Friday, April 11, 2014

Graft, A Daydream

NM DOC Secretary Gregg Mercantel, a man of dual allegiances.

We already know thanks to NM State Senator Linda Lopez's solitary exertions during his confirmation process, that NM Department of Corrections Secretary Gregg Mercantel is prone to lies of omission. Notwithstanding his failure to report “several incidents,”and given the 38-1 vote approving his nomination, it seems reasonable to surmise that partial truth-telling is part of the position's requisite skill-set in the nation's most corrupt state.

What is the evidence that New Mexico is the most corrupt state? The fact that it is fiftieth in child well-being. These pillagers unabashedly scrape the gruel right out of the children's bowls, so what do you think happens to their prisoners? The abuses are documented, but never answered and never ever corrected.

While I was sitting in yesterday's absolutely vomitous Legislative Finance Committee hearing on the 4+ million dollar “shortfall” in Corrections' budget--and as a strategically staged sidebar, the expansion of the privately operated for-profit women's prison--I let my mind wander, and had the most fantastical daydream.

In the fantastical daydream Secretary Mercantel and I had left the foul air of Room 307 where legislators act their part in an endless and pointless kabuki asking all the wrong questions designed to distract from anything real that might be going on (e.g. modern day slave-catching for fun and profit). And where the dutiful press at best hints of wrongdoing, but mostly takes dictation and lives on to collect another paycheck.

Instead we strolled the lovely lanes outside the Roundhouse among the blossom-filled trees while conversating, and here's the really fantastical part--we were both wearing togas! If you'd been a bird in the bower, these are the words you might have heard amidst the laughter (mine) and the Secretary's gleeful giggles.

Me: I can't help noticing, Gregg, that you're wearing some kind of elaborate bandage on your foot.

Secretary Mercantel: Yep Frances, that's to protect my Achilles heel. You're very observant, most people wouldn't have caught that.

Me: I have a sense for people's vulnerabilities. Did you kill Mary Han?

Secretary Mercantel: No, why do you ask?

Me: You were a homicide cop, right? Who knows better how to get away with murder than a homicide cop? Silly intuition, never mind. Here's what I really meant to ask, more of a policy rather than tactical question—why do we have for-profit prisons?

Secretary Mercantel: We have found over the years that the outsourcing model has consistently created better graft-taking opportunities for us. There are certain inefficiencies in the public system in that regard—periodic audits, citizen watchdog groups, and other roadblocks. If I had my druthers we'd still have a public system, but this is what I've inherited.

Me: How does it work?

Secretary Mercantel: The graft-taking? Many ways, but the main one is the fines.

Me: The fines! I thought there was something fishy about those big fines DOC slapped on the private prison profiteers. Wait don't tell me, now that you've given me that helpful hint let me see if I can imagine the scenario.

Secretary Mercantel: (Lighting a spliff) Go ahead, Franny. Knock yourself out.

In this part of the fantastical daydream I time traveled a few hours ahead to the hot tub at El Gancho where I had a bubbly tête-à-tête with a well-heeled and rather prominent business consultant who acted as a sounding board as I pieced it all together. (Some of this biz lingo is his.) The fines: establish the fine in the first year as $1.8 million. In functional terms the fine is equivalent to the amount of graft that the corporations can bear and yet remain profitable. In year two, the fines are reported to go way down, showing progress and a good working relationship. But what the public doesn't know is that the corporations still pay the agreed upon shakedown number of $1.8, but this time less to the State and more to the graftees, and so on in each subsequent year. The governor doesn't even have to be in on it. Every so often, after deliberately causing overcrowding, it becomes necessary to add prisoner beds to the enterprise to keep the scheme growing and thriving. That's the moment we are now in.

I said as much to the Secretary who by now was completely stoned.

Secretary Mercantel: You got all that from being in the room with me for an hour and a half? Was it something I said?

FM: Yes. It was when you let your guard down, and I saw a furtive smile come over your face. You said that because of the fines, or rather because of the "clarity in the contractual arrangements," you and the operators were getting closer.

Secretary Mercantel: I actually said that out loud?!

FM: Yes. Everyone there heard you. But it wasn't just what you said, it was the manner in which you said it. Like you had a delicious secret. And you do, don't you?

Secretary Mercantel: God bless ya, Franny. (Passing the joint my way) Guilty as charged.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

TOUGHER Sentencing

It was that emphatic "TOUGHER sentencing" that propelled me downtown this morning. I wanted to ask the folks involved about that, because my impression was that sentences were already plenty harsh.

I bracketed my wariness of corporate-sponsored social justice activism...

     ...replete with swag.

In recompense I got to hear and speak with some serious and inspiring New Mexicans.

Pamela Michaels is a self-described "dedicated partner" with the New Mexico Children, Youth & Families Department (CYFD). According to Michaels, her adopted daughter Elery was shaken, beaten and starved. "Her survival was unlikely, in fact she flat lined twice. Hers was the worst case of Non-Accidental Trauma the doctors had ever witnessed, she was not expected to live," Pamela shared with us, warning she "might get emotional" during her talk.

I didn't write down every word of Pamela and the other fine speakers, but this is what stayed with me.

 "At four months she weighed only 8 pounds. It was months before she felt safe enough to cry, before she could relax in our arms. Only five, she's had multiple major surgeries. She doesn't see like the rest of us, the shaking changed the focal points. If you shake a child for just seven seconds it has the same effects as if they'd been thrown out a window from thirty feet up. She has no voice, so we speak for her. She's been concussed, she has impaired mobility on her left side. She cannot sign, but she's one of the best communicators I know; she's a lucky survivor who continues to make progress. She's getting ready for another major neurosurgery. She's 100% permanently disabled, but she's a loving child with a vast desire to be more than her challenges. She should be out running and jumping and playing, but she's stuck in a chair, fed by a tube, locked in a body that doesn't do what it's supposed to."

Michaels told the crowd in the Plaza that she hopes "for more and better training, for an environment that supports child welfare workers, that pays them wages equal to the heavy responsibility they bear. I want to talk to the governor about that," she said pointing toward the Roundhouse. "I want to tell her, No more Elerys!"

District Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer expressed her hope that the event would lead to more community awareness and participation. She urged the crowd to become Big Brothers and Big Sisters or volunteer in one of the tutoring programs, "to see the neglect in front of us." She said she hoped the business community could issue vouchers for poor kids "that they could use to buy food."

NM's CYFD Secretary tells the crowd: "Our families are not contagious, and they're not dangerous, at least not to others."

Cabinet Secretary Yolanda Berumen-Deines is a former social worker who believes that child well-being begins at home. "We want healthy families who can provide a safe home for the children in their care. But some families are broken, and we need to lend a big helping hand. They need healing, and futures!

"I hope you will all work hard to put CYFD out of business. Government can only do so much. Do you really want us in your business that much anyway?

"If you're in the grocery store and you see a parent struggling, go over to them, pat them on the back, remind them that parenting is the toughest job there is. Ask them, is there anything I can do to help? If they react defensively, don't take it personally, it's because they're so stressed, so overwhelmed."

Maria Jose Rodrigueq Cadiz, Executive Director of Solace thanked the crowd and told us, "You have a lot of heart. And it takes a lot of heart to respond to the children's acts of courage. Because it is an act of courage--when a child tells you what happened."

I asked Judge Sommer about the "TOUGHER sentencing" advertised in the event posters. She wasn't sure what that could be referencing. "I think the courts are already tough on child abuse. Reunification is always the goal," she informed me. "It's to that end that treatment plans are developed, and parents are given many opportunities along the way. They receive therapy, get help with their addictions. It's always a good day when the child gets returned. Punishments are meted out on a case-by-case basis. I've been tough when it's called for."

I asked her if she was seeing more women or men involved in abuse. "Both," she explained, "and it's often alcohol related, or heroin."

She was not aware that the Department of Corrections had issued an RFP to increase the women's prison in Grants from 611 to 850 beds. I asked her if she thought the urging for "TOUGHER sentencing" could be related to the proposed expansion. "You mean to fill the beds? No such thing! Judges don't think that way, we don't make that connection with the DOC."

I asked her how the judges would come to come to grips with the new CYFD protocols just issued by the governor. She explained there would be informal discussions among the judges. Judge Sommer invited me to come to criminal court, get educated, see what and how it happens. "We have no say where a criminal once convicted gets placed, that's totally up to the DOC."

When I asked Pamela Williams about "TOUGHER sentencing" she explained that often times in order to get people to participate in investigations, CYFD offers them "use immunity." In such cases, Williams instructed me, they can tell CYFD what happened and get immunity from prosecution. "In that sense they can get away with it, like Elery's parents; or sometimes they can plea bargain down to a much lighter sentence."

"But," she further explained, "I was trained as a forensic psychologist and worked in the prison system. I can tell you the prisoners are not taught any skills in prison, other than to become better criminals."

I asked her what she might say to anyone out there considering becoming a foster or adoptive parent.

"Do it!" she exclaimed cradling a foster baby in her arms. "It is by far the best thing I have ever done--the chance to change one child's life and the lives of everyone that child comes in contact with. There's very little else I can think of that is more profound. This little one, she represents hope for her family even though they know they'll never get her back. But this is her chance to break the cycle."

It was news to Suzanne Farley, a director of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) that the event posters were calling for "TOUGHER sentences." "These things are done by committee, I wasn't aware that the event was being promoted that way. We are advocates for children in all circumstances. Often parents are drug addicted, so we ask how to help? I am certainly not in favor of tougher sentences, that's not our priority. We work to promote safe, loving permanent home environments. The research is clear, children fare better with biological parents whenever possible."

I asked her about the governor's remedies for CYFD. "She did the obvious thing, the conferring with law enforcement piece, sure. Her measures are a good first start. But my main concern is that she hire competent staff and support them so they don't burn out and turn over. The biggest danger is low staffing. I admire all of them at CYFD, all of their efforts on behalf of the children. But they're in a system that's a tough place to do the quality work needed."

She too was unaware of the DOC's intention to expand the beds in the women's prison in Grants by 39%.  

Maria Jose thanked me for coming and for writing about the event "to honor those who were here, to show their hearts." Of everyone I spoke with she was the only one who thought "TOUGHER sentencing" was appropriate.

Some members of the Santa Fe Police Department who escorted the march from the Roundhouse, enjoying hot chocolate and a moment of comraderie
As she explained it: "In New Mexico we're advocating for that. So often abusers get just a slap on the hand. We need new legislative tools to fit the crimes. I think the governor is coming to a place where she's ready for that."

Tomorrow Maria Jose travels to her country of origin--Spain-- where an innovative advertising campaign using a lenticular lens was rolled out last year.  

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Sister Sharing Circle

Sister Sharing Circle was a revelation.

Developed by Esperanza Dodge and her colleagues at Young Women United, the Sister Sharing Circle experience was conceptualized by women of color for women of color. Sister Sharing Circles are hosted by YWU's Luna Sagrada, a collective that offers free support to low-income families of color in pregnancy, labor, postpartum and breastfeeding. Part support group, part consciousness raising session, part dinner party, Sister Sharing Circle is a monthly two-hour program on varying topics of urgent interest held at YWU's welcoming offices on Gold Street in the heart of downtown Albuquerque.

This month the topic was Breastfeeding/Chestfeeding, and I'd driven down from Santa Fe eager to participate as an ally, grateful for the opportunity to help get the word out about this foundational work, and looking forward to confronting and challenging my own vast ignorance on the issues, e.g. lesbian mama  co-nursing, community cross-nursing, and the miracle of transgender nursing. In truth, I'd been craving just this kind of purpose-driven socializing. We may no longer meet daily at the village well or riverbank, but we women have no less need of each other's easy company than previous generations who did.

“A newborn baby has only three demands. They are warmth in the arms of its mother, food from her breasts, and security in the knowledge of her presence.” --Grantly Dick-Read

We shared a delicious meal (free to participants) from Buca di Beppo—pasta, salad, bread, and mini-connoli in chocolate sauce. As women happened in from work or school, some with their children in tow (childcare is provided, also free of charge) we chatted and ate heartily. After a time, Esperanza asked a “check-in” question by way of introducing ourselves: “If you were an ice cream flavor, which would you be?” The answers were as lighthearted as the query: “Rocky Road, because it's a little bit of everything;” “Rainbow Sherbert, because it's fresh and light;” “Cookie-dough anything,” said the UNM grad student in Public Health to knowing smiles, no explanation needed.

We read together. Aloud, we took turns, and then discussed what we'd read: “Is Slavery Why Black Women Aren't Breastfeeding?” In a word, Yes. While not the sole factor, the persistent legacy of African-American chattel slavery with its blame-the-victim stigma and collective trauma of “wet-nursing” remains an enduring cultural barrier. But the low breastfeeding rates among African-American mothers have real and often severe health consequences for their babies. The benefits of mother-to-baby transfer of Colostrum, the rich milk of protective antibodies that is produced in the first days after birth, cannot be overemphasized—even a single ounce.

YWU has a library of resources available for loan, including this title.

These are not simple choices for some parents,” Esperanza explained. “They carry a lot of weight. And it won't be fixed by information. There are things the mother won't say. She might not tell you that her mother told her about breastfeeding, 'That's for poor people.' She might just say, 'I can't.'

Knowledge of history,” Esperanza explained, “acknowledges a person in their background. It's especially important because in New Mexico our initial breastfeeding rates are higher than average, then they drop off. The key factor is support.” One woman, herself a midwife, told us that given her profession, at first her mother was reluctant to say too much, didn't want to get in her business, so to speak. But as a newly nursing mother, she needed her to do just that. “It was my mother who showed me how to hold my breast so the baby could latch on; she was the one who showed me the C-hold and how to get the nipple flat enough; she told me to make it like a sandwich and put it in his mouth. She drew me a picture!”

Without support it can feel overwhelming, especially for women whose babies are at home while they work all day. Taking lonely breaks in the ladies room with her breast pump, one woman recalled her past attempt with disgust. “I made a mess at work!” Not all employers are as baby-friendly as the University of New Mexico, which provides lactation stations atseveral campus locations where parents can feed their babies, or pump and collect their milk for later feeding. Both the current and future administrator of UNM's Breastfeeding Support program participated in the Sister Sharing Circle that evening.

UNM's lactation stations are designed to take the stress out of breastfeeding.

Some women spoke about their insecurities as to whether they would be able to produce enough milk, or fears about knowing whether the baby was getting enough, or expressed concern about receiving conflicting advice from family: “When I think about having a baby, I think about returning to my family, to the village. But everyone will be there and everyone will have a different thing to say. How will I know what's right? I'm torn between wanting the village and feeling it's too much.”

There's a coldness, a harshness coming from the medical profession,” one woman shared. “They'll say to a new mother, You're not making enough, why don't you just supplement? They can be so insensitive to the new mothers' feelings. It's no wonder the numbers are so low.” Sometimes babies are not released from the Natal Intensive Care Unit unless the mothers agree to supplement with formula, which can undermine a mother's best intentions.

With a deeper understanding of both the difficulties and rewards of breastfeeding, Esperanza asked us to write down on brightly colored notepads what words we would use to encourage a breastfeeding parent. A cascade of beautiful words rained down on us:

You are not alone. How can I help? What do you need?
Every drop you give is wonderful.
Baby steps are what’s important. Don’t give up.
 Keep doing your best, your baby appreciates it more than you know!

One woman reminded us that encouragement can come non-verbally too. “I sent a beautiful picture of a woman with tattoos breastfeeding her child, to my cousin who was having difficulties and also had tattoos. It meant a lot to her.”

As our time together drew to a close, Esperanza asked us to each articulate what we had valued most about this Sister Sharing Circle.

Hearing the stories...everyone's experiences...learning about the history... learning what resources there are...being able to share... practicing what I might say to someone needing support... feeling the compassion and kindness...expanding my knowledge...I'm feeling more's not so embarrassing to talk here...listening to all the wisdoms...remembering my work is important...the chance to speak directly to pregnant women.

As if we hadn't already received more than enough gifts—nourishment for the mind, body and spirit—the Sister Sharing Circle ended with a prize giveaway—nursing pads, a journal, baby sun block, a nursing apron, and a promise. The promise was given to the woman who had “made the mess” the first go around, who dearly wants to breastfeed her second baby due in August, who feels committed to try again even though it didn't go well for her last time.

Esperanza (whose name means hope) said the words that could just make all the difference for her and her newborn: “This time you have us. We will definitely be there for you.”

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

James Boyd's Streets

 Photos by Frances Madeson

My darling neighbor, artist Jeffery Pierce, decorated my car for our funeral procession to meet the Emergency Protest. Vice News covered our plans. And the Santa Fe New Mexican's Uriel Garcia came to give us a beautiful sendoff.Two of Julia Goldberg's journalism students at Santa Fe University of Art and Design are also working on a story which I'll post when it comes over the transom.

It was a long and passion-filled day in Albuquerque, a city I'm coming to love more and more. Sadly, by the time my car rolled safely home the Albuquerque Police Department had shot and killed another victim. Citizen's Arrest Warrants have been issued for the mayor, the police chief, and some of the very, very bad apples.