Sunday, March 30, 2014

Progress Report: Improved Mental Health Services At HRRJ

Harrisonburg/Rockingham Regional Jail
Thursday I had the privilege of meeting with two representatives of the Community Services Board, Executive Director Lacy Whitmore and Acute Services Director Ellen Harrison, and with Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson and Jail Director Captain Steven Shortell to discuss ways of improving mental health services for inmates at our local jail.

Here are four areas of concern we covered:

1. As state funds become available for more community-based mental health services in Virginia, what might be the best possible ways of using such funds to expand and improve mental health treatment at the jail?

Captain Shortell's ultimate dream would be to have a separate fully staffed mental health unit added to the facility. This would decrease the number of inmates needing to be transferred to the forensic unit at Western State Hospital and could greatly improve the quality of services at HRRJ. Such a unit may only be a pipe dream, of course, under present budget constraints, but it would represent a far cry from currently having only one CSB Nurse Practitioner available for one three-hour block of time per week (plus other CSB case workers as called on for emergency needs). Meanwhile any increase in the number of trained counselors could help improve mental health treatment.

2. Could inmates already under a doctor or psychiatrist's care when they are incarcerated continue that care while at HRRJ, with the patient or patient's family billed for any prescriptions and/or phone consults involved and with nursing staff continuing to dispense medications as provided?

We were told that if an inmate brings prescriptions from home that these may be continued at the discretion of medical personnel if it is clear that they are have been taken on a consistent basis prior to their coming. However if, for example, full bottles of meds are brought without evidence that the inmate has been taking them as prescribed they may not be given. More time and staff available to do more coordination with outside providers would clearly be a plus in making required medication management more efficient and effective.

3. Could a community-based advisory board be created for the purpose of hearing the Jail's challenges in providing mental services and brainstorm potential solutions? 

It was encouraging to have Sheriff Hutcheson assure us that if the Community Services Board were to get such a group together that the Sheriff and staff would be willing to give their recommendations every reasonable consideration. This is potentially a great step in collaborating with concerned community members to help provide for better mental health services within current budget restraints--as well as perhaps working at ways of increasing necessary funding to provide at least the level of care available at state prisons.

4. Subject to the recommendations of such a group, could a select team of volunteer professionals be granted access to inmates in need of counseling similar to what volunteer chaplains now have?

Sheriff Hutcheson is open to having outside clinicians help provide services if clear credentialing guidelines can be established by the CSB for those allowed access to inmates, perhaps on the same basis as attorneys are presently. The proposed advisory board could be useful in establishing such guidelines.

Meanwhile, here's some really good news: I was encouraged to hear that all sheriff's deputies and corrections officers are set to receive a mandated 40-hour Crisis Intervention Team training initiated by the CSB and funded by a special grant. CIT is a program designed to improve the way law enforcement and the community respond to people experiencing mental health crises. The first persons enrolled in the program just completed their training last week, and three other classes are planned for this year. More details will be posted on the HRRJ website by the end of this week.

Please feel free to offer your comments or suggestions for working collaboratively with the Sheriff and the CSB to do an ever better job of rehabilitating offenders.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Should The Present U.S. Economy Survive?

One of my good friends recently stated, with a great sense of certainty, that the U. S. economy as we know it was doomed. Our national debt will prove to be unsustainable. The dollar will lose its value. The stock market will collapse.

I wasn't prepared to agree or disagree with this gloomy assessment, but I do wonder if we should champion the survival of any economy that has become so dependent on more and more consumption at the expense of the world’s poor? And which contributes to the wasteful depletion of the world's resources and the pollution of its soil, air and water in ways that are simply unsustainable? And which requires the most deadly and expensive military force in the world to defend it?

In the apocalyptic book of Revelation, chapters 17-19 introduce us to an image of a luxurious and powerful seductress named “Babylon,” a symbol of economic systems based on greed and oppression. In contrast to the Radiant Woman of Revelation 12, who represents the humble and holy people of God, this Great Prostitute is dressed in the finest purple and scarlet and sits elegantly astride the powerful “Beast” representing the world’s political and military powers (introduced in chapter 13). All of the nations are in bed with
Representative of the Beast?
her, since “all who had ships on the sea became rich through her wealth” (18:19). Does this sound a lot like our economy or not?

When Babylon finally collapses in disgrace, the kings and merchants of the earth “weep and wail” in anguish. They are desperate to have her recover so the status quo disparity between the very rich and the very poor can continue unchecked. In the same way, we North Americans want to restore (and grow) our incomes, our institutions, our accustomed ways of life, to the level we’ve come to believe is our birthright.

But the Babylon of Revelation is doomed by God Almighty, is clearly beyond any recovery. And in the Bible, this is hailed as good news. At her demise all heaven breaks loose in outbursts of praise, “Hallelujah! The Lord God Omnipotent reigns!” (19:6).

I’m not suggesting that all of today’s entrepreneurs have sold out to Babylon. There are many business men and women who operate with integrity and who offer invaluable services to their community. They provide decent jobs at fair wages and don’t assume that their managing more capital wealth entitles them to a greater share of consumer wealth. Because they choose to live frugally and share sacrificially, they should be blessed and celebrated as signs of Jesus’ new order.
major world polluters

But to pray for the survival of our current consumer-driven economy may be to counter Jesus’ brand of “good news.” In his upside down kingdom, where his words about wealth represent both law and gospel, it is the world’s hungry who are to be filled with good things, and it is the too-well-to-do who are to be left empty-handed. In his new community it is the poor, and "the poor in spirit," who are truly blessed with happiness, whereas the rich (those who claim the right to ever more consumer wealth) are promised only woes.

This means that what is really needed is not the survival of the old economy, but the restructuring of a new one, first through a radical reordering of our values (what we consider to be true wealth) and then through adopting lifestyles that represent fairness and justice for everyone on the planet.

The U.S. economic downturn of 2008 needs to be seen as a gigantic wake up call, reminding us that to continue to live like Babylon--instead of more like Jesus--is not only wrong, it is unsustainable. It would take additional whole planets to provide enough resources (and enough landfill space for our waste and pollution) for all seven billion of the world’s people to consume at the rate most of us do who are among the top 5% of its wealthiest inhabitants.

In that light, does a Mammon-driven, “trickle-down” global economy represent good news?

No. If an economic system is not first of all about good news for the world's poor, it’s not what Jesus has in mind.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

March 25, 1807: End Of The British Slave Trade

Slave ships packed with men, women and children in shackles
Exactly 207 years ago today, after years of appeal in the British Parliament led by William Wilberforce, the final passage of legislation abolishing the British slave trade received the Royal Assent that made it official.

While this did not abolish slavery itself, it did end British participation in one of the most horrific and inhumane commercial enterprises imaginable.

Alexander Falconbridge, a surgeon aboard slave ships and later the governor of a British colony for freed slaves in Sierra Leone, writes the following vivid account:

From the time of the arrival of the ships to their departure, which is usually about three months, scarce a day passes without some Negroes being purchased and carried on board; sometimes in small and sometimes in large numbers...

The unhappy wretches thus disposed of are bought by the black traders at fairs, which are held for that purpose, at the distance of upwards of two hundred miles from the sea coast; and these fairs are said to be supplied from an interior part of the country. Many Negroes, upon being questioned relative to the places of their nativity, have asserted that they have traveled during the revolution of several moons (their usual method of calculating time) before they have reached the places where they were purchased by the black traders...

The men Negroes, on being brought aboard the ship, are immediately fastened together, two and two, by handcuffs on their wrists and by irons riveted on their legs. They are then sent down between the decks and placed in an apartment partitioned off for that purpose. The women also are placed in a separate apartment between the decks, but without being ironed. An adjoining room on the same deck is appointed for the boys. Thus they are all placed in different apartments.

But at the same time, however, they are frequently stowed so close, as to admit of no other position than lying on their sides. Nor with the height between decks, unless directly under the grating, permit the indulgence of an erect posture; especially where there are platforms, which is generally the case. These platforms are a kind of shelf, about eight or nine feet in breadth, extending from the side of the ship toward the center. They are placed nearly midway between the decks, at the distance of two or three feet from each deck. Upon these the Negroes are stowed in the same manner as they are on the deck underneath.

In each of the apartments are placed three or four large buckets, of a conical form, nearly two feet in diameter at the bottom and only one foot at the top and in depth of about twenty- eight inches, to which, when necessary, the Negroes have recourse. It often happens that those who are placed at a distance from the buckets, in endeavoring to get to them, tumble over their companions, in consequence of their being shackled. These accidents, although unavoidable, are productive of continual quarrels in which some of them are always bruised. In this distressed situation, unable to proceed and prevented from getting to the tubs, they desist from the attempt; and as the necessities of nature are not to be resisted, ease themselves as they lie. This becomes a fresh source of boils and disturbances and tends to render the condition of the poor captive wretches still more uncomfortable.

The nuisance arising from these circumstances is not infrequently increased by the tubs being too small for the purpose intended and their being emptied but once every day. The rule for doing so, however, varies in different ships according to the attention paid to the health and convenience of the slaves by the captain.

About eight o'clock in the morning the Negroes are generally brought upon deck. Their irons being examined, a long chain, which is locked to a ring- bolt fixed in the deck, is run through the rings of the shackles of the men and then locked to another ring- bolt fixed also in the deck. By this means fifty or sixty and sometimes more are fastened to one chain in order to prevent them from rising or endeavoring to escape. If the weather proves favorable they are permitted to remain in that situation till four or five in the afternoon when they are disengaged from the chain and sent below.

The diet of the Negroes while on board, consists chiefly of horse beans boiled to the consistency of a pulp; of boiled yams and rice and sometimes a small quantity of beef or pork. The latter are frequently taken from the provisions laid in for the sailors. They sometimes make use of a sauce composed of palm- oil mixed with flour, water and pepper, which the sailors call slabber- sauce. Yams are the favorite food of the Eboe [Ibo] or Bight Negroes, and rice or corn of those from the Gold or Windward Coast; each preferring the produce of their native soil....

They are commonly fed twice a day; about eight o'clock in the morning and four in the afternoon. In most ships they are only fed with their own food once a day. Their food is served up to them in tubs about the size of a small water bucket. They are placed round these tubs, in companies of ten to each tub, out of which they feed themselves with wooden spoons. These they soon lose and when they are not allowed others they feed themselves with their hands. In favorable weather they are fed upon deck but in bad weather their food is given them below. Numberless quarrels take place among them during their meals; more especially when they are put upon short allowance, which frequently happens if the passage form the coast of Guinea to the West Indies islands proves of unusual length. In that case, the weak are obliged to be content with a very scanty portion. Their allowance of water is about half a pint each at every meal. It is handed round in a bucket and given to each Negro in a pannekin, a small utensil with a straight handle, somewhat similar to a sauce- boat. However, when the ships approach the islands with a favorable breeze, the slaves are no longer restricted.

Upon the Negroes refusing to take sustenance, I have seen coals of fire, glowing hot, put on a shovel and placed so near their lips as to scorch and burn them. And this has been accompanied with threats of forcing them to swallow the coals if they any longer persisted in refusing to eat. These means have generally had the desired effect. I have also been credibly informed that a certain captain in the slave- trade, poured melted lead on such of his Negroes as obstinately refused their food.

Exercise being deemed necessary for the preservation of their health they are sometimes obliged to dance when the weather will permit their coming on deck. If they go about it reluctantly or do not move with agility, they are flogged; a person standing by them all the time with a cat-o'-nine- tails in his hands for the purpose. Their music, upon these occasions, consists of a drum, sometimes with only one head; and when that is worn out they make use of the bottom of one of the tubs before described. The poor wretches are frequently compelled to sing also; but when they do so, their songs are generally, as may naturally be expected, melancholy lamentations of their exile from their native country.

On board some ships the common sailors are allowed to have intercourse with such of the black women whose consent they can procure. And some of them have been known to take the inconstancy of their paramours so much to heart as to leap overboard and drown themselves. The officers are permitted to indulge their passions among them at pleasure and sometimes are guilty of such excesses as disgrace human nature....

The hardships and inconveniences suffered by the Negroes during the passage are scarcely to be enumerated or conceived. They are far more violently affected by seasickness than Europeans. It frequently terminates in death, especially among the women. But the exclusion of fresh air is among the most intolerable. For the purpose of admitting this needful refreshment, most of the ships in the slave trade are provided, between the decks, with five or sick air-ports on each side of the ship of about five inches in length and four in breadth. In addition, some ships, but not one in twenty, have what they denominate wind-sails. But whenever the sea is rough and the rain heavy is becomes necessary to shut these and every other conveyance by which the air is admitted. The fresh air being thus excluded, the Negroes' rooms soon grow intolerable hot. The confined air, rendered noxious by the effluvia exhaled from their bodies and being repeatedly breathed, soon produces fevers and fluxes which generally carries of great numbers of them.

During the voyages I made, I was frequently witness to the fatal effects of this exclusion of fresh air. I will give one instance, as it serves to convey some idea, though a very faint one, of their terrible sufferings....Some wet and blowing weather having occasioned the port-holes to be shut and the grating to be covered, fluxes and fevers among the Negroes ensued. While they were in this situation, I frequently went down among them till at length their room became so extremely hot as to be only bearable for a very short time. But the excessive heat was not the only thing that rendered their situation intolerable. The deck, that is the floor of their rooms, was so covered with the blood and mucus which had proceeded from them in consequence of the flux, that it resembled a slaughter- house. It is not in the power of the human imagination to picture a situation more dreadful or disgusting. Numbers of the slaves having fainted, they were carried upon deck where several of them died and the rest with great difficulty were restored....

As very few of the Negroes can so far brook the loss of their liberty and the hardships they endure, they are ever on the watch to take advantage of the least negligence in their oppressors. Insurrections are frequently the consequence; which are seldom expressed without much bloodshed. Sometimes these are successful and the whole ship's company is cut off. They are likewise always ready to seize every opportunity for committing some acts of desperation to free themselves from their miserable state and notwithstanding the restraints which are laid, they often succeed.

Source: Alexander Falconbridge, An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa (London, 1788).

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Of Wells And Weddings

William Dyce "The Woman of Samaria" 1860
In the semi-arid lands of the Bible, wells were a vital link to life, and travelers planned their journeys carefully to make sure they would have a sufficient supply of water. Wells were also places of meeting, a setting where people had conversations and tended to necessary business with their neighbors.

In the Hebrew Bible there are three well known examples of a wedding following a meeting at a well. In Genesis 24 Abraham sends a trusted servant to his home country to find a good woman of faith for his son and heir, Isaac. A generation later, Isaac's son Jacob himself goes to what may have been that same ancestral well to find a believing wife among his people. Much later Moses, fleeing from Pharoah in Exodus 3, finds himself at a well in another foreign country where he meets his future wife, Zipporah, virgin daughter of a Midianite priest.

In each of these cases, a well proved to be a good place to find a suitable, faithful and beautiful bride.

In John 4, Jesus is at Jacob's well waiting for someone who can draw much needed water for him to drink. The story takes place in the Samaritan village of Sychar, a town inhabited by people who practiced a faith considered foreign and anathema to Jews.

But might Jesus have been looking for a bride in this unlikely place?

The answer may actually be yes, but the beloved he longs for is a community of people to become one with him in bringing hope and healing to God's troubled world. And that world includes everyone--men and women, rich and poor, insiders and outsiders, Jew and Samaritan alike.

The first potential follower who shows up in this story seems anything but a good candidate for holy union between God and humans. This woman had been handed from one man to another, had been made wife to five husbands then abandoned to live with someone to whom she was not legally married.

But she is genuinely thirsty for Jesus' words of hope. She longs for living water.

Jesus is thirsty, too, not only for water from this ancient well, but for deep relationships with a reconciled people who share God's love and God's life with each other and with others.

And who want to share living water with everyone in the whole wide world.

I owe some of my inspiration for the above to an article by Kendra Valentine, "The Wedding at the Well", in the January 2014 issue of Ministry: International Journey for Pastors.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

2004 Gemeinschaft Grad To Speak At April 12 "Friend-raiser"

Speaker and activist Mercedies Harris
Here's an event to be sure to put on your calendar, Gemeinschaft's Spring Fundraiser Banquet, set for 6 pm Saturday, April 12, at the Park View Mennonite Church.

Gemeinschaft Home, one of my favorite community causes, is pleased to welcome back one of its graduates, Waynesboro Pastor Mercedies Harris, to be the keynote speaker at this year's event.

Harris, an ordained minister and a prison reform activist, was born September 13, 1960, in Brooklyn, New York. Married to Annetta Harris, they have one son and he is the stepfather to another son and a daughter.

Minister Mercedies Harris has a passion for helping others rebuild their lives just as he has been able to do with the support of groups like Gemeinschaft Home and through his strong personal faith. Today, he is a successful community advocate who has overcome substance abuse, homelessness, joblessness and nine incarcerations. He has an Associates Degree in Behavioral Health Care, and besides being an ordained minister, is also a Certified Substance Abuse Counselor, a Certified Pastoral Counselor, and a trained Civil Rights Restoration volunteer.

Harris was trained by the Advancement Project in 2012 through which he became a member and  founder of HollaBack and Restore Project dedicated to the restoration of civil rights of ex-offenders. Mr. Harris was appointed to the board of the Governor’s Work Force for that purpose, and was a key influence in the molding of the restoration process. His work was featured in the American Prospect Magazine (8/20/13) and in various news stations such as ABC, NBC and WHSV.

Mr. Harris is currently working on a project to open a transitional house for men and women similar to Gemeinschaft Home, one designed to likewise support successful re-entry of ex-felons into society.

Please contact Gemeinschaft at 434-1690, or the Gemeinschaft Home Facebook page to let them know you are attending. And be sure to invite others to join you for an evening of inspiration, entertainment and a great meal prepared by Brenda Leigh, the chef and mother-in-chief that all of the residents love.

P.S. To all of my local readers: Don't even think of not attending this event!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Edward Patrick Stewart #200804 (1961-2014)

Edward Ross Stewart died in prison at age 52

Edward Patrick Stewart was born October 24, 1961, and died of an apparent heart attack at the Buckingham Correctional Center near Dillwyn, Virginia, at about 1:41 pm February 18, 2014.

Two persons at BKCC wrote me last month about the loss of Mr. Stewart, a model inmate and a close friend, which prompted me to do a February 28, 2014, blog about his untimely (and preventable?) death. I was recently sent the above photo, and I have since tried to find an obituary or other information about his life or his death on the Internet, but the only thing that came up with a Google search was a link my own blog. According to one of my sources, Edward had a mother and two sisters still living, but none seems to have kept in touch with him in recent years. His step mother in Ohio had apparently agreed to provide a place for him to live and get a new start if he were to earn his long sought for parole.

Mr. Stewart was serving a life sentence plus 25 years for a crime he committed over two decades ago. Due to his exemplary behavior in prison he had been parole eligible for some time (having been incarcerated prior to parole being abolished in 1995 under then Governor George Allen). Sadly, Virginia' parole grant remains one of the lowest in the nation, at under 4%.

Something about this case haunts me. Ed deserved a chance to prove that he could be a productive citizen on the outside, having learned to be one in the very stressful situation he lived in behind bars. He most certainly did not deserve to die as he did, and at only 52 years of age.

Meanwhile, there is supposedly an independent investigation being conducted as to why the guard on duty did not use CPR as he and other employees are clearly trained to do, and why it took 6-10 minutes for medical personnel to arrive to perform emergency fist aid. Related concerns are that Buckingham, like other older Virginia prisons, does not have an emergency call system and is often short staffed, according to my sources.

Click here for more posts on criminal justice.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Do You Truly Want To Be Well?

Ellen White: Jesus at the Bethesda Pool
According to John's gospel Jesus once asked someone lying next to Jerusalem's healing pool, "Do you want to be made whole?"

The answer seems obvious, but maybe it isn't always. I had a counseling prof, in jest, telling about a client who pledged to keep coming for therapy as long as he promised not to make him well!

Sometimes compensations set in when we are the victim of an illness or accident. Along with our desire for wholeness there can also come some ambivalence about a loss of attention or specialness that may go with being a victim. Certain responsibilities that go with wellness may feel overwhelming, and get in the way of our desire for healing.

Jesus engages the ill man's will with, "Do you want to be well?" then tells him "Take up his bed and walk." He is saying that while healing always involves some kind of miracle, it is not a matter of mere magic. Both faith and action on our part may be called for.

In other words, if we truly want to be well we will need to practice doing more of what well people do and less of what ill people do, as follows.

1. Well people avoid seeing themselves as victims, and cultivate a spirit of gratitude to God and others rather than nursing grievances.

2. Well people are intentional about expanding their circle of good relationships (as in a supportive faith community) rather than isolating themselves from others.

3. Well people are generous in sharing what they have with others rather than hoarding more for themselves.

4. Well people engage in plenty of good physical activity rather than living sedentary lives.

5. Well people operate on the basis of their faith rather than their worst-case fears.

6. Well people treat their bodies and minds as gifts to be given the best possible care.

7. Well people have a sense of mission and purpose that goes beyond their immediate personal interests, but which they also know is in their (and others') best interests. 

Wellness is a priceless, but nevertheless costly, gift to be treasured for a lifetime.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Really Royal Ride

132 horses under the hood of a 2012 Toyota Corolla
We live in a little '50's suburb at the north edge of Harrisonburg, just outside the city limits. Within .3 mile of us is a drug store, a Food Lion, a Dollar General, five small restaurants and our Credit Union, among other things.

So when we need a prescription, a gallon of milk, or access to an ATM at one of these locations, we have several options:

1. Wait, then combine it with a trip to work or elsewhere.

2. Walk or bike.

3. Access a wonderful coach we happen to own, one that's designed for convenient overland transportation and is housed in the "livery stable" we call our garage.

Using the latter is always the quickest and most convenient choice.

Here are some of the amazing features of our travel machine. Even though our car is smaller than some, it nevertheless weighs well over a ton (2734 pounds) and has a climate-controlled cabin area able to comfortably seat five people.

Our particular craft is powered by the equivalent of 132 horses. Yes, 132. They are always harnessed and ready to go at the turn of a key, fully hitched to the royal coach on which we've become totally dependent. Much of what makes using this advanced machine so effortless is a complex set of computer controlled features that are worth thousands of dollars and that are amazing beyond imagination.

Unfortunately, the fuel that empowers all of this, while convenient to access, is also very controversial. Derived from oil deep in the ground, it has often been fought over as a scarce, nonrenewable resource, the use of which adds to environmental pollution believed by many scientists to threaten the survival of our planet.

So since I could use a lot more exercise anyway, should I use the Corolla for a run to the bank or just walk?

On the other hand, I could just drive my coach, powered by 132 horses, another half mile beyond the Credit Union and get my exercise walking around EMU's climate controlled indoor track for a couple of miles.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Is This A Bright Idea Or What?

I recently received an interesting proposal from Charles Zellers, Sr., a friend at the Buckingham Correctional Center near Dillwyn. I submitted it to the Daily News-Record earlier this week as a part of an op ed piece.

Charles gave his permission to include his name and this photo. Zellers is the second from the left, and the person behind him in the middle of the picture, Edward Stewart, is the one who recently died of an apparent heart attack (see 2/28/14 blog).

From Criminal Thinking To Technology Thinking

A friend at the Buckingham Correctional Center recently sent me a thoughtful proposal that would allow inmates to have personal laptops in prison for educational purposes (without access to Wi-Fi and the internet).

For some background, this person has been in prison for 21 years since entering an Alford Plea in a case in which he was charged when he was in his mid-twenties. He had been assured by his court appointed attorney that if he would agree to a plea and serve some time as a model prisoner, that he would earn parole within a few years.

But while this individual has consistently stayed out of trouble in prison, and has been involved in all the classes and programs that were supposed to help him earn parole, he is still confined after over two decades, partly due to the Virginia Parole Board having one of the lowest parole grant rates in the US. As the following shows, he continues to envision a productive life outside of prison.

Here is a slightly condensed version of his proposal:

1. Permission to purchase laptop computers to be kept in the possession of the inmate as personal property (same as television).

2. Permission to purchase and install Microsoft Office Suite software, a self contained teaching program that does not require WiFi or use of the Internet. This would allow offenders to learn Word (a word processing program), Excel (a spreadsheet/accounting program), Access (a database program), PowerPoint (a presentation program), and Desktop Publisher ( to create flyers, pamphlets, business cards, etc.). Microsoft Office Suite software is utilized in businesses throughout the world, and offenders could learn these complex skills at their leisure in their assigned cells or dorms.

3. The Virginia Department of Corrections has contracted with JPay to install kiosks in all offender living units. Once this has been connected statewide, the VDOC could authorize JPay to offer free programs for offenders to download on their laptops, such as Productive Citizenship, Anger Management, PREPS, and GED preparation. Also, VDOC could offer for sale approved vocational and educational programs that could assist offenders when they are released from prisons and jails, such as background training for Computer Assisted Drafting, Masonry, Welding, Plumbing, Small Engines, etc. These are all tools offenders could use to develop technical thinking instead of criminal thinking.

4. Require Virginia prisons to offer a basic computer class to all prisoners capable of gaining computer skills.

5. Require all Virginia Correctional Enterprises (VCE) to have at least one computer with Microsoft Office Suite installed in each department of every shop as a part of the training process.

If correction is to be the primary goal of VDOC, as spelled out in its mission statement, it’s hard to see any downside to this kind of program. And not only should costs to taxpayers be minimal, but this could result in huge savings as more people are released with skills to help them function as productive members of society.

Presently prisoners who have spent years behind bars find themselves experiencing a Rip Van Winkle-like lack of preparation for living in a world so different from the one they knew upon entering prison.
Programs designed to educate and rehabilitate our fellow citizens should not divide us into liberal or conservative camps. Regardless of our political leanings, we can no longer afford to waste millions in simply confining people in iron cages where they spend far too much time in mind numbing boredom and in learning ever more criminal behavior from their peers.

At the end of a recent letter, my friend lamented, “I do not understand why churches and other interested persons are not trying to help us. Many of us are praying that we can be released on parole while we are still able to get a job and take care of ourselves, while Virginia is just waiting for us to die.”

Click here for other links on criminal justice issues.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

New Petition To Governor McAuliffe (And Some More Background) Please Sign!

Jens Soering, behind bars for nearly 28 years
I am launching this new petition with addressed to Governor Terry McAulliffe, and urge all of you to sign it and share it with others.  Thanks!

You will find the links in the following Wikipedia article on former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli helpful if you want more information on this case. Cuchinelli's efforts to block Soering's extradition is listed as one of his signature achievements in the Wikipedia piece, as follows: 


Extradition of Jens Soering to Germany

Jens Soering, 43, the son of a German diplomat and former Jefferson scholar at the University of Virginia, was convicted in 1990 and sentenced to two life terms for the 1985 first-degree stabbing murders of his then-girlfriend's parents, Derek and Nancy Haysom, in their Bedford County home, and held at the Buckingham Correctional Center in Dillwyn, Virginia.

Former Gov. Timothy Kaine, on the last day of his administration in January, 2010, approved a request from the German government and asked the Justice Department to transfer Soering back to Germany to complete his sentence. Newly elected Gov. Bob McDonnell, along with Cuccinelli, adamantly opposed the transfer. McDonnell formally notified the Justice Department just three days after taking office that it was imperative that Soering serve his time in Virginia and not in Germany, where a US news report said that he could have applied for parole after two years, although parole is only applicable after a minimum 15 years according to the German penal code.[76]
- Wikipedia 

Here's the link to the post about the previous petition to Governor McDonnell.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Everyone Wants Strong Leaders, But No One Wants To Be Led

I remember being told as a child that our 18th century European ancestors were expected to stop and bow whenever they were met by members of the aristocracy. In those days, everyone knew their place and showed deference to those ranked above them, child to parent, citizen to ruler, lay member to clergy, peasant to lord.

We've come a long way since then. While we may sometimes decry the lack of deference shown for authority by our children and teens, and even advocate reverting to more corporal punishment as a way of instilling some old fashioned respect, we rarely demonstrate much of a submissive mindset ourselves.

A part of me can celebrate that. As members of faith communities we see ourselves as a part of a "priesthood of all believers", no longer subject to an authoritarian rule by powerful bishops and/or some kind of strong denominational hierarchy. The era of authoritarian leaders appears to be over. And as American citizens we pride ourselves in being a part of a citizen-led republic rather than subjects of a monarchy or dictatorship.

At the same time, I hear many of us bemoaning a lack of leadership in the church or in our government. We may even express admiration for a Putin-style ruler, but only on one unspoken condition, that whoever who is in power should strongly champion our cause, be a voice for our own strongly held values, and not be about leading us in some new or different direction.

In today's wide, wild world of the internet I'm amazed at how sure so many are of exactly what positions the church should take and what practices and beliefs should be reinforced--as long as they are exactly in line with their own convictions. If we don't like something, we simply go elsewhere or form a group of our own.

In the same way, every rank and file US citizen seems to have a clear notion of just how the state should be governed and of everything that's wrong with those in positions of power. But what most are really wanting is that their president and legislators follow their lead rather than the other way around. No one is about to tell us what to we are to do or believe.

In a democracy, that may be as it should be. But we can't have it both ways, or have everything go our way. We can't be attacking our church or political leaders for not being strong leaders while at the same time disrespecting and reviling them for differing with us when they do so, or for also listening to the viewpoints of others as well as our own.

So for better or worse, when our children show disrespect for people in leadership, are they acting in defiance of us or are they simply imitating us? If we regularly have roast preacher for Sunday dinner, and routinely revile our democratically chosen leaders--ecclesiastical or political--can we really expect something different from our young?

* * * * * * * * * * * *
"Show proper respect to everyone. Love the community of believers. Have respect for God. Honor the king."
- I Peter 2:17 NIV, Readers Version 

Friday, March 7, 2014

To Avoid A MCUSA Split: Let Congregations Discipline, And The Denomination Offer Direction

I'm wondering if the only way for the Mennonite Church USA to stay together is if its local congregations become solely responsible for the discipling--and as they deem necessary, for the discipline--of individual members, and to have conferences and the denomination primarily give direction to congregations as they carry out those God-ordained responsibilities.

This would not make us any more diverse than we already are, but could help us maintain some kind of bond in spite of our differences, perhaps through our becoming more like a close fellowship of Anabaptist-minded churches than a well organized denominational institution. Otherwise, we face the prospect of a tragic kind of splintering and splitting such as we have never seen.

According to a recent piece by historian John D. Roth in the Mennonite, "When most of the various branches of the Dutch Mennonite church merged in 1811, the basis of of the union was a general appeal to the unity of the Spirit and the explicit assurance that 'every congregation kept its freedom to make such decisions about doctrine as it wished, without the right to bind others to its convictions.'"

In the ongoing controversy over how to address the issue of homosexuality, Mennonites have become expert at divorcing themselves from other whole districts and conferences. But surprisingly I know of no example of Mennonite congregations having actually removed individual LBGTQ members from their fellowship. In fact, I haven't even heard many conversations on how we practice grace-based pastoral care of such members, in spite of the fact that we all know plenty of fellow believers who are gay, and in spite of our convening many solemn conference assemblies on the subject of same sex attraction.

As a result, individual gay members have usually just quietly removed themselves or remained silent about their sexual orientation. We've created an unspoken policy of Don't ask, Don't talk and Don't tell.

I find this response on the part of the church unloving, inconsistent and unacceptable.

I propose we focus on congregations dealing pastorally and prayerfully with individual members as they are led by the Spirit and as they understand the Bible. There is ample scriptural precedent for this kind of Spirit-driven pastoral care. But I find no New Testament precedent for our excommunicating whole congregations--as in, for example, a Jerusalem Council deciding to no longer be associated with churches like those at Corinth or Laodicea. Nor are there any Biblical examples of congregations leaving the larger body of believers and going out on their own.

How can we defend or approve our wholesale "divorces" of whole churches or conferences--even over an issue as controversial as same sex marriage--when one of Jesus' most fervent prayers is "that they may be one, even as we are one"?

Jesus makes no exceptions in that prayer. He does give instructions (Matthew 18:15-18) for dealing with individual members, but not for excommunicating whole congregations.

Growing Good Health

"To create a garden is to search for a better world. In our effort to improve on nature, we are guided by a vision of paradise. Whether the result is a horticultural masterpiece or only a modest vegetable patch, it is based on the expectation of a glorious future. This hope for the future is at the heart of all gardening."
- Marina Schinz

I know it sounds insane, but on Saturday I planted our first row of sugar snap peas. Yes, I did, in spite of knowing that by Monday everything would likely be covered with tons of snow.

Crazy or not, gardening is in my blood, a part of my roots, an annual experience of therapy. Every spring I dream of growing the finest possible crop of green lettuce, yellow corn and ripe red tomatoes ever.  In gardeners, hope springs eternal.

As a result of years of composting and mulching our naturally clay soil is mellow and dark, and as soon as the snow clears and the soil is dry enough, will be ready for more peas and some onion sets--even before the official start of spring. Then come radishes, beets, carrots and lettuce, hardy plants that can withstand late frosts may persist through early May.

Then, as soon we dare, we'll boldly plant several rows of sweet corn and green beans, along with  some early tomato plants, trusting that a late freeze won’t do irreparable harm. But we are prepared to cover the young plants if we must, hoping for the earliest possible harvest.

I'm sure you'll agree that there’s no food as delicious--or nutritious--as the kind that comes straight from your own garden. And when you grow your own produce, you can know it hasn't been tainted with all kinds of pesticides and herbicides that might be a part of what's grown commercially and shipped in from all over the world.

Here’s a simple way I've found to convert some lawn space into growing space, without back breaking effort and at very little expense:

For year one, start with some potted plants from a nearby greenhouse, things like tomatoes, squash, peppers, lettuce, cucumbers, cantaloupe, etc. Dig an appropriate size hole in the sod for each plant and set each with a bit of compost and/or other organic fertilizer. Cover the surrounding grass with several layers of newspaper, then the entire new garden space with straw, leaves or other forms of a readily biodegradable mulch (not sawdust).

After that, simply water the plants if needed. Your new garden will remain virtually weed free (and without hoeing!) and by fall much of the garden’s cover will have become mostly decomposed and the soil easily tillable for year two, when you can do conventional planting of any seeds you wish.

But don’t just take my advice. Consult some experienced gardeners in your neighborhood. But be warned, this activity can be highly addictive.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Pope Francis I: "The Spirit Of War Has Taken Control Of Us"

Pope Francis I
Last Tuesday Francis spoke about the upcoming 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, lamenting the enormous suffering and the millions of lost lives lost in that senseless conflict. His text was from the fourth chapter of the book of James.

Here are some excerpts:

“Think of the starving children in the refugee camps. Just think of them: this is fruit of war! And if you want think of the great dining halls, of the parties thrown by the bosses of the weapons industry that makes the arms that wind up (in those camps). A sick child, starving, in a refugee camp — and the great parties, the fine life for those who manufacture weapons.”
“Every day, in the newspapers, we find wars, and the deaths seem to be part of a normal day’s tally. We are accustomed to reading these things. It seems as though the spirit of war has taken control of us.”

“Everyone then was horrified, but today it is the same! Yet rather than one great war, we have small wars everywhere. … This great war is happening everywhere on a smaller scale, a bit under the radar, and we are not shocked! So many die for a piece of land, for some ambition, out of hatred, or racial animus.”

“Who among us has cried when they read the newspaper, when they see these images on the television? So many dead.”

“(T)his spirit of war, which distances us from God, is not just something distant from ourselves but is also in our homes. The wars in families, the wars in communities, the wars everywhere.”

* * * * * * * * *

Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves. You lust for what you don’t have and are willing to kill to get it. You want what isn’t yours and will risk violence to get your hands on it.
You wouldn’t think of just asking God for it, would you? And why not? Because you know you’d be asking for what you have no right to. You’re spoiled children, each wanting your own way.
- James 4:1-3 (the Message) 

Click here for more posts on war and peace.