’t a possibility…we’ve got a couple of lifers in for murders(s)). I want to meet with them to talk…to express some of my feelings and thoughts about this incident and to hear theirs. I cannot imagine that any of them will be anything but saddened by the tragedy, though within the prison itself I am sure there are inmates who are not torn up over the death of a guard. This fact saddens me. Undoubtedly, Biendl was only doing her job…in a chapel nonetheless. And while we, the state, prison officials, family members, the community will search for a place to place the blame, the truth is the question of how and why one person would kill another is, at the core, an unanswerable question. Even if Scherf talks and confesses to the murder, how to “explain” it will still not be easy. Budget cuts across the state will take some of the blame…rightly. We’ll discuss whether women should serve in all male prisons. We’ll search and search to provide a rational explanation for an irrational act. And we’ll want to believe that we can prevent it from happening ever again. But we won’t. It might take another hundred years…longer (I hope)…for something like this to happen again…but eventually it will happen. Prisons house violent and nonviolent offenders deemed not capable of properly existing in society. But within prison they create their own society. One often, sadly, still filled with violence or violent thoughts. Prisons are too full, housing too many nonviolent offenders, understaffed, lacking real programs that would contribute to successful rehabilitation and now facing budget cuts that will further limit the effectiveness of the already bizarre system. If Biendl died for anything, hopefully it is to open a tough, but honest conversation about the prison system that could lead to systemic changes that will be beneficial to both the prison employees, the inmates and the community. Because, for better or worse, the system needs to function for all three if this great American experiment in incarceration is ever going to achieve its supposed aims.

My thoughts and prayers are with Biendl’s family and with all prison employees who have continued to do their job with dedication since Biendl’s death. My prayers are also with the hundreds of men at the prison who would never have condoned the murder and would, had they known, done what they could have to stop it.