Running

Today was the 121st Boston Marathon. Before the Boston Marathon bombings, few knew what the Boston Marathon was, or how important of a race it is.

In order to qualify to run Boston, you have to be quite fast. For a woman my age, which would be in the 18-34 bracket, you must run a qualifying race in 3 hours and 35 minutes. Men my age would have to run a qualifying race in 3 hours and 5 minutes. That is 26.2 miles in just over 3 hours. If you can run a 7-7:30 minute mile, imagine doing it for 26 straight miles.

The Boston Marathon is the Super Bowl of running. It is historic and only the best can compete to win it. This year’s winner ran the race in 2:09:37, which is basically running under a 5-minute mile the entire time.

“So, where are you going with this?” Is probably what you’re thinking.

I have run 2 full marathons and 13 half marathons. I know I will never qualify to run Boston. But I still run. I run not because I enjoy the act of running but, rather, because I enjoy accomplishment.

My mom and I got into running in 2013 because we thought it would be really cool to run a race at Disney World. We thought we would just go there and run a 5k just to be able to run through the parks. But we started looking at the prices of the races and figured it was much more cost-effective to run a half marathon. We registered and the rest is history. I haven’t stopped since my first race in 2013 and I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon.

When you talk to people about running, they’re too willing to come up with excuses as to why they won’t run. My favorite excuse is that someone can’t run. Sure, some people may actually not be able to run due to physical disability. But most people are saying they won’t run, not can’t. There is a very fine line between can’t and won’t.

Then you’ll hear all about how bad it is for your knees. Running can be bad for your knees but sitting on the couch watching tv is much worse. There are much worse things for your body than physical exercise. And there is nothing better for the mind.

When I run, I am able to completely clear my mind. It is a powerful de-stressing tool. It helps me sleep better. It also makes me feel much better physically. I have never experienced a “runner’s high,” but I always feel much better after a run than I do before one.

When I run races, I run my own personal Boston Marathon. I try to beat myself. I try to set higher goals for myself. I don’t run for anyone but me, which I think is one of the most powerful things about running.

We, as humans, are too often worried about challenging someone else. About beating someone else. About winning. With running, we get the unique opportunity to challenge our own self. To beat ourselves. To win. With running, we can better ourselves and focus on ourselves.

It is more important to set personal goals, and to achieve them, than it is to beat someone else. This can be achieved in many ways, not just through running. But, like with running, challenging ourselves isn’t easy. But, as the adage goes, nothing worth having comes easy.

Poetic Justice

Occasionally, I do group therapy in prison with inmates. I either do a psycho-educational session, which essentially involves teaching them about something, or a process session, which allows them to vent about different situations and receive feedback.

I recently conducted a process group with inmates that were very angry because someone had stolen coffee grounds from them. These inmates could not believe that someone would steal something from them – in prison of all places! I allowed them to vent and sat there without really saying anything. Their venting lasted a good 15 minutes.

The word “ironic” doesn’t quite capture what was going on here. I think “poetic justice” is a better term. A group of inmates, many of which had substance abuse issues and, unfortunately, theft goes hand-in-hand with substance abuse, could not quite understand why someone would steal from them.

I looked around the room and asked, “why does someone steal something?”

I got a couple weird looks and then finally an inmate sitting quietly in the corner said, “because they want something they don’t have.”

“Exactly!” was all I could say.

I can admit that I have never once in my life stole anything. A couple weeks before this group occurred, I was looking in the fridge in the break room at work and there were about 30 cans of pop just sitting in there. No names on the pop, and no “take one” either. I desperately wanted to take a can of pop. I thought really hard about it and spoke to a co-worker that worked in a different area, thus had a different fridge. They said I definitely should not take a can without asking first. I tried to justify why it made sense to steal some but ultimately didn’t steal any. I asked another co-worker, who happened to be getting into the fridge, and they said the pop was up for grabs and anyone that wanted some could have some. I felt much better about asking when, later on, I was sitting there drinking my can of Mountain Dew.

A week or so after the pop incident, I had my lunch sitting in the same fridge. I assumed that it was safe just sitting in there but, when I went to grab it to eat, it was gone. Someone stole my lunch. I was infuriated. I could not believe someone could possibly steal something from me. I neglected to realize that I almost did the same exact thing a week earlier. That was almost my taste of poetic justice.

So, when looking at the inmate coffee situation, instead of thinking “they deserve bad things to happen to them, they’ve hurt others,” we should take a step back and ask ourselves if we do things to others that we don’t want done to us.

It is very easy to recognize when we’ve been hurt or wronged. However, it is very difficult to recognize, and to feel shame, when we’ve done something to hurt someone else. It is even more difficult to apologize.

If you’re wondering how the inmate coffee grounds situation ended, the guilty inmate walked out of the group room angrily and accused everyone else of lying. This inmate refused to accept blame, even though it was clear as day (and on camera) that they had stolen the coffee.

Sometimes we need to recognize and take ownership of our actions, instead of believing that if we do it, it isn’t as bad as if someone does it to us. By putting ourselves in the shoes of someone else, it puts us on more common ground(s).

Guns

With the murder-suicide that occurred yesterday in California that took the life of an innocent 8 year old, I think it is worthwhile to post about guns. The topic of guns is quite controversial so I can understand why many would steer clear of this post. Most people have very strong and fixed beliefs about guns, and therefore don’t want to read anything that is not their opinion. This post isn’t designed for me to push any opinion on you, it is designed to make you think. Just hear me out.

When publicized shootings happen, there are two types people that make the loudest noise: the “let’s get rid of all guns!” people and the “more people should have guns!” people. Neither group is right in these instances, and neither group is helpful for this discussion.

I don’t consider myself to be a gun-fanatic. Nor am I a gun-hater. I don’t belong to the NRA. But I also don’t want to take your guns away. I’ve shot riles, handguns, and shotguns. I’ve even shot the infamous AR-15. I belong to the group of rational, middle of the road people when it comes to opinions on gun control. You don’t hear from this group much because we’re not the ones screaming when a mass or school shooting happen. More people should listen to this group I belong to.

I don’t think taking away everyone’s guns will stop killings from happening. It might decrease them, for obvious reasons, but people will still kill people no matter what. It happened in the early years on Earth and it’ll happen long after we’re all gone. Guns or not.

I also don’t think that arming everyone is going to make us anymore safe. There are certain people that shouldn’t have guns, and there are certain places where we really don’t need an influx of guns. Like schools – more guns in schools is not a solution. More guns doesn’t fix anything, it complicates things.

Another issue is how the media chooses to represent gun violence in America. Statistics from 2015 indicate there were 372 mass shootings in the US in 2015, killing 475 people and wounding 1,870. In 2015 as a whole, there were 33,636 gun deaths in America. For comparison, in 2015, 614,348 people died from heart disease and 591,699 died from cancer. Interesting enough, and significantly less publicized, 42,773 people died from suicide. And 52,404 died from drug overdoses.

The media has caused us to believe that gun deaths are happening much more than they really are. The saying, “if it bleeds, it leads” holds true in this situation. We’re much more likely to hear on the news about someone dying from gun violence than we ever will be for cancer or suicide. Cancer isn’t as exciting and suicide is too touchy of a subject. If we just don’t talk about it, we can pretend it doesn’t happen.

I don’t have a solution to gun violence. I do believe people should be able to own guns  for whatever non-criminal things they want to do with them. Shooting guns can be practical, such as in hunting, and can be fun, such as in sport. I’m even okay if you want to carry one for personal protection, though I do believe that is another issue. However, I also believe that you should have to go through certain measures to get a gun, such as a background check. A background check is not overreaching. If you’re afraid a background check will stop you from getting a gun, do you really need one anyway? And, sure, if someone really wants a gun then they will get one. But for some people we need to make it harder than easier.

I firmly believe that felons and the severely mentally ill should also not have guns. From my experience in working with both of these populations, I believe allowing either group to have guns is playing with fire. If you’re a felon, you gave up the right to own a gun when you committed your crime. It is as simple as that. I’m typically pretty bleeding heart when it comes to felons but I can’t, for the life of me, justify why they should not lose that right as a result of committing a felony. I also hate to stigmatize the mentally ill, as statistics do show that they’re actually much less likely to be violent than they’re characterized as, but it doesn’t make sense to me to let someone who is potentially unstable to own a weapon.

I lived in a state where the legislature actually had a serious and contentious debate about whether or not those convicted of domestic violence should lose the right to bear arms. Those that perpetrate domestic violence are some of the most serious and hardest to treat felons out there. There is going to far when it comes to gun control, and then there is just common sense.

I’m sure not everyone that reads this will agree but this is a topic where we need to have a conversation. Not a shouting match. A conversation. We need to understand what guns are, and what they are not. We should be open to the idea of guns and not afraid of them. We need to be willing to listen to each other, rather than to be polarizing in our beliefs. It’s at least worth a shot, since the debate right now isn’t exactly on target.

It Doesn’t Matter What Is After Your Last Name

One of my biggest pet peeves is when individuals care very deeply about labels and degrees. Before I can delve into this topic, I must first share my own story.

Towards the end of my time in undergrad, I decided that I wanted to get some type of Master’s degree. My reasoning for wanting a higher degree was quite vain in nature. I essentially wanted a Master’s degree so I could say I had one. I had this desire to fulfill some kind of inadequacy that I felt I had by only having a Bachelor’s degree.

I graduated undergrad with two majors and a minor. I bring this up to point out that I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and couldn’t make up my mind. My indecisiveness should also explain why I thought achieving a higher degree was somehow going to make me happy just to say I had one.

Then something happened. I took a couple classes with a retired Warden from a county jail. He spoke in class often about reforming inmates and making them better people for when they re-enter society. Something about this clicked with me and I decided that was what I wanted to do. So I decided to go to grad school to earn a degree that would allow me to work in a prison and help inmates.

While in grad school, I learned a couple powerful lessons about degrees and titles that make me really question my prior motives for wanting a higher degree.

The first lesson was during my first field placement at a mental health hospital. I was able to work with patients from all walks of life, who had achieved all sorts of degrees and professional prestige. There were doctors, engineers, and teachers. Yet, these individuals were not immune from mental illness and substance abuse issues.

Then, while at my next field placement in a prison, I learned that it really doesn’t matter how smart you are or how many letters are after your last name. Most inmates haven’t even earned a GED, let alone know what college is. It shouldn’t make you feel better to make sure every person you work with knows how much better you are than them.

One of the most powerful things an inmate ever said to me was, “I got my GED when I first got to prison because I wanted to earn something that no one could ever take away from me.” For many, being able to earn a GED while in prison is a chance at a new life. It is a chance that many didn’t have due to the environment they grew up in.

When I see the way some professionals write their names, with all of their degrees and licenses before and after their names, I question their motive behind this. The respect we earn professionally has to do with how we treat others and based on how we do our job. Not by how smart we are or by how many letters follow our names. The ones telling you how smart they are often are not the smartest ones in the room.

I consider myself a woman of my people. I go by my first name and don’t speak about my education with inmates unless they ask about it. I work hard and treat them like people. I give and earn respect. That will always mean more to me than any label or degree and I’m glad I was able to learn this powerful lesson.

Stories from Within Part 4

Stories from Within is a series of short stories I have from my experiences within prison. These will mainly focus on humorous events that have occurred or moments that have really stuck with me. For obvious reasons, identifying information about the inmates or prisons will not be revealed.

The other day, I was at a staff gathering where a coworker’s promotion was being celebrated. As such, there were a few conversations occurring in the room about work matters. I overheard a corrections officer sharing that they often found themselves crying when they were at inmate events where inmates shared personal stories. The officer reported that they would sit in the back of the room just sobbing at some of the horrible things that inmates had experienced in their lives. Other staff members were giving their input on this matter and I joined in on the conversation and stated that I usually avoid crying when inmates tell difficult stories because I just tell myself that they’re probably lying.

This isn’t to say that I can’t be empathetic towards inmates. Rather, I’ve developed a defense mechanism towards being viewed as weak in an environment where it is dangerous to do so. As much of a bleeding heart as I can be, I’ve recognized that working in a prison doesn’t exactly put you around the most upstanding citizens you could surround yourself with.

However, this conversation really got me thinking about situations where I’ve almost cried when working with inmates. There have been three such situations, with one of which having occurred this week.

The first situation involved a conversation with an inmate about a failed urinalysis. The inmate had tested positive for marijuana (yes, there are drugs in prison) and I was inquiring about why this had happened. The inmate, whom I had good rapport with, explained that their father had died and they didn’t know how to cope. This was unexpected and shocking. This inmate had been extremely close with their father and was planning on living with their father after they released in the next year. This inmate was finishing up a 20-year sentence and their biggest support system, and best friend, had died. When the inmate stated to me that their father died, it was painfully obvious that this inmate wanted to cry. The inmates eyes welled up and their voice got choked up. But they didn’t cry. They fought it off. They didn’t display weakness. Watching the pain in the inmate’s face caused my own eyes to well up, visibly enough that it wouldn’t have shocked me if a tear ran down my cheek. I fought it off and finished the conversation.

The next situation involved a conversation I had with an inmate about suicide. The inmate had recently been on suicide precautions and was speaking to me about how if they killed themselves that no one that worked in the prison would care. I told the inmate that I would care and that plenty of other staff would too. That there were a lot of us that would care if any inmate under our watch had taken their own life. As I was speaking about this, I remembered sitting in on a debriefing about an inmate suicide. About how staff members had cried about how helpless they had felt, about how they had preformed CPR on someone they knew was already dead. I remembered talking to other inmates about a fellow inmate that had taken their life. How those inmates remember seeing blood seep under the cell door of the dead inmate. How they watched other inmates clean up the blood after the body had removed. I remembered these things and my eyes welled up. I fought the tears, but I know the inmate saw them. And I know by seeing them, the inmate knew I cared.

The third time was the time that occurred this week. I was speaking with an inmate about release plans and this inmate essentially had plans to leave prison and just be homeless because they didn’t know what else to do. The inmate never thought of asking for help. When the inmate was speaking about being homeless, they seemed so fragile and defeated. But not in a manner where they recognized how defeated and fragile they were, or in a way where they were being manipulative, rather in a way that they had accepted it. Where they had thought so little of themselves that they believed they deserved nothing better than to be homeless. The inmate had a slight facial abnormality and speech deficits, leading the cynic in me to believe this person had probably been treated poorly by their peers growing up. This inmate was also younger than me, which is unusual and especially sad considering I am not far removed from graduate school, which I completed directly following undergrad and high school. In one of the very few times this has ever happened, I felt bad for the inmate. I displayed something along the lines of sympathy instead of empathy and my eyes welled. I fought off the tears much better than usual and the inmate may have never known that I was close to letting tears fall down my cheek. I told the inmate that today was the day to start believing in themselves and that we were going to come up with a much better plan for release than being homeless.

It is very important to not fall into the trap in prison of feeling bad for inmates. Doing so leads to manipulation, which leads to doing inappropriate and illegal things for inmates. I am a firm believer in boundaries in prison, which is why I’ve worked so hard to create the crying defense mechanism. But, at the end of the day, I’m still a human. Sometimes it is incredibly difficult to not cry in emotional situations. Sometimes things in life are overwhelmingly sad and merit tears. Crying is healthy. Feeling emotion is healthy. Being a human and feeling empathy is incredibly healthy, and somedays we all need to grab a box of tissues and try it.

 

You Get What You Pay For

There is an adage about those that work in corrections: you either work in corrections because you really want to or because you have to. More often than not, people are working in corrections because they have to.

In looking at the criminal justice system in the United States, there is a trend that follows the corrections adage. Those that work for the government, specifically in areas of criminal justice, aren’t necessarily the highest quality employees.

Take public defenders for example. Public defenders are often not the highest quality lawyers that graduate from law school. You either really want to be a public defender or you have to be one. I like to joke that when a public defender represents you, that you get what you pay for. But, we can’t really place the blame on these individuals, as they’re extremely overworked and very underpaid. Their position isn’t valued by our society.

Even police officers aren’t exempt from this adage. In many states, police officers are paid very poorly and only required to have a high school diploma or GED. And, this isn’t to knock those that only have that level of education, it’s to say that we’re not requiring that you have to dedicate time to your craft to get the job. A job, nonetheless, that requires you to enforce and understand complex laws. Police academies can range anywhere from four weeks to six months, depending on the state and jurisdiction. Imagine if you hired an electrician that just graduated high school and only had four weeks of training to set up the wiring in your house. That might blow up on you…literally.

But this isn’t necessarily always the case. In states where these public sector jobs have decent compensation, quality people work in those jobs. In states where there is esteem and prestige for the jobs, the cream of the crop are employed. And, when you invest in those positions then it pays off. But, why isn’t this done everywhere? Why aren’t we putting quality people in to these jobs? The main reason is that we don’t value the people that they work with.

Those that work in the criminal justice system work with criminals. Our society sees criminals as those that don’t matter. As those that are better off forgotten. Why would we spent tax payer dollars on those that we’ve deemed as worthless?

If we invest money in those that work with criminals, we can change the outcome. If we don’t underpay and overwork public defenders, then we can end up with fewer individuals that have taken a plea bargain that puts them in prison much longer than they need to be.

The average yearly cost to house an individual inmate is around $31,000. There are over 2.2 million people incarcerated in jail or prison in a year in the United States. You do the math, it’s your money.

By dedicating resources to producing quality outcomes, we can decrease the prison population. Which, in effect, decreases the amount of tax payer dollars spent on corrections, and the criminal justice system as a whole. A report that came out in 2016 found that in 23 states in the United States, corrections spending outpaced education spending by double the rate. We’ve increased spending on corrections twice as much as we have on education. Ask yourself if that makes sense. By doing that, we’ve ensured we’ll continue to spend more on corrections as we continue to neglect those in K-12 education.

When you go out to eat, the dollar menu burger will never be as good as top sirloin. The same goes for the government – if you want quality services, you have to pay for them. Tax payers get what they pay for. You may enjoy your taxes being low, but just remember that the services you’re paying for are dollar menu quality.

 

On Being Sorry

Working in prison has allowed me to hear stories from people that have done things that most of us would think one should be sorry for. But why are we sorry? Too often we’re sorry because other people want us to be, rather than us being actually remorseful for what we’ve done.

An inmate point blank asked me, “is it wrong I don’t feel sorry for what I did?” My response to that was, “no, it is okay to not be sorry.” The inmate stated, “but I shot up someone’s house.” They  were almost begging me to chastise them for not being sorry, and I wouldn’t do it. Committing a violent property crime is obviously not a good thing to do, but it isn’t the most egregious act one could commit. If someone is in prison for this type of crime, often the only thing they’re really ever going to be sorry for is that they got caught.

There was another instance where I had multiple conversations with an inmate that graphically told me how they killed their spouse in front of their two young children. This story was told though tears. The inmate showed me pictures of their children and emotionally talked about how their children wouldn’t speak to them because of what they did, even all these years later. I was deeply moved by this story and I can still picture the inmate acting out the crime. But, to this day, I don’t believe those tears were for what they did. Those tears were because their children wouldn’t speak to them, not because they were sorry for killing their spouse. This inmate should have been sorry for what they did but I was never going to make them feel that way. That’s between them and their own conscience. They get to look that person in the mirror each day, we don’t have to.

I’ve also read victim impact statements where victims of crimes such as car theft, wherein their car, with the keys in it, was taken from their driveway while they were inside, wanted someone to get the maximum sentence for what they did. Where they wanted the person to suffer for stealing their car that they had left unattended and unlocked with the keys in it. Sometimes we so badly want others to be sorry for what they did that we allow it to hurt us. We allow it to harbor anger inside of us that is more hurtful to us than those that harmed us.

We don’t have to be sorry for what we’ve done. But we sure as hell better learn from it. We must also accept that remorse is not something that can be forced on another person. When someone does something that harms another person, they probably should be sorry for what they did. But the victim ought to not let what happened to them dictate how they live their life. We must all come to our own terms with what we’re willing to let anger us, and what we’re unwilling to be sorry for. Each circumstance described above has the same result – that person isn’t at peace with themselves.

When you say sorry, ask yourself why you’re doing it. Are you sorry for getting caught or sorry for what you did? Being sorry for what you did means you’ve learned from it and will never do it again. That is an action that can be proven – you can show everyone you’re sorry by how you act in the future.

Forgiveness is also one of the most important processes we can go through. Someone doesn’t have to be sorry for us to forgive them, but it allows us to be at peace regardless of how the other person feels. One doesn’t have to actually be incarcerated to be in prison. Too often we carry our own prison around with us each day. Our own peace means more than someone else’s remorse ever will.