Archive for September, 2014


another cattle call


Every week, it seems, some member or another of the media is offering us an opportunity to chase our tails and tell people in the outer world about our work for young people.  To tell you the truth, it is difficult to work up much enthusiasm for these “opportunities.” By now I am jaded in my view after having been told so many times that our labors here are so “fascinating” and “needed,” yet more often than not, when push comes to shove, they typically result in nothing.

Admittedly it is difficult and expensive to send film crews out here to East Jesus, beautiful and dramatic though it may be. Estrella Vista is located literally at the end of a long and lonely road. The media centers in our world are concentrated in places like New York, London, and Los Angeles, which are miles and eons from this place. And if some young sophisto were to come here, what would they see? A simple mud house that is more dream than substance.

It took nearly a decade before Alex King finally came here, and I can still scarcely believe he’s here and has fallen in love with the place.  Others will follow, too. Lone Heron keeps saying she will make the long trek out here, that it is just a matter of time and money. Maybe she will stick, too. She speculates that she will.

In the meantime, I will continue fielding media inquiries. This week I am scheduled to speak with a writer from CBS who has recently moved from ABC and wants to pick up where we’d left off months ago. Yesterday an intern from a New York production company asked me to produce a video introducing the Redemption Project and its underlying philosophy. (Thankfully Alex is here and knows how to do that sort of thing.) It’s not a sure thing, of course, and who knows how long it will take even if it is?

We will continue chasing our tails. Maybe something will bear fruit.


Groove of the Day

Listen to The Wonder Villains performing “Running in Circles”




anger, friend or foe?


by Alex King

Is anger your ally or adversary? Commonly, the immediate response is to think that anger is bad. Before we become steadfast in this opinion, however, another question must follow. Is our opinion a conditioned response, or do we honestly believe anger to be bad?

Anger is a potentiality, like uranium. It has dangers inherent in its nature, but only if it is mishandled. With the right precautions, it becomes bottled energy. Just as uranium can be used to spin turbines in a nuclear power plant, so too can anger be used to motivate an individual to succeed, to excel.

The misconception about anger arises because of events that burn themselves into our minds, the same way a nuclear explosion burns the land it touches. Our emotional perception of these events would cause us to label anger as “bad”. Then again, the misuse of anything can be bad. Uncommon though it may be, consider you were unfortunate enough to watch as someone was stabbed to death with a pencil. Because I use a pencil to write my drafts, would that then make my posts bad? Would I be bad for using this pencil? If it had a terrible enough impact on you, the mere possession of a pencil, in your eyes, could become akin to the intent to murder.

More often than not, it is conditioning that sets for us “acceptable parameters” within which the healthy mind must function. Take a quick moment and consider: what would happen if you erased these parameters, these preconceived notions of ethics and the functionality of the world, and rebuilt your thinking based only on logical possibility?

Once, I was introduced to the concept of ethics devoid of a strict good or bad determination. Instead, I was challenged to explain why I thought, given some arbitrary event, a person would be more or less well off because of the event. I’ve come to believe this to be a more ethical approach to ethics. Avoiding an absolute bias maintains the mindset that some uncertainty exists in any though flow, no matter how well founded. Recall that, not so long ago, the world was flat.

Having played the devil’s advocate, I’ll leave off with a minor concession. Ignoring all other aspects of life, I believe myself to be less well off because of the anger. If I could endure my existence on a paradise island, I would seek complete relief from this emotion. Then again, if lights powered themselves, uranium would become worthless.


Groove of the Day

Listen to Disturbed performing “Leave It Alone”


roiling beneath the surface


Maybe I am naive; I have not experienced what he has experienced. But the other night I suggested something to Alex which he promptly discounted, although he did allow that anything is possible… theoretically.

Alex was describing how anger lurks just beneath his seemingly calm exterior, when I replied: “There is no reason anymore for you to ever feel that way again.” He responded that if he were to be freed from that emotion, he would likely lose a big part of what motivates his tremendous personal drive.

Now you have to understand that I have not seen anything in Alex’s behavior which belies such an emotion, hidden or otherwise. I’m not denying that he feels that way, but I just haven’t seen it. For what I know, it may as well not be there. I’m not even tempted to do anything that would piss him off, and I typically avoid conflict. I can foresee a future here for Alex in which his anger never bubbles to the surface.

My theory is this: the longer he goes without experiencing this emotion, the more it will atrophy to insignificance. In time, he will find another more positive emotion to provide motivation for his drive. The drive is like bedrock to his personality; anger is situational and analogous to shifting sand.

Whether Alex or I are correct will only become clear through time. I am stalwart in my belief that if a person experiences total freedom in their environment, if they feel no threats or sources of stress, if they are surrounded by respect, love, and esteem… such things can compensate for having started off life with the disadvantage of the most dysfunctional family.


Groove of the Day

Listen to Tim McGraw performing “Angry All The Time”


four eyes

kid - eyeglasses

It took a couple weeks of his being here before Alex finally admitted he needs glasses to see farther than across the room. Of course, he made this admission in such a way that I wasn’t sure at first if he actually wanted them or not. But after some additional prodding, he finally admitted that he would find glasses useful, especially for driving and seeing wildlife—which, if it isn’t moving, may as well not exist for him.

We’re going to research who in Alpine is good at optometry, but in the meantime, I thought I’d put out a call for the cost of glasses for Alex. It has been several years since I bought glasses for myself (the last time was when I was in Minneapolis), so I’m sure I’ll have to be sitting down when I find out how much the damned things cost (everybody wants to live like a neurosurgeon these days). Donations will determine our budget.

Please spare Alex the embarrassment of only being able to afford really geeky frames. Well, no, that’s not the real truth… He would actually react very well to cheap frames, but I am the one who will have to look at him. Please be generous for my sake.

If you wish to make a contribution to assist with Alex’s eyeglasses, you can earmark your gift for his benefit.

donate hands

To make a contribution to the Redemption Project, please use the link at the top of this page or click here. Thank you!


Groove of the Day

Listen to Randy Newman performing “Four Eyes”



behind the scenes: receptions


This is my second behind the scenes post. Many don’t realize at first, but there are two prison receptions: the initial reception center and orientation at the “main camp”. These are crucial times. They dictate whether or not your sentence will be unduly difficult, at least in the short-term.


by Alex King

Intake has left you exhausted. As you reach your dorm, however, you quickly realize that resting is not in the cards. Stepping through the metal door has the feel of breaking through icy water. Everything is surreal. The dorms are alive at night, and now you are a part of that society. The evening lasts forever. Seconds crawl by. You’ve made it to prison, and now is when you will see first hand if you are capable of making it through.

Shock doesn’t last long. As it wears off, basic needs begin asserting themselves, and you realize you have work to do if you are going to see them fulfilled. You become aware of the place you have been consigned to. Danger lurks everywhere threatening a debilitating paranoia. Entering “prison politics” is a lot like walking into a tornado.

In the reception center, the first thing you notice is the prevalence of salesmen. Nearly anything can be had, at a price. Everything is being sold, from hygiene items that aren’t in the canteen window and books, to pornography and even drugs. One of the first pitfalls is being swindled. Whether the many salesmen or faux friends, you’re surrounded by people trying to make a profit.

The other aspect of reception comes in the form of gangs. The pressure is on to conduct yourself in a manner that doesn’t make you an easy target. Who you associate with, what you say, how you say it, even how you hold yourself, your demeanor and the way you act, if any of that paints the wrong image, you could easily find yourself involved in something bad.

All of this creates a weighty pressure you carry around all day and makes sleep fitful. This environment, these people, it spins you around, bludgeons you, leaves you battered and bruised, bleeding so badly that, by the time you’re called to pack up, you’re relieved to be out, even if it means going to someplace far worse. Your number’s up. It’s time to go. Transport is rough. Intake all over again. You’re searched, then processed. Follow the line. New dorm, new people. Orientation at your main camp is about to begin.

So far, the road has been difficult. You’ve had new experiences and you know from this what prison really is. You finally feel as though you’ve weathered the worst of it and came out standing on your own. By the next morning, you realize how wrong you are. The reception center was full of hunting lions. You made it out of the den only to walk into a forest of spiders.

The people around you have lived in this place for years. They have developed an unnerving patience. They know you will be here for a long time, and the worst of them are betting on the end game. Navigating this new world is treacherous, at best. For an unfortunate few, it’s lethal. You’re caught in the vortex. All you can do now is pray you land on your feet.


Groove of the Day

Listen to Alice In Chains performing “Rooster



is death really preferable to prison?

If convicted, Zachary Proper, 14, could face a life sentence.

As Another Young Boy Commits Suicide in an Adult Prison, We Must Rethink the Prosecution of Children as Adults

by Marsha Levick, The Huffington Post
September 23, 2014

Zachary Proper, age 15, committed suicide two weeks ago in an adult prison in Pennsylvania. There has been little media coverage of his death, suggesting a disturbing complacency about suicide by youth who would rather take their own lives than endure decades in jail.

How did Zachary end up serving time as an “adult”? At the age of 13, he was charged with killing his grandparents. Under Pennsylvania law, because Zachary was charged with murder, state law required that he be charged as an adult. He ultimately plead guilty to third degree murder of his grandparents and was sentenced to 35-80 years in prison.

Although charged as an adult, Zachary also had the right in Pennsylvania to ask the criminal court to send his case to juvenile court. His lawyer did just that. The criminal court heard testimony from Zachary himself as well as law enforcement, family members and experts who evaluated Zachary. Zachary’s parents supported their son throughout these court proceedings. While there was testimony about Zachary’s abusive childhood and a prior suicide attempt, the court declined to transfer his case to juvenile court, and was particularly troubled by the absence of a “guarantee” that Zachary would be rehabilitated by age 21, when juvenile court jurisdiction would end. Of course, no expert could offer such a guarantee. But there are highly successful, proven programs that can help kids who commit serious crimes, even those who have committed murder. The chance of success for Zachary would have been especially promising since the juvenile justice system would have had nearly eight years of his adolescence to work with him – a critical period for change and transformation as Zachary matured into adulthood.

Zachary’s story illustrates a long-standing dilemma in this country, one that claws at our nation’s conscience. What do we do with kids who commit serious crimes?

Do we toss them aside or do we finally get them the help they need and deserve as children? Thirteen year-old Zachary, who confessed to killing his grandparents, was also a good student, a member of his school’s football team, and enjoyed swimming, camping and canoeing with his family. But childhood abuse and depression were also part of his story. How can we reasonably hold children accountable for their actions, protect the public and give these children and families some hope for a positive ending?

In their recent book on contemporary justice policy for youth, Rethinking Juvenile Justice, Dr. Laurence Steinberg and Columbia Law Professor Elizabeth Scott recommend that no child younger than 15 be prosecuted and sentenced as an adult.
Dr. Steinberg and Professor Scott explain that youth younger than 15 are likely to be “significantly less culpable than their adult counterparts and substantially more vulnerable to the harsh context of adult prison.” Yet throughout the country, children as young – or younger – than Zachary routinely face adult prosecution and adult prison sentences. Many of these children have a history of abuse or untreated mental illness. But does age or circumstance matter in the U.S. justice system?

The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly acknowledged that children must be treated differently in our courts, recognizing the developmental immaturity, reduced impulse control, reduced ability to understand long-term consequences and thus reduced culpability of youth who are charged even with the most serious crimes. This is not to say they should not be held accountable, but rather, that they should be held accountable in age-appropriate ways. The transfer laws that placed 13-year-old Zachary at the door of the criminal justice system are vestiges of the 1990’s, steeped in the discredited super-predator myth that was short on facts and ignorant of the research spearheaded by experts like Dr. Steinberg and Professor Scott. How can we possibly be surprised by this outcome when we’ve only compounded one tragedy with another?

This story begs the question, what is justice when it comes to children? There is no other instance where children magically become adults because of their behavior; indeed, we steadfastly (and rightly) resist any calls to lower the age at which children can take on “adult” responsibilities such as driving, buying alcohol, buying cigarettes, or serving on juries. We don’t make individual exceptions to these legislative prohibitions simply because a child can momentarily behave like an adult. Why? Because we don’t believe that these children have the capacity to consistently act responsibly or to make decisions that could permanently affect their lives.

Clearly, we must balance the rights of the child with public safety. That is paramount. But persisting in transferring children like Zachary to the adult criminal justice system simply invites another tragedy. Zachary’s story is a reflection of what happens to children when we wrong-headedly treat them as adults. They have no hope.

At 13, Zachary Proper was not an adult. No legal fiction can undo that fact; the tragedy of Zachary Proper’s life and death must shatter this inimical public policy once and for all. While we will likely never really know what drove Zachary to kill his grandparents, or what drove him to take his own life at 15, what we do know suggests a child reacting to abuse and distress in his own life in a way that only compounded his family’s heartache and loss. While Zachary’s actions were unquestionably the actions of a seriously troubled child, we, as the grown-ups in the room, must do better. Until we begin to truly treat children like children in this country, the tragedies will only continue.



Groove of the Day

Listen to John Bahler, Tom Bahler, Ron Hicklin and Ian Freebairn-Smith performing “Suicide Is Painless” (MASH Theme)


way over yonder in the minor key


One of my favorite songs. I’m surprised I haven’t posted it until now…


Groove of the Day

Listen to Billy Bragg & Wilco performing “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key”