Sunday, June 14, 2009

Living Beyond The Label: Level 3 Dreams Come True

A daunting list of goals left no time for activism these last few months, but what a time it’s been! Dreams I once thought lost for me are now amazing realities—and one profound truth stands out: society’s darkest label cannot define us, no matter what we’ve done, or what the “official” record says, unless we give up; unless we fail to pursue our greater selves and visions.

Six years ago my life was a 24-hour nightmare. Forced to stay in a community that had branded me a horrific threat to society, I had been cursed, evicted, fired and attacked. No matter what I did, all the doors closed--no friends anywhere, no work, no shelter, and no effective way to escape the fear and hate at every turn but an alcoholic oblivion. This would have been a solution if it killed me. But it only made the questions harder to fathom: How could I survive with a monster’s identity? Where could I go? What could I do?

Then I saw a place that shifted my perspective—a trashed-out clearing in the forest with an old rotting trailer. At that point any structure looked better than a roadside ditch. But what gave me a sense of peace and security were the monolithic Cedar trees that had somehow escaped the chainsaws—eight-feet wide at the base and older than Abraham Lincoln! The dark slope below these giants was thriving with nature’s shady survivors—sword, wood, and maidenhair ferns, foxglove, huckleberry, blooming white trillium and, twisting across the canopy like sculptures, mossy vine maples searching for the light. Then I heard what had been whispering all along; at the bottom of the slope was a sparkling mountain river!

With a peculiar sense of faith I knocked on the property owner’s door and told him my story. I don’t know why he chose to overlook my frightening label, but when he agreed to rent me the trailer for next to nothing, I took it as a blessing—and an answer. So while the Sheriff’s Department got busy hanging my photo on the streets and contacting my new neighbors with door-to-door warnings, I got busy on a vision.

It’s funny how a meaningful purpose can make the hardest, dirtiest, unpaid work feel like a spiritual practice. Turning old neglect into new respect not only got me back in touch with my creative self-worth, I found myself thinking less and less about public opinions and labels. This was so relieving I just didn’t want to quit! So when the trailer was pristine, I started on the clearing, and when that was like an empty canvass, I began building a garden worthy of a sacred retreat. Maybe I seemed obsessed rolling boulders in the moonlight, but the art of re-creation engaged me completely. This is how part of the Zen Garden turned out.

It was interesting how my landlord started improving his own yard during this time. And when he got a closer look at my progress, he reduced my rent even further! I wondered: was it me doing the restoring, or me being restored? One thing was clear; the magic of these relationships depended on my sobriety. So despite the fear I felt in public, I started going to local meetings, got myself a sponsor, and worked the steps.

It's encouraging that positive news can still travel as fast as the negative. Soon I found myself restoring the garden of a prominent community member. And soon after that I had so much work I needed to hire help. That’s how my landscaping business was born and developed. And that’s how I became financially solvent.

I feared the nightmare was returning when my landlord lost his job and had to sell the property. Moving not only meant losing the place I valued so much, on so many levels, but having my monster label broadcast all over again at the next address—if I could even find one. But this time I stayed sober, and used the tools of the program. And right about the time I decided to create another garden wherever I landed, my landlord proposed a deal instead.

It still seems beyond reason that he would offer to sell me the property for many thousands less than what he paid. But when the deal was signed on March 10th, 2005, he thanked me for helping him; by covering his late payments I had saved him from the stigma of foreclosure!
I was speechless, to say the least. But when the reality of this dream finally sunk in, I realized the way had been cleared for another—so I kept going. Here I am collecting materials for a riverside cabin!

Right from the start county officials told me that a new structure on my property would not be permitted—for a number of reasons. But I didn’t accept No as an answer; not to make problems, but to find creative solutions. And the fact is I heard many more No’s before I heard the first Yes.

Now the requirements have all been met, and my dream cabin is standing tall and strong. By summer’s end I hope to have the interior finished in natural woods, stones and shade-loving plants—a tribute to the paradise right outside.

Many things in my life remain uncertain. But I do know that none of this would have happened without faith, sobriety and commitment as my companions, or the priceless support of people who see much deeper than labels.

Now I'm certain that if we can manage to believe in ourselves, our visions and our dreams enough to follow them wherever they lead, the Universe is always saying YES.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Questioning Punishment : Guest Blog by E.L. Taylor

The use of punishment is so entrenched in our judicial system that most of us never question it. When you commit a crime and are caught, you will be punished for it. Just as when a child commits an offense and is caught, he is punished for it – often without understanding what he has done “wrong.” But understanding is not the goal of punishment. Its intent is to instill the fear of punishment, in hopes that fear will prevent further misdeeds, thus (theoretically) making the perpetrator a better person and making the family or society safer.

It might be a reasonable system, both in families and in societies, if it worked. But countless studies of both children and criminals indicate that it does not work. The punishment of children ultimately does not make them better people. It makes them fearful and angry people. And criminals who are punished are more likely to re-offend, not less.

James O’Dea has witnessed the results of the system of punishment in many places in the world. As former director of Amnesty International, he has spent a lot of time in war zones and torture prisons. In a recent speech (read the full transcript here), Mr. O’Dea said:

To me, having seen so much of human suffering and war and torture in my own life I know that this [punishment system] is one of the most profound mimetic structures human beings need to overcome. If we look at the dysfunctional nature of the punishment system in the United States, and we say to ourselves, “The United States, which has evolved in many ways, its democracy, is less than 5% of the world’s population but it contains one-third of world’s prisoners.” We can hold up a mirror to ourselves and say, “Why is this so?” Why would one third of the entire global prison population be housed in one of the world’s leading democracies? It relates to this concept of punishment, that somehow punishing others will relieve us and correct our situation.

Mr. O’Dea asks, How do we move into a consciousness … that attends to what is important, that moves away from stereotyping and “otherizing” but that finally moves away from the need to punish others?

Not all justice systems (nor all families) are based in punishment. Some Native American tribal traditions, as well as those of other groups, are based on the idea that if one person in a family or a community errs, it is the responsibility of the entire family or community for failing that person in some way. Restorative justice seeks to redress wrongs through reconciliation, restoration, healing and rehabilitation. Read more about Restorative Justice here.

Maybe the time has come for us to begin to question the practice of punishment – whether incarceration or registration - as a judicial tool, and to look for other answers for creating a better world.

E. L. Taylor

I've wondered what might have happened if I had been able to sit down with a restorative mediator and the two women I offended. We would have had an opportunity to speak to one another directly and courageously, look at what happened as well as what didn’t happen, take responsibility, vent feelings, offer explanations, and show remorse to those who need to see it most. These are elements of healthy resolution - and even the possibility of forgiveness - that the judicial system denies in its punishment-based approach.

Seventeen years after my first offense, encouraged by my recovery program, I tried to make amends to the “victim” through a third party. Her refusal, as it was relayed to me, indicated that her anger is as fresh today as it was the night I tried – inappropriately and drunkenly – to seduce her.

I don’t believe the judicial system’s prescription – vengeance and ongoing punishment – has served either one of us well. There has been no resolution: She is still angry and traumatized, and I am still being punished…for the rest of my life.

An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind. Mahatma Gandhi

Erik Mart

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Sex Offender Housing Supports Recovery: Isn’t That What We Want?

Kudos to Avendora of Offender Rights for bravely addressing the Washington State Legislature last week. The public hearing was about House Bill # 1430, which would essentially make it more difficult for registered offenders who have served their sentence to reside together in Washington State.

Avendora cited the situation that occurred in Everett last summer, when a compassionate landlord, knowing that former sex offenders need stable housing, mental health services and jobs in order to recover, ran into strong opposition from the neighborhood, as described in this Seattle Times article.

Avendora presented studies which clearly show, in numerous ways, how former offenders that reside together are much less likely to re-offend, not more likely, as the general public fears. If people truly want greater safety, they’ve got to get beyond this “not in my backyard” mentality and start supporting the healthy recovery of ex-offenders, not the isolation, unemployment, homelessness and hate that only supports re-offense.

Please contact your representatives, Washington residents. Vote No on Bill 1430 for the good of everyone.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Man Who Once Molested Shows His True Color

My dear sister sent me this heartwarming story from the SF Weekly.
Michael Maxfield could have thrown his life away, like so many
offenders do under the hateful stigma. Instead he is spreading joy
and laughter wherever he goes. Makes me wonder how many others
could become heroes with a little help.

Thanks G!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Washington State Sheriffs Make It Easier To Stalk Former Sex Offenders

A disturbing new online human-tracking program has been implemented at my local Sheriff’s office, and throughout Washington State. Offender Watch may sound like your friendly Neighborhood Watch program, complete with block parties and coffee socials. But Offender Watch is not about uniting communities, it’s about dividing them. It’s about spreading fear and encouraging discrimination. And it certainly isn’t about voluntary participation, as those being targeted have not given their consent to be followed.

Here's how the company begins their promo: “Offender Watch is the nation’s leading registered sex offender management and community notification tool, with hundreds of leading agencies in dozens of states utilizing it.”
Just because it’s popular doesn’t make it any less wrong on a moral, legal, or spiritual level. Interning Japanese-Americans in concentration camps during World War II was popular, but that didn’t make it right. Slavery, lynching, and Fascism have all been popular at certain times and places, too.

The promo continues: “Offender Watch provides the most accurate and timely information available, and now this information is available to you!” Having paid for my transgressions many times over already, I’m sure you’ll understand when I don’t stand up and shout “Hurray! I’m a target all over again!”

In my previous post I explained that my Sheriff’s sex offender profile—as limited as it was—was not entirely correct, so I looked up my new Offender Watch profile to see if the bold claims the company makes are true. So, is my new profile accurate? No. Not only is my current location still incorrect, my new Offender Watch profile contains the title of a crime I've never seen before.

As crime titles go, Sexual Battery has always made me cringe. People usually assume that Sexual Battery means sexually violent—where force was used and injury was done. But this inflammatory term also covers many clearly non-violent transgressions, sometimes no more than an inappropriate touch. Like my conviction for kissing my roommate’s thigh eighteen years ago. On my new Offender Watch profile, Sexual Battery has been replaced with Indecent Liberties. Ironically, the definition of this crime sounds a whole lot closer to the truth. However, neither one of these crimes is the offense for which I was put on the sex offender registry.

Is my new Offender Watch profile timely? No. When the only information presented is an ominous title of a crime that occurred many years ago, how could it be timely? The photograph on my profile is almost six years old. Back then I was still a practicing alcoholic, thirty pounds heavier, jobless, broke and homeless.

Since then I’ve gotten clean and sober. I’ve grown a creative business that I love doing, with loyal and trusting clients throughout the county. The rundown property I once rented as a last resort has since been purchased by me, transformed into a lush garden, and on it I'm now building the cabin of my dreams. Today I have the best relationship I’ve ever had with my own family, and for four years I’ve been involved with a wonderful woman who supports my success in every way.

Although I will always deeply regret the crimes I committed many years ago, those crimes are not who I am – and never were. And in the years since then, with hard work, sobriety, and self-examination, I have actively grown and changed. Today I try to use what I’ve learned from those poor choices to help others avoid making the same mistakes.

Since all this information is available to anyone who cares to investigate, I take exception when Offender Watch says, “the most accurate and timely information available.” In fact, I feel that Offender Watch ought to be honest with their users and responsible by saying, “We only publish information that supports a perception of imminent danger,” no matter how old the offenses are, or what the offenders are doing with their lives. No matter whether an ex-offender is now a father, lawyer, artist, activist, or businessman; no matter whether he climbs mountains or champions the homeless.

Human beings are more than the mistakes they’ve made, and no one on earth can be accurately judged by their mistakes alone. Wouldn’t the public good be better served by putting out information about people’s lives, skills and positive potential, not just their crimes? Shouldn’t the public be given enough information to accurately make its own assessments about the danger, or lack of it, that ex-offenders pose to the community?

Offender Watch warns that sex offenders move frequently. What they don’t say is that this is often due to being harassed, threatened and ostracized as a result of being on the sex offender registry. Nor that by making it easier for people to do these things, there will surely be a lot more forced-offender-moving thanks to their program. Sometimes offenders are moved right off the face of the earth because they are murdered by unstable people who get their addresses from online sources like Offender Watch. Like these two men here. And another two men here.

Oddly enough, Offender Watch admits that only 5% of convicted sex offenders re-offend—less if they have a stable environment. So let’s get this straight: At least 95% of the people targeted by this program pose no threat to the community? Interesting use of tax dollars.

Offender Watch wraps up their promo by encouraging people to sign up for their email-alerts: “Tell your friends and neighbors and be sure to register your home, work, school, gym, day care, park, soccer field, parents or children's homes - any address of interest to you!”
Considering the way Offender Watch "manages" information, I hope all potential users think long and deeply about signing up for anything that requires them to register with this company.