Prison is a State of Mind…

Archive for May, 2012

We Are All Broken Toys

Erin spent the better part of 30 years caught in the wave and ripples of drug addiction brought on by what I suspect to have been a deep-seated self-loathing. When she first entered my world, it was in 2008 as a “student” placed in the therapeutic community housing unit called GOGI Campus at the Los Angeles County Jail. Erin had been arrested—again—and somehow had navigated her way up the waiting list of 100-plus inmates to claim one of 24 beds in this particular wing of the county jail dedicated to GOGI studies.

The fact that Erin was in jail was not a surprise to anyone. It was impossible to know just how many times cuffs had been slapped on her wrists. She represented the epitome of revolving door incarceration.  As a participant in the donor-sponsored programming I was offering to the jailed women, I would not have thought of Erin as “most likely to succeed.” What she needed, I believed, before there was any hope at all,   was no less than one full year in the GOGI Campus facility where she would learn how to make positive choices and where she could build a peer network I hoped would sustain her upon release from jail.

The judge agreed with my sentencing recommendation and Erin was sentenced to one year in the county jail in the GOGI program. When she came back from court that day and gave the other GOGI Girls the news, I was hopeful. With 365 full days of intensive training, miracles can happen; Erin could practice the decision-making tools with like-minded women and they would learn how to make positive decisions before she headed back into the cruel world with self-loathing as her calling card.

I went into campus a few days later only to see a new girl seated in Erin’s chair. Erin had been released, the women told me. As “luck” would have it, the jail was overcrowded and everyone who was not a danger to self or others and who were serving a year or less of jail time was automatically and unceremoniously released to make way for more hardened criminals. That placed Erin on the streets only three days after being sentenced to a year of jail time. I chalked it up to the flawed system and never expected to see or hear from Erin again.

When the phone rang and it was Erin calling, I was pleasantly surprised. When she explained that she was “GOGI for Life” and was going to do things differently this time, a ray of hope illuminated my perspective. I was supportive, but also understood that jailhouse talk of change usually disappears at the first call from a fellow addict. I offered volunteer opportunities and counseling. After all, the court had sentenced her to a year of GOGI, there was nothing in her GOGI program that released her until her 365 days were successful. I told her she still had her GOGI time to do, and she giggled.

Erin consistently inched her way toward stability and distanced herself from all things that could land her back in a squad car headed toward the jail. She began to lighten her load emotionally and this was reflected in her renewed interest to keep a tidy home for her and her husband, David.

“Coach,” she said one day with pride, “I can see my floor now that all the junk is gone and I have so much more room!”

The room of which she spoke was her physical living space, but I knew it represented the space within her heart and soul that was expanding, also. There were other changes, too. Subtle things like coming to realize that she could love others, and herself, as well. Or the fact that maybe she could even be a counselor. “After all,” she said, “I can do a better job than my counselor because I have been there.”

I watched her self-loathing diminish, slowly but surely, and bit by bit. Erin had grown accustomed living her life The GOGI Way and focused not on her past but on being of service to the new world in which the sober-Erin had emerged.

She would come to the GOGI mailroom and tidy up, or decorate for the coming holiday, always contributing and never complaining about the struggle inherent in overcoming addiction.

One Saturday, when Erin arrived at the GOGI mailroom, she was particularly lovely and radiant. Her eyes were clear and her smile was brighter than usual. She was bearing gifts: a rarely worn jacket and matching pants she wanted me to have, certain it would suit me just fine. She was, once again, cleaning out her closet to make even more room in her life.

Erin had her own way of looking at the world—a unique way she translated into thought-provoking poetry. One poem, about a gnat she observed while in a county jail cell, will be published in the new HOW TO GOGI book. Erin had a way of seeing significance in even the smallest things.  Let Erin talk long enough and her unique lens with which she observed the world would find its way into the conversation.

After I folded my new clothes and returned to venting my frustration at the challenge of responding to the hundreds of letters flooding our mailroom with no funding and no staff, Erin gave my statements consideration before she replied. With her unbridled compassion for those suffering among us, she said something which I won’t soon forget.

“Coach, we are all like broken little toys, stumbling around with our crutches and our casts, just trying to fix ourselves and doing the best we can.”

Yes, I thought, as I pictured Toy Story or The Nutcracker.  We are not unlike a bunch of well-meaning toys trying to make the best of this toy box of an existence.

I instantly had a new perspective on increasing number of letters coming into our non-profit in from prisons across our nation. It truth, we are all at little bit bruised and broken, limping through life on our crutches and with our arms in our casts, struggling for any remedy to cure our suffering. Thinking about it that way softened the dark shadow  on what can sometimes feel like a heavy, difficult life-calling beckoning me to the mailbox every day.

That Saturday, less than 72 hours ago, was the last time I saw Erin. On Sunday, we were supposed to meet in my offices to review the hundreds of hours she had donated to GOGI so that I could submit a report to the court reviewing her progress.  She canceled.  She was ill.  Vomiting, her husband relayed via email. We lobbed our meeting into sometime Monday.

The frantic call from a distraught husband came Monday afternoon.  His words were barely understandable.  “She died.  She died,” he exclaimed in barely understandable tear-drenched and broken sentences.  Indeed, at 1:00 our dear Erin was pronounced dead, succumbing to gangrene that had taken hold after a series of physical ailments and intense antibiotics.  He was inconsolable, in sheer disbelief that after  decades of wishing for his wife to be freed from addiction, she was gone just as she was finally healing.

Erin’s death has not become reality for me quite yet. I still expect Erin and her husband to stroll into the mailroom to offer their time in service of others. I have not yet completed the review of her hundreds of hours.  And the jacket has not even been hung up in my closet yet.  I will miss when a holiday rolls around and the decorations remain in their boxes. And, for certain, I won’t be able to wear the lovely outfit she gave me without a making sure I have a tissue in my pocket.

In my mind I see Erin sitting in the GOGI mailroom sharing with me her perspective of our fragile human race.  I can’t help but picture her on a pair of crutches with a little cast on her arm, limping closer toward her healing.  In my mind, her smile is a mile wide and her clothes – just so.  In so many ways, our fragile Erin was a broken little toy and simply perfect in her imperfection.


Simply Walk Away: A Deer Lesson



There is a national forest not far from where I live and where a variety of critters exist in harmony with nature’s demands. This morning, as I was exploring an area new to my daily walks, I came across a deer path. It appeared well worn and recently trodden, by the looks of the fresh tracks I found myself following. 

The narrow path through the pine trees and underbrush beckoned me to climbed higher and higher into the mountainous area, and I decided to grab a fist-thick fallen tree branch as “protection” should a mountain lion be disturbed by my intrusion into his territory. 


In a clearing not far ahead I saw them. The deer. There were five. Then a sixth one emerged from behind a massive pine tree. They were grazing on a patch of grass fed by a little stream. I took a seat on a tree stump and observed. One of the young bucks was just getting his antlers and another would be getting his soon. There were two little ones, barely eight months, I would suspect. What looked like a lovely young doe made the group almost picturesque.  As they grazed, it was almost as if they took turns, looking out for mountain lions and grabbing a few nibbles in an alternating, seemingly coordinated rhythm. 

The beauty of the scene was enhanced by the realization that they worked as a team, protecting one another and living out their respective roles within the hierarchy of the group. When the biggest and oldest male moved, the group followed. As they meandered a little further west of where I was positioned, I needed to relocate to keep my observation unobstructed by the brush. 

I got up and walked slowly toward these delicately grazing, peaceful inhabitants of the forest. I meant them no harm, to be sure, but they didn’t know that. As they saw me approaching, the leader glanced my way then simply lifted his head from the sweet grass and led the group further west, away from the potential threat I posed. That was as it should be, he was the protector. I am peaceful, but he didn’t know that and the young ones didn’t need to be taught that humans were peaceful; hunting season does exist in these mountains. The young ones needed to learn to avoid danger. 


What struck me was the elegance and simplicity with which the young buck avoided any possible danger. He just sensed danger and did something about it; he moved away. He didn’t look weak, he had no element cowardice, he was not backing down, he simply would not engage in danger of any kind.  In this power, in this ultimate sign of strength, he led his family safely from harm.

What would our lives be like if we were as skilled and intuitive as the young buck who was responsible for the lives of those who followed his lead? What would our prisons, our jails, our churches and our schools be like if we had the sense of the deer to  peacefully exist with others and simply avoid danger? 

He declared what was most important to him and to his role as protector.  Sure the grass on which they were grazing was sweet. And, in truth, he and his family were there first.  The national forest is his home, not mine. He was in the right. I was the intruder. I had no real business being in his backyard. After all, he stayed out of mine.


And yet, the young buck had no emotional attachment to how he felt things needed to be done or what was fair. Absent the inherently complicating aspect of emotion, the deer could act in a wise and protective manner, and he removed himself and his family from danger with no attachment to what he wanted or felt he deserved. .

I followed the group of deer until they disappeared over a series of hills I was not interested in conquering. My hike that day gave me cause to reflect upon the simple mind of the deer and the advanced manner in which they live, avoiding danger and gently grazing, not causing a ruckus or harming anything or anyone. They exist peacefully. 


WHAT IF we, as emotional and judgmental human beings, WHAT IF we were just a bit more like the deer in the national forest? What if we just avoided danger rather than using it to justify drama, sinking into the depths of negativity, or having to explain how we ended up in negative situations? For all the times we felt we needed to make things “right,” was our input really helpful? 

Today I realize, there is something profoundly evolved about the simple mind of the grazing deer in the forest who is wise enough to simply walk away. 

“I Think I Made A Mistake”

In reality, there is nothing we can do—no fame we can garner, no money we can grub, no accumulation of “stuff” we can amass—which will have any meaning a few generations after our departure from this earth. As much as we try, our mortality is non-negotiable, our stuff stays behind, and our existence will become unimportant to the new crop of humans trying to figure out what to do with the mess we left them.


Even if our name is remembered by future generations, who we really are, things like our favorite color, our fears, our memories, our struggles and our simple joys will all fade, a mere collection of the unimportant trivia of one human’s personal preferences. As much as we struggle to create a lasting sense of significance in our existence through power or possessions, we all leave this earth taking nothing with us, disappearing into the vast history of the billions before us.

When my father was dying last year, his words were few. In the 90 days of his rapid deterioration brought on by skin cancer, his existence was mostly limited to thinking, watching, and listening to his family members gathering around for final precious moments with the patriarch. Although those days were filled with tending to the increasing demands of his decline, he did make a simple declaration that has left an indelible imprint on my choices each and every day. When musing over life and living, he quietly said to my aunt, “I think I made a mistake.”

Those final days, marked by few words, offered even fewer explanations. On March 10, 2011, when my father finally passed away, I was left to wonder what his statement might have meant. My guess is that, as he slowed down and began to reflect upon his life during those final hours, he realized that the things that had consumed his focus for 80-plus years were not things that truly mattered at the time of his departure.


The race to achieve significance, or possessions, or cash, or power oftentimes obscures the lasting meaning we might find in the daily reverence for the sacred potential of our existence. Of one thing I am completely and utterly convinced: we don’t need the power, money, fame, houses, cars, and all the junk we have been brainwashed into believing holds the key to our happiness or freedom. The proof of this can found in the lives of the uber-wealthy, our beloved reality show stars, or our professional politicians and celebrities who so often suffer from the threat of overnight dismantling of their fame or a mind-numbing pace of superficially important activities combined with the illusion of power, or addiction to alcohol, illicit or prescription drugs, or even to $500 smart phones which keep them from their children or loved ones.


Our nation has purchased a lie at the expense of our souls. And it fills our prisons, tempts elected officials to make decisions motivated by profit, and rips at the very fabric of our humanity, those core values that are proven in every society to enhance the human experience.

To experience significance in our lives and at the very core of our being, we must somehow resist those forces that lead us to disregard all that is simple, good and kind within the soul. In reality, what our society perceives and reveres as the key to happiness is actually a gauntlet standing in the way of any significance at all.


There will come a time when, as a people, we get so fed up with the lies that we stop listening to professional politicians, the media, or the misguided high-profile celebrities. Far too often, however, it happens too late for us to repair the damage and clean up the fallout caused by our superficiality.

If today were to be the last day I spend as a guest in this rental suit called my human body, it will be a day when my significance is determined by how I might help another soul, make someone’s day brighter, or give more than I receive. In my father’s passing he taught me the greatest lesson of all: it’s a mistake to permit society to dictate what is important. And yet our leaders, our celebrities, and our warped and soul-less media scramble desperately to perpetuate the ultimate lie plaguing our nation—that freedom is found in accumulation.


As disquieting as it was, being by my father’s side as he came to his realization that he had succumbed to the lie was his greatest gift and one that I will cherish for the balance of my life.  Learning from his gift to me, I can live my day in the lesson of my father’s life.  And, with any luck, my final words will not be “I think I made a mistake.”

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