Sunday, May 23, 2010

Redeem-Her: Eye-Opening, Heartbreaking and Inspirational

As a "random", (the term given to those of us who are not ex-convicts living in the world outside of the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, New Jersey) I went into our monthly Fellowship League event with a limited understanding of the prison system in New Jersey as it applies to women. I'm sure I had a preconceived notion or two and a level of ignorance about a topic that I rarely feel comfortable admitting to, but I was interested in learning about an organization I knew nothing about and finding out how we, as a community, could provide some kind of assistance. The experience was one I won't soon forget.

Stacey Kindt, founder of Redeem-Her began by introducing herself and then proceeded to weave a tapestry of statistics and stories that were to engage our community for nearly two hours. The first things we learned were about the current prison system in place for women convicted of crimes and sentenced to longer than a year. The recidivism rate is 62% in the first three years following release from prison, so of the roughly 15,000 inmates released each year, over 9,000 will return. Our group also found out that the prison system in New Jersey is in place to provide punishment and not rehabilitation to those incarcerated. Women who go into the prison system have little hope of addressing the problems that led to their state and instead begin a vicious cycle that can bury a woman in debt and legal woes for the rest of their lives

I could write pages and pages about Stacey's visit but need to render an incredible visit down to a situation that really made me see a side of the issue I'd never been exposed to. What happens to a woman released from prison after 5 or 10years of incarceration?

A woman released from prison is given her personal belongings from her arrest as well as $20 "gate" money. There is a high probability that she did not have her wallet or ID when she was arrested, so she walks out the gate and into a society that has developed a series of obstacles and pitfalls that make reintegration into the world an extremely difficult process. The ex-convict, who was forcibly introduced to heroin at the age of 11 by her drug dealing father and grew up addicted to a variety of drugs, is faced with many challenges.

Where can she go with $20 and one change of clothes when she may have alienated her family and friends years prior? Perhaps a trip to the Ocean County Board of Social Services is in order to arrange for some kind of housing and general assistance. If she had been arrested on drug charges related to distribution or intent to sell, she has no chance of receiving general assistance and will likely end up returning to a life fraught with danger and the likelihood of a return to jail a likely possibility.

So we have a woman who needs a place to stay who, in a better case scenario, is eligible for some assistance. The only places available for women in her position are located in areas where low income housing and government assisted living goes hand in hand with drug use and illegal activities centered around supporting addictions of every kind. In Ocean County this means she will more than likely end up in a motel in Seaside Heights in a room next to someone who could be a methamphetamine dealer, a prostitute or an alcoholic in the throes of a violent detoxification.

This situation becomes even more untenable when you look at the fact that I am describing perhaps what is only the first day. Imagine trying to get your life back on track when you have $20, no ID or driver's license and you live in an assisted living environment where it would be so easy to accept a chance to make some quick money via sexual favors or drug distribution. Add to that the fact that you have limited opportunities to find employment when you have no phone, your address is a known area related to crime and drugs and you rely on a bus to get you off of the island where you live.

How do women manage to overcome such odds? Keep in mind that there are so many other factors these women deal with that almost ensure a high rate of recidivism...

Redeem-Her gives a chance to a handful of women returning to society after a stay in prison by offering them some much needed support during the 36 hour window of crisis avoidance necessary to make re-entry into society a little less perilous. From a ride from the prison gates to a place to stay, to temporary employment in the organization-run thrift store to countless other acts of support and caring Redeem-Her does what it can to help.

As mentioned earlier in this post, I could go on and on about how much our group got out of Stacey's visit, but I can only recommend that you find out for yourself how Redeem-Her is working to help save a handful of women trying to find redemption in a world that seems to prohibit rehabilitation.

Find out more about Redeem-Her and see what you can do to lend a hand to an immensely worthy cause.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Fight for Equality in New Jersey

Equal rights... The term is simple and straightforward in its architecture and uses a mathematical sign that is universally regarded as meaning "the same value as". It seems like a very cut and dry concept with a very American spin attached, yet there seems to be a great deal of confusion amongst those opposed to granting equal rights regarding same-sex marriage in New Jersey.

I have been listening to the arguments for a few hours now and it has been consistently made clear to me that the opposition to equal rights for same-sex marriages believes that their religious rights are more important than the religious and civil rights of same-sex couples in committed relationships. The vast majority of the arguments have to do with making the institution of marriage a holy union that transcends love and intent and commitment...

The many uses of "we" and "they" by the opposition have elevated the separationist philosophy of Us against Them to the top of the list for arguments. They have used the word "we" to describe an imagined or perceived majority of individuals who are perhaps more righteous or more deserving of equal rights than the people looking for equality in a state that denies them the same rights as the people they work with, pray with and sit next to on the bus or train.

Those looking to gain equal rights have a very simple stance that is difficult to argue logically. Homosexuality is not a lifestyle and it is not a personal decision. Loving someone of the same gender is no different than loving someone of the opposite sex in that the primary basis for the relationship is love. Just love. So, it stands to reason that we should all have the right to marry the ones we love, right?

Apparently not.

The opposition says that it is a matter of religion and that homosexual marriages downgrade "traditional" marriages and can lead to the deterioration of the morals and values holding society together. But then several Episcopal, Universalist and UCC clergy speak up and explain that if it is indeed a matter of religion, then let all religions have their rights met, not just fundamentalist groups against gay rights.

Then it is no longer about religion, the opposition says. It is about the institution of marriage that TRANSCENDS religion. It seems that the fundamental union between a man and a woman precedes and predates marriage and as such should be the model for what is now applied to the law. So is it a matter of religious belief and degree of righteousness based on self-applied guidelines or levels of right-ness? Or is it a matter of following laws of nature that predate marriage as applied to a union for the sake of procreation? Those defending denying the right to marry to same-sex couples repeatedly changed their defensive tactics to adjust to the same arguments.

We forward thinking progressive humans would like to see equal rights for all couples in a committed relationship. Those opposed would like to see the right to marry reserved only for themselves or for those that meet their criteria, even when their criteria is based on a shifting platform that sometimes defies logic.

The separation of church and state seems to be trivial element here as religion was cited several times on both sides. My only comments regarding the religion card are that Old Testament interpretations should make ALL of the elements deemed evil by Leviticus off limits to those who are using Leviticus to argue against gay rights, and all New Testament interpretations should look to Jesus who embodied love for ALL God's children. In a nutshell, either put up, or shut up.

So, is it God's will? If so, does the opposition judge with the mouth of God? Does that make the lawyer who attends services at Grace and Peace or Family First more holy than an Episcopalian Bishop? Does that make the individual who tells the Senate that a same sex parenting unit is "barbarous" more righteous than a UCC minister in that HE speaks for God in denouncing gay marriage? Apparently it is not as simple as I thought...

It is more about whether or not you believe homosexuality to be a condition, behavior, lifestyle or genetic predisposition. If you think it is a decision that can be changed through will and effort, you probably won't support gay marriage. If, on the other hand, you believe that we love who we love because it is cosmically ordained that there are people (not limited by gender) we feel affection and respect for, then you will likely support it.

Me? I believe we should be allowed to marry if we have the capacity to understand and appreciate what it means to love. Deny equal rights to any single group and we weaken our society exponentially. Show respect and love in the face of adversity and we set an example for future generations to follow in our footsteps down a path I would be proud to pave.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Muslims are Coming...

On November 15th, our congregation was given the opportunity to hear a brief lecture on the Muslim religion. Four members from the Bilal Musjid Mosque in Toms River visited our church in an effort to foster good will and open communications between people joined by faith through two remarkably similar religions.

First and foremost, I should point out that there are still an overwhelming number of people, poor of spirit and ignorant in their understanding that view the Muslims in an extremely dim light. The stark reality they avoid facing is that for every terrorist act perpetrated by a radical Muslim group in history there have been an abundance of terrorist activities and violence under the direction of the non-Muslim groups like the IRA, American Militia movements and various religious sects grounded in the Protestant faith.

If you believe that an entire religion, ethnic group or faith-based community should be treated as if their most violent elements typify the behavior and attitudes of the larger collective, then I should be seeing more anti-Irish emails or "Let's lynch the local SDA fellowship leaders" messages circulating in editorials. It seems that it is much easier to hate an entire group because of the acts of a few extremists if they are not directly from the mixed gene pool containing the average Caucasian American. When the Oklahoma City bombing took place, we (as a society) did not seem to look past the fact that the planners and perpetrators were a small group of US Militia sympathizers angry at gun control laws and the FBI-led debacle that was the Waco firestorm.

The first speaker, Dr. Hamza, began the lecture by thanking us for inviting a delegation from the mosque to our congregation. Apparently, after the events of 9/11, many in the Muslim community thought it best to keep a low profile and not make their presence an obvious element in a suspicious society looking for an outlet for their anger and frustration. This tact, said Dr. Hamza, probably served to make the local Muslim communities look a bit like separatists desiring to be kept in the shadows, though I can't blame the philosophies that fueled this decision.

What would have happened if the presence of local mosques was advertised or if the mob mentality of the ignorant masses latched onto the idea that a religious group tenuously linked to Muslim extremists through misunderstanding and miscommunication was practicing their services in our back yards? I can only imagine that there would have been some sanctioned hate crimes peppering the police blotters labeled as innocuous instances of destruction of private property in a best case scenario. The worst case possibilities are chilling to imagine when there were so many instances of people with any resemblance to Middle Eastern heritage suffering verbal abuse and harassment.

What would you have done in their place? Faced with possible harsh retaliatory reactions from angry locals upon taking on a more public approach to practicing your religion, or suffering a prolonged suspicion after taking your faith to a quiet simmer just below the level of local public consciousness, which would you choose?

How were Dr. Hamza, Brother Imam Alaa Ahmed, Sister Halla and Sister Valerie received and what message did they bring? How did their children fare?

Find out the answers to these questions when the second part of this post is published. :)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Philosophy of the Progressive Human

There are times in our lives when we feel that we are obligated to speak out against injustice, ignorance, oppression and similar social ills. The objective of this blog is to provide an outlet for a community of like-minded individuals where they can show a decidedly progressive side of human behavior that rises above the all too common examples of greed, stupidity, bigotry and selfishness that seems to be alive and flourishing in our society.

As members of the admittedly flawed human race, we authors and editors are not above certain levels of hypocrisy and even a tolerable amount of judgmental name calling. Justification can be found in our desire to enlighten the unenlightened and draw attention to people or situations where the simple concept of "Treat others as you would have others treat you" seems to be completely absent.

Some individuals maintain that it is their inalienable right to speak their minds because we live in a free society that prides itself in freedom of speech and freedom of thought, and we are not saying that the Philistines, right-wing religious nuts and Republicans shouldn't have their say... The only thing we ask is that any rebuttals or reactive comments be issued in an intelligent and thoughtful manner. :)

Having stated the basic concepts powering this blog, I leave you with the topic of the upcoming post for the Progressive Humans:

"The Muslims are Coming - A Guide to Inclusive Behavior"