Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Three Blind Men

Model prisoner John Benny Williams, second from left, is 83, and has been denied parole over 20 times.
Yahweh brings about justice for the oppressed
    and offers food for the hungry.
Yahweh frees prisoners
     and opens the eyes of the blind.
- from Psalm 146

Buckingham Correctional Center near Dillwyn, Virginia, is housing at least three legally blind inmates with long records of good behavior. Yet they and scores of other deserving persons are being regularly passed over for parole or geriatric release. 

One of them, John Bennie Williams, pictured above, has been incarcerated for over thirty-three years. He has been denied parole over 20 times. A second blind inmate, Minor Junior Smith has been incarcerated over forty-four years. A third one, a Mr. Jeter, has only recently been declared totally blind, but I have no information about his age or condition. However, he is reported to have been a hardworking and dedicated kitchen worker at Buckingham for many years. 

In addition, there are many other sighted persons who are deserving of parole and/or geriatric release at BKCC and other Virginia prisons. Robert Davis Fitchett, Jr, for example, is a model prisoner who was incarcerated at sixteen years of age for a crime he committed nearly forty years ago. Charles Zellers, Sr., another model inmate, has been incarcerated over twenty-three years and has been employed in a responsible supervisory role by the Buckingham Division of Virginia Correctional Enterprises (which generates profit for the DOC) since November, 2006. John Clinton Wright, a highly trusted prisoner who has worked for wardens at the Powhatan Correctional Center for over over thirty years, will turn 89 in November. 

These are only a few of many remarkably rehabilitated men, as their wardens and their supervisors can attest.

Why are we keeping aged and reformed prisoners incarcerated who are demonstrating consistently responsible behavior? Shouldn't we expect a Department of Corrections costing us in excess of a billion dollars a year to actually correct some of the people in their charge?

Here's a link to more posts on parole reform and how to contact the Governor's office, the Parole Board and the Secretary of Public Safety:

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Cat Pulls Off A Mysterious Disappearing Act

A similar cat story, sort of
Garfield, a young yellow feline adopted from a nearby shelter, quickly became a beloved member of our daughter's family in Rochester last week. The grand-twins, just days short of their fifth birthday, loved him, and even the 11-year old grandson became very fond of this new addition to the family.

Then Saturday morning he was nowhere to be found. Everyone searched high and low, in every possible hiding place in and around the house. The granddaughter, one of the twins, blamed herself, was sure it had escaped through the patio door she had temporarily left open. The most heartbroken of all, she cried unconsolably at times throughout the day.

Grandparents and friends were called, next door neighbors were contacted, even local animal shelters were alerted to be on the lookout for this playful young cat. Fervent prayers were offered, too, not just for Garfield's return, but that he would be kept safe and well cared for.

By nightfall everyone had pretty much given up, but after the twins went to sleep last night, our daughter Joanna made one last round around the house with a flashlight in an approaching storm, hoping to find the lost and latest member of their household. All to no avail.

Then at ten p.m. we got an excited phone call from Joanna, reporting that the cat had just reappeared out of nowhere in the oldest son's room, just as if nothing had happened.

We were elated, knowing how much this would mean to the grandchildren. And this morning Joanna made a videotape of the celebration of the lost being found, reminiscent of a story Jesus once told of a shepherd rejoicing over finding a lone straying sheep.

A miracle? We think so.

If only someone could figure out where Garfield was hiding, and what he was doing all that time.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

"Talk With Them All"

Lee Eshleman (left) of Ted and Lee fame
In light of the growing polarization I sense everywhere I’ve been reminded of some words spoken by the late Lee Eshleman over a decade ago. They are a part of an interview (with fellow humorist Ted Swartz) done by WVPT’s Jenni Howard for a documentary on area Mennonites:

Lee: “Take whatever stereotype you have about Mennonites, and assume it may be true for a fraction of us, and not true for another fraction of us. Then talk to us one on one. And do that with everybody, everyone in the whole world.”

Ted (incredulously): “You mean everyone?”

Lee: “Yes, everyone. Talk with them all.”

Of course we know that’s impossible, but the wisdom in Lee’s wit is that any generalization we make about any group--Mennonite, Catholic, Mormon, Muslim, Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative, you name it--needs to be tempered and tentative until we have “talked with them all.”

So what if we took more time for personal conversations with our recent immigrant neighbors, for example, inviting them into our homes and learning to know them as real people? Or what if we invested time in meeting with any number of others in our community holding a wide range of views--varying from militant to peace-loving and everything in between? Or if we really took time to listen deeply to members of other races, religions, nationalities or sexual orientations with whom we have few personal connections?

I’m not suggesting we should agree with everyone who differs from us, or compromise our own convictions to accommodate theirs. But we can at least learn to respect others and to show appreciation for the complexity and diversity within each person--and within each group of people as a part of God's beloved creation.

So here's my new goal. Before making any hasty judgments about any group of folks, I want to talk with them all.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

You Can Join The Valley Justice Coalition

DNR photo
"The Valley Justice Coalition is made up of residents of Rockingham County, the City of Harrisonburg and adjacent areas who are concerned about justice reforms in our community and in the commonwealth."

Vision:  A community engaged in reducing incarceration and recidivism.

Mission: To use a combination of public education, policy advocacy, coalition building, and grass roots organizing and mobilization to promote such reforms.

General Goals:
A. To actively promote changes in policies and practices that currently contribute to over-incarceration.

B. To encourage the implementation of justice reinvestment, restorative justice and other alternative programs.

C. To promote humane treatment and a more family friendly environment for those currently affected by incarceration.

D. To promote best practices that reduce recidivism.

E. To support community programs that help reintegrate those affected by incarceration.

Action Steps:

1. The Valley Justice Coalition endorses the general recommendations stated in the Criminal Justice Facts Statement and suggested by the Sentencing Project:

a) Eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and cutting back on excessively lengthy sentences.

b) Shifting resources to community-based prevention and treatment for substance abuse.

c) Investing in interventions that promote strong youth development and respond to delinquency in age-appropriate and evidence-based ways.

d) Examining and addressing the policies and practices that contribute to racial inequity at every level of the justice system.

e) Removing barriers that make it harder for individuals with criminal records to make a successful reentry.

f) To advocate for national accreditation for all local jails and for Virginia prisons.

2. VJC will also advocate for the implementation of rational policies and evidence-based practices, while supporting numerous nationally recognized correctional options such as:

a) Strengthening re-entry services

b) Expanding mental health treatment

c) Expanding substance abuse treatment

d) Investigating ways to reduce intake numbers

e) Generating reliable planning data

f) Investigating pre-trial confinement policies and practices

g) Increasing pre-trial and probation staff

h) Implementing community based sanctions and programs

i) Expanding the day-reporting program

j) Increasing system coordination, goal setting, and oversight

k) Improving assessment and diagnostic processes for offenders

l) Identifying alternatives to incarceration for non-compliant probationers

m) Expanding the application of Community Service for non-violent offenders

n) Encouraging increased involvement of the Judiciary in developing criminal justice solutions.

This group has an open meeting every Monday noon at the Dean House, which is across Water Street from Community Mennonite Church (on Tuesday this week because of Memorial Day). To be on a general mailing list and to show your support of the above, click on Contact on the VJC website, write "subscribe" in the subject line, and provide your name and email address. You can unsubscribe at any time.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Four Ways To Use Money To Gain Happiness

Here's the lesson: Use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends. Then, when your earthly possessions are gone, they will welcome you to an eternal home. 
- Jesus (Luke 16:9, New Living Bible)

Researchers are finding that money can actually make us happier and add joy to our lives. But it doesn’t matter so much how much of it you have, but how you use it. 

Here are four ways you can manage money to add to your sense of wellbeing:

1. Resist spending money on newer or nicer material possessions. Cornell University psychology professor Thomas Gilovich suggests that buying more things doesn’t really add to our enjoyment of life because we quickly adapt to them, the luster wears off, and the new additions to our wardrobe or to our three-car garage simply become a part of a new norm we soon take for granted. (Sadly, this mindset also negatively affects our offspring, who grow up expecting an unsustainable standard of living they consider their right).  

“Human beings are remarkably good at getting used to changes in their lives, especially positive changes,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside. “If you have a rise in income, it gives you a boost, but then your aspirations rise too. Maybe you buy a bigger home in a new neighborhood, and so your neighbors are richer, and you start wanting even more. You’ve stepped on the hedonic treadmill. Trying to prevent that or slow it down is really a challenge.”

2. If you do spend money on yourself, get far more bang for your buck by investing in new experiences rather than in new possessions. Ryan Howell, associate professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, found that people think material purchases offer better value for the money because they are tangible and last longer. But he points out that a lot of the satisfaction people gain from new experiences is in anticipating them ahead of time, and also found that when people recall and relive them, they also find that such experiences are a gift that truly keeps on giving. Think traveling or serving abroad, or visiting a long time friend or relative, or hiking the Appalachian Trail.

3. Invest in generous giving of the kind that adds to others’ happiness. Multiple studies show that we gain the greatest satisfaction of all by spending our wealth to better the lives of people in need. Elizabeth Dunn, associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and co-author of the book “Happy Money,” says that while earning more may tend to enhance our well-being, we become happier by giving it away than by spending it on ourselves. 

In one experiment she handed out cash to college students on campus and told some to spend it on themselves and others to spend it on someone else. Those who spent money on others reported being far happier than those who spent it on themselves. 

She also analyzed data from 100 countries and found that people who donated money to charity were happier whether they lived in poor or rich countries. As people see their money making a difference in other’s lives, it gives them great joy even if the amount they have to offer is small.

4. Put your savings to work by doing “impact investing” through organizations like the Calvert Fund and similar organizations.  This way your retirement money can be supporting causes that are truly in line with your values, like providing money for small farmers and entrepreneurs around the globe, or in funding start-up solar or other projects you feel deeply about, for example. Imagine being able to help alleviate poverty, improve the lives of people and help make the earth a better planet while still having some money available for retirement if you need it. 

The interest isn’t great, but the principal is remarkably safe, and the investment honors principles you feel deeply about.

And living by time-honored and Jesus-inspired principles should make us all very happy indeed.

Here's a link to some of my sources for this piece:

See also:

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Author Trump: "I Call It Truthful Hyperbole"

NBC news photo
"Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace."
- Zechariah 8:16 (ERV)

In his best-selling 1987 memoir, "The Art of the Deal", Donald Trump describes some of his communication style thus:

"People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That's why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It's an innocent form of exaggeration--and a very effective form of promotion".

Now we know. Not that other politicians aren't guilty of the same, but Mr. Trump takes this kind of playing fast and loose with truth to a new level.

The Pulitzer Prize news service PolitiFact has been documenting Trump’s rhetoric on its Truth-O-Meter, and they have rated 76 percent of his "facts" as Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire, out of 77 statements checked. 

Here are are a few of his more well-publicized claims they consider not only as representing hyperbole but as being Pants on Fire inaccurate:

• "I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering."

• "The Mexican government ... they send the bad ones over."

• "Whites killed by whites — 16%. Whites killed by blacks — 81%." 

• "If you're from Syria and you're a Christian, you cannot come into this country, and they're the ones that are being decimated. If you are Islamic ... it's hard to believe, you can come in so easily. In fact, it's one of our main groups of people that are coming in."

• "Look, we’re the most highly taxed nation in the world." 

For more details, check this link:

Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Church Right Next Door To Dachau

Dachau Concentration Camp
I recently heard Jason Gerlach, associate pastor of Community Mennonite Church, tell a group of us about the wake-up call he had that led him to become a volunteer jail chaplain.

He was in his church office overlooking the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail while reading an essay by Duncan Forrester, "The Church and the Concentration Camp: Some Reflections on Moral Community". *

In that piece, Forrester noted that less than 100 yards from the perimeter fence around Dachau concentration camp, the first of its kind established by the Nazis in 1933, was a small eighteenth-century Christian church. Forrester immediately wondered what might have been going on inside that church as Dachau gradually became an ever more horrific death camp, eventually housing up to 5000 Jews, German priests, gypsies, gays, Jehovah's Witnesses and others seen as undesirable or who refused to support Hitler's regime.

Forrester writes:

     Some things are almost certain. The Bible would have been read, Sunday by Sunday, or day by day. There would, at least from time to time, have been preaching, expounding and application of the message of Scripture. Bread would have been broken in the Lord's Supper, the Eucharist, the Mass, with the people receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord. From time to time children and even adults would have been received into the household of faith in baptism. God's praise would have been sung and prayers offered for the Church and the world. All the ordinary central activities of a congregation of God's people within a hundred yards of of Dachau concentration camp. And through the wire all the comings and goings of congregation and of concentration camp visible to one another, paraded before one another.

What was most impactful in this essay for Jason was that there was no record to be found anywhere of that church, or of any other in the area, ever raising its voice in protest. How could most Christians in Germany, one of the most Christianized nations in Europe, either silently or overtly support Hitler's scheme to gain absolute power and to rid the Reich of non-Ayrans?

I'm in no way suggesting that our jails and prisons are just like German death camps. To say that would be to seriously minimize the horror of the Holocaust.

Yet we do need to recognize elements that are similar. In spite of the lip service given to making incarceration a time of rehabilitation, most of our inmates experience it primarily as a time of humiliation and punishment. In her book, "Burning Down The House, author Nell Bernstein writes, "Prison dehumanizes, not as a side effect, but as a central function. ...every aspect of institutional life conspires to diminish a young person's sense of herself/himself as someone who matters."

The ongoing negative effects of incarceration on individuals, families and communities are both costly and devastating, as recently pointed out in a report issued by the Brennan Center. It finds that longer prison sentences have little deterrent impact, and that in fact each additional sanction year causes an average increase in future recidivism of 4 to 7 percentage points. In addition, they point out:

• Having a criminal record makes it more difficult to find employment. Recent job application experiments find that applicants with criminal records were 50 percent less likely to receive an interview request or job offer, relative to identical applicants with no criminal record, and these disparities were larger for Black applicants. The formerly incarcerated earn 10 to 40 percent less than similar workers without a history of incarceration.

• The probability that a family is in poverty increases by nearly 40 percent while a father is incarcerated.

• Because incarceration secludes individuals from their families and communities, it decreases the likelihood of marriage and increases the likelihood of divorce.

Whenever and in whatever way fellow human beings are demeaned, deprived of their dignity and liberty and cut off from the opportunity to live productive and responsible lives, the church must raise its voice and extend its hand to help restore justice and shalom.


* published in "Faithfulness and Fortitude--In Conversation With The Theological Ethics of Stanley Hauerwas", edited by Mark Thiessen Nation and Samuel Wells.

For more posts on jail reform see

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Guest Post: Why Are We Still Jailing Juveniles?

Liz Buchanan
Please read this thoughtful op ed piece by Liz Buchanan, a member of the Valley Justice Coalition and a consultant on juvenile justice issues. It appeared in the Friday, May 13, 2016, issue of the Daily News-Record:

On April 20, the Virginia General Assembly and Gov. Terry McAuliffe agreed to spend about $40 million on a new juvenile prison in Chesapeake. This money was allocated despite research that overwhelmingly shows that jailing juveniles is not an effective solution for the youngster or his community. The secretary of public safety is convening a task force to look at the needs of juveniles, and specifically the need for future juvenile prisons. Taxpayers have an excellent opportunity to demand solutions that save money and decrease recidivism.
The argument against incarceration is clear. In her book, “Burning Down the House,” Nell Bernstein says “prison dehumanizes, not as a side effect but as a central function. A child who is forcibly removed from home and security and placed inside a cage receives a powerful message about herself and her place in the world. ... every aspect of institutional life conspires to diminish a young person’s sense of herself as someone who matters. ... Because adolescents are at a stage of life where building a sense of self in relation to others is central to their development, this assault on identity strikes them with particular force.”
The Blueprints for Violence Prevention Project out of the University of Colorado reviewed more than 900 programs and identified 10 model programs that were studied a minimum of two times and proven to decrease juvenile offending. The Washington State Institute for Public Policy in 2011 evaluated the cost effectiveness of evidenced-based practices (i.e., model programs) compared with locking up our youth. Five years ago, the net taxpayer savings of using Multisystemic Therapy, one of Blueprints model programs, was just under $30,000. There was a benefit of $4.07 for every $1 invested in MST. In Functional Family Therapy, another of Blueprints’ model programs, the benefit is just under $25,000 with, a cost-benefit ratio of $7.34 savings per $1.00 invested.
MST has demonstrated a 75 percent decrease in violent felonies in a 22-year followup study.
With decades of research behind them, both programs, widely implemented in other states, have been proven to save money. Yet in Virginia we have only two teams (serving a maximum of 40 families at a time). Why are we allocating $40 million to build a new facility for juveniles? Why are we choosing ineffective and costly interventions with no family and community-based services?
The research is conclusive that the strongest influences on a young person’s behavior are peers. Yet instead of treating them in their environment so positive behavior changes can be supported by those who love them, teach them and coach them, we lock them up, exposing them to other juveniles who will teach them new and more extensive criminal behavior.
In 2006, after Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana — also known as the Incarceration State — committed funds to only evidenced-based programs that divert youth from jail. Their research showed that one bed in a detention center cost $55,210 per year, which equates to 55 kids served in Big Brothers Big Sisters, 16 kids and families in FFT or 12 kids and families in MST. By decreasing detention beds, Louisiana increased their evidenced-based programming for juvenile offenders to 55 teams serving more than 3,000 youth and their families annually. This coincided with a 73 percent drop in the percent of youth in secure detention.
Take this opportunity to advocate effectively spending  tax dollars and demand a continuum of care, including evidence-based programming. Contact Gov. McAuliffe at his website.
Liz Buchanan

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Pentecost--Heaven Roaring Down To Earth

Jason Micheli<>
"That day about three thousand took him at his word, were baptized and were signed up. They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers. Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met. They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God."
- Acts 2:41-47 (the Message)
I usually read these words with a great deal of reservation. They seem far too idealistic, way beyond anything any of us believers would ever be able to experience today. 
What? Sell everything and share with everyone? Daily prayers, praises and celebrative meals with fellow believers? That would require an unbelievable miracle, far beyond the most amazing of "signs and wonders".
It would be like heaven.
Then it dawned on me. Pentecost Day is exactly that, God's heaven breaking into earth, a true foretaste of things to come.
Will not our eternal life with God be all about praise, all about sharing an abundance of everything with everyone? Isn't it all about harmony and shalom and a life of joy beyond compare?
For me, that sheds a new light on Pentecost. On this day nearly 2000 years ago, newly baptized believers from all over the world experienced a gale force wind of change that revolutionized their lives forever, one that was about to set the whole world on fire.
Should this not be happening today? Do we really want to wait until the next life to celebrate this?

Friday, May 13, 2016

For Friday the 13th: 'J’ai vide mon coeur'

Some years ago our oldest son Brad, a Pittsburgh based singer/songwriter, spent a summer in Vermont working with teens in an intensive French language camp program. While there he wrote the following lyrics in French for use with the group:

j’ai vidé mon cœur   pour avoir plus d’espace,
j’ai jeté mon malheur,   il prenait trop de place,
j’ai vidé mon cœur,   j’aurais dû l’faire avant,
pour apprendre un peu   à vivre comme un enfant

nous devenons courageux
chaque fois qu’on peut faire de son mieux,
chaque fois qu’on n’a pas peur..
j’ai vidé ma tête   de ces vieilles idées,
elles me rendaient trop bête,   j’ai dû les oublier,
j’ai vidé mon âme   des histoires du passé,
les blessures et les drames   ne m’ont jamais aidé,

nous devenons courageux
chaque fois qu’on peut faire de son mieux,
chaque fois qu’on n’a pas peur..
nous ne sommes que des rêveurs,
alors choisissons un rêve qui dure,
il faut pas avoir peur,
tu dois pas avoir peur,
j’ai vidé mon cœur   pour avoir plus d’espace,
j’ai jeté mon malheur,   il prenait trop de place…
  Here's my English paraphrase of the piece, based on his translation:

    I emptied my heart to gain some more space,
    discarded my unhappiness, replaced it with grace,
    I emptied my heart, should have done it before,
    to become like a newborn child once more.

        we become fearless and bold
        when we live out our best,
        when we live by our courage in spite of our stress.

    I emptied my head of old useless thoughts,
    irrational 'shoulds,' too many 'oughts.'
    I emptied my soul of tired tales from the past,
    my old wounds and dramas now banished at last.

        we become fearless and bold
        when we live out our best,
        can face our hard stresses, can learn how to rest
        and dream a new dream
        of calm fearlessness.

    I emptied my heart to gain some more space,
    discarded my unhappiness, replaced it with grace.

I find this piece compelling (undoubtedly it would be even more so in French). Life is too short to remain stuck with a lot of negative baggage that keeps us from experiencing the joy and blessings that are our birthright.

Even on Friday the 13th.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

HARD TIME VIRGINIA, Volume 1, Number 3

Virginia Law § 53.1-32.1(B) states that “each inmate incarcerated in Virginia shall be provided 40 hours of programs or work each week, or a combination of the two”, but apparently the General Assembly is not providing the VDOC the necessary funding. At Buckingham Correctional Center, for example, inmates were recently required to sign a paper accepting their hours being reduced to 15-20 a week, which creates a significant hardship for many of them.
    When the General Assembly passed the above legislation, inmates were supplied with up to ten first class stamps, one free weekly letter, one free bar of soap weekly, and were charged no medical, dental or optical co-pays. Meanwhile, Keefe Commissary regularly raises its prices for soap (no longer provided), snacks, stationary and other items, and the DOC has cut its food budget by about 1%, resulting in their spending over $1 million less for meals in the past budget year.

Numerous inmates have found that official state documents are missing from their files, resulting in incorrect information about offenders' program completion certificates, etc.
     In 2009 each institution was held responsible for entering or scanning hardcopy data into the new "VACORIS" (Virginia Corrections Information System) Database System, after which the original hardcopy documents were to be shredded. If inadequate or incorrect information was entered, the offender now has no way of knowing or proving otherwise.
     What is not known is whether or not the Virginia Parole Board destroyed all of their prisoner letters of support and information that could help them be granted parole. 
     This is a serious problem. Especially for the offender's that do not have proof that they ever completed their education, program or vocational courses. Can VDOC replace these from their archives? They should.

Here’s an excerpt from begins with a statement by Kevin Reitz:
     “The original model of the parole board is that this would be a group of experts who really knew something about human behavior and changing human behavior.”
     Reitz is a professor of law at the University of Minnesota and a national expert on parole.  He thinks board members – who make up to $125,000 a year -- should have very specific credentials, and once appointed, should be empowered to do their jobs without fear.  Instead, they can be fired by the governor for any reason.
     “There is a feeling that if I let this person out today and, God forbid, he or she goes on to do something terrible, then that’s on me.  On the other hand, if I make the cautious decision and keep the person in, then there’s no risk to me.  They have a reasonably nice job, but if they make a mistake and let the wrong person out, that job could be gone tomorrow.”
     The board uses a system for scoring people who are up for parole, and Reitz says one such tool has proven very effective here in Virginia.
     “The sentencing commission has a risk assessment instrument that it gives to judges, and it has distilled the important risk factors for non-violent crimes down to a list of about seven or eight.  It’s a one-page form, and primarily it’s some information about the current offense, a lot of information about prior criminal history, age and gender.  It’s not a long list of factors that can at least sort people into rough categories.”
     Those in the low risk category are diverted from prison to treatment programs or community service, and over a ten year period Reitz says not one has gotten into serious trouble again.  
- by Virginia Public Radio  reporter Sandy Hausman

“We just had a seminar last week with the two heads of the parole board as guest speakers, Ms. Karen Brown and Mr. Howell. I did have an opportunity to chat a little with them both. Ms. Brown says to me that she recognized my name from somewhere. I told her that you had written to her and mentioned my name... Guys were walking up to her and giving her their names and she recognized their names. They really surprised us all with how nice and empathetic they were. She really like the concept of offenders having positions as elders who help prepare returning citizens to reenter society. She thinks that re-entry programs are the best thing going now.”   -an inmate at St. Brides
     According to the Virginia Parole Board website, however, only 14 men and 2 women were granted parole in March, and an overwhelming majority were still turned down due to factors like “the serious nature of their offenses”, something no inmate can do anything about. And only two were released under the Geriatric Release provision among the many who are eligible.

Institution/ Adult Daily Population/ Average Cost per Inmate  

Powhatan Correctional Center.................................279.....$96,972
Virginia Correctional Center for Women................575.....$35,005
Bland Correctional Center........................................642.....$35,175
Powhatan Reception & Classification Center.....      471.....$21,799
Sussex I State Prison.............................................1,128.....$30,810
Sussex II State Prison............................................1,259.....$25,461
Wallen Ridge State Prison.....................................1,052.....$29,280
St. Brides Correctional Center...............................1,190.....$19,660
**Red Onion State Prison..................................... ...811.....$37,970
Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women........    .1,246.....$27,418
Nottoway Correctional Center............................... 1,255.....$23,941
**Marion Correctional Center..................................258.....$64,759
Buckingham Correctional Center......................... 1,121.....$25,358
**Deep Meadow Correctional Center...................... 649.....$45,468
Deerfield Correctional Center.................................1,069.....$37,811
Augusta Correctional Center..................................1,249.....$22,280
Keen Mountain Correctional Center..........................826.....$26,514
Greensville Correctional Center.............................2,976.....$27,840
Dillwyn Correctional Center......................................879.....$26,852
Indian Creek Correctional Center..............................992.....$22,111
Haynesville Correctional Center............................... 910.....$25,490
Coffeewood Correctional Center...............................958.....$25,436
Lunenburg Correctional Center..................................922.....$25,681
Pocahontas State Correctional Center............    . ..1,028.....$20,646
Green Rock Correctional Center............................1,019.....$21,807
River North Correctional Center...............................939.....$23,550

Total Institution average………………   ………25,701.....$28,246

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Some Surprising Mother's Day History

I've compiled the following from various sources. In the process I learned that Ms. Jarvis earned a two year degree at nearby Mary Baldwin College.
Anna Marie Jarvis

Anna Marie Jarvis was born May 1, 1864, in Webster, West Virginia, and grew up in the nearby town of Grafton. She was never a mother herself, but organized the first Mother's Day observance in 1905, soon after her mother's death.

Her beloved Ann Reeves Jarvis, the primary inspiration for Anna's crusade, had herself organized "Mother's Day" work groups many years earlier in West Virginia to help care for wounded soldiers (of both sides) during the Civil War, and for causes such as lowering infant mortality in the state.
When Anna's mother organized "Mother's Friendship Day" picnics and other events to help reconcile former Civil War adversaries, Julia Ward Howe, composer of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" supported the effort by issuing a "Mother's Day Proclamation" in 1870, as a way of enlisting women to take an active role in promoting peace.
Anna Marie, who was most responsible for what we now observe as Mother's Day, got an unexpected boost from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who in 1914 officially set aside the second Sunday in for the holiday. 
Anna Jarvis's dream was that this would be a day for everyone to not only show appreciation for their mother but to join others in making the nation and the world a more just and peaceful place. When it quickly became a commercialized and sentimentalized holiday celebrated by the buying and giving of flowers, candies, and greeting cards, she became so disturbed that she began to dedicate herself and her sizable inheritance to reverse the trend.
To that end Jarvis organized boycotts, threatened lawsuits, and on 1923 protested at a convention of confectioners in Philadelphia who were profiting from the holiday. In 1925 she was arrested for demonstrating at a convention of American War Mothers, simply because they sold carnations on Mother's Day to raise money for their cause.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Guest Post: Great Op Ed Piece In Today's DNR

Mt. Jackson resident and criminal justice activist Laura Crites had the following Open Forum piece published in today's paper. I post it here for those who aren't subscribers:

Virginia Legislators Have An Ice Age Mentality

I’m convinced that our Virginia legislators are stuck right in the middle of the Ice Age in their view of the world. Here’s why.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe recently used an executive order to return voting rights to ex-offenders who have served their sentences and returned to society. Virginia legislators cried “foul!” One insisted “they don’t deserve to vote.” If there is a morality test for voting, who among us would pass?

While these frozen-in-time representatives push back against criminal justice reform in Virginia, the U.S. Congress, in a bipartisan effort working with the Obama administration, is crafting a Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.

The Georgia legislature is in the midst of criminal justice reform that would, among other things, create charter schools in prisons and shield the record of first offenders.

The Louisiana House of Representatives voted to make it easier for ex-offenders to apply for state jobs.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 38 states and the District of Columbia automatically return the right to vote to most ex-felons after they have completed their sentence. In Maine and Vermont, felons cast their vote while still in prison.

Republicans and Democrats have declared prison reform a priority, and Hillary Clinton has committed to addressing the problem of a grossly unjust justice system, focusing especially on its treatment of women. The U.S. incarcerates nearly one-third of all women prisoners worldwide. Their incarceration results in children being rotated from one foster home to another, the break-up of families and long-term trauma for hundreds of thousands of children.

A local example: Recently, a woman incarcerated for a minor offense at  Middle River Regional Jail explained at intake she needed prescribed medications. She was locked in an isolation unit without the medications. After three days of calling out and groaning in pain, without receiving any medical attention, she was found dead. She left behind three little boys who called her “mother.” For more information on the condition of inmates in Virginia, go to

So where is Virginia on prison reform? Virginia spends close to $1 billion each year on prisons — $3 billion when we combine prisons, jails and the judiciary. We have the eighth highest rate of incarceration in the United States and rank 11th in money spent on corrections. A recent proposal to reinstate parole, which would allow for releasing prison inmates for good behavior, was rejected. The law would have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars, annually, and allowed these men and women to return to society as productive, taxpaying citizens. (Virginia spends an average of $25,000 annually per inmate.) In addressing the tragedy of substance abuse, we emphasize imprisonment over treatment. In short, Virginia ranks near the bottom in a nationwide bipartisan effort to reform a criminal justice system, which is the world’s worst. The U.S. incarcerates more people per capita than anywhere else.

Are our legislators on their own version of “ice”? Why so intransigent? Their decisions are costing Virginia tax payers tens of millions of dollars. They prioritize warehousing people who have gotten on the wrong side of the law over allocating needed funds for children’s education. They ignore the destruction of lives that occurs during and after incarceration, including the ongoing costs to society.

The legislators charged Gov. McAuliffe with playing politics by re-enfranchising people who would likely vote Democratic. The childhood taunt, “it takes one to know one” comes to mind. As members of the white, middle and upper classes, they have chosen to lock up and disempower minorities. Now their children and grandchildren, who struggle with the scourge of substance abuse, are experiencing the appalling conditions of our state jails and prisons.

It is time for us to join forces as members of a moral and humane society and insist that our Virginia legislators join the rest of the country in promoting criminal justice reform.

Here's a link to some other blogs on jail prison reform

Friday, May 6, 2016

Getting Ready For Our Final Exam

In my twenty years of teaching at Eastern Mennonite High School I was often asked something like, "Will this be on the test?"

This annoyed me a little at first, but I came to see it as a very wise question to ask. Obviously not everything presented in a class has the same value, so it's important to know what should be underlined, highlighted and given special attention.

For us believers, the same is true with the Bible. What are the truly basic things we all need to understand and put into practice?

In other words, what will be on our own "Final Exam", one based not just on what we know, or even what we believe, but on how we actually live out our faith?

So for what it's worth, here are just a few sample items for an open book review for our preparation:

True or False?

1. Blessed are those who are rich now, for they will enjoy a life of well earned comfort and ease.
2. Blessed are those who are well fed now, for they will remain satisfied.
3. Blessed are those who laugh now, for they will remain untouched by the world's grief.
4. Blessed are those who are well spoken of by everyone around them now, for they will enjoy much prestige and popularity.  Luke 6:20-26, Matthew 5:3-12

Fill in the blank:

1. "What does the Lord require of you, but to do _________, love _________, and walk __________ with your God?" Micah 6:8

2. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your ________, with all your ______, with all your ______. and with all your _________. And you must love your ___________ just as you love yourself." Luke 10:28

3. "I (Jesus) was hungry and you ________________,
I was thirsty and you __________________,
I was a stranger and you __________________,
I was without warmth and shelter and you ______________,
and I was sick and in prison and you ___________________."
Matthew 25:15-16

4. "Love is patient, love is  ______. It does not envy, it does not  _________. It is not _____, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily __________, it keeps no record of wrongs." I Corinthians 13:4-5

5. "Finally, whatever is true, whatever is  _______, whatever is _________, whatever is _________, whatever is _________, whatever is _________--if there is anything excellent or praiseworthy--focus on those things." Philippians 4:8

What are some items you would add?

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Turning Up The Heat On A Warming Planet

artist's conception of Kepler 186f
Two years ago NASA announced the discovery of Kepler 186f, an earth-size planet at about the right distance from its sun to sustain life similar to that found on planet earth.

With all of the pollution, deforestation, overpopulation and other forms of devastation taking place on our own jewel of a planet, we may soon need a new one to emigrate to. The only problem is that this one is about 500 light years away, so there will be no flights available in the near future.

Since good planets are so hard to find, maybe we'd better begin to begin to take better care of the one have. In the past century we've released an extraordinary amount of carbon into the atmosphere through deforestation of thousands of acres of carbon-rich rain forests each year and the use of an accelerated amount of carbon-laden fossil fuels to meet our acquired "need" for ever more energy and to fuel a growing number of vehicles (in the U. S. we now have more licensed vehicles than we do licensed drivers).

This worldwide increase of carbon output, led by China and the U.S., is having the effect of wrapping an extra blanket of heat trapping insulation around a planet that's calibrated to maintain just the right amount of warmth to sustain life as we know it. This makes it imperative that we question the assumption that we have a right to unlimited uses of energy-guzzling cars, homes and lifestyles that are simply not sustainable, according to a U.N. report on this potential crisis.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Could This Growing Threat Divide The Church?

Greed: Wanting to acquire more than we need
This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but did not help the poor and needy.
- Ezekiel 16:49 (NASB)  

While the Mennonite church is in the midst of multiple conflicts and deep divisions over what to do with gay and lesbian members who want to be in committed relationships, there's another even more sobering issue we need to address.

I refer to the question of how we respond to greed-oriented persons who seek to become members of our fellowship.

I'm aware of a growing number of Mennonites who have quietly come out as multi-millionaires, and have begun to live accordingly. They may represent fewer than 3-5% of us, but that's still a lot of people. In addition, an untold number of us members, while not yet living an openly multi-millionaire lifestyle, nevertheless have a strongly greed-based and consumer-driven orientation. All of us face the danger of becoming far too attached to money and the abundance of things money can buy.

Not everyone who stewards large sums of money or manages large amounts of wealth is necessarily greed-driven.  I know business men and women who operate with integrity, provide decent jobs at fair wages and don’t assume that managing more capital wealth entitles them to a greater share of consumer wealth. In other words, they continue to live simply and frugally and share sacrificially with those in need.

But Jesus repeatedly warns us of the danger of greed and of pursuing wealth for selfish ends rather than solely for the good of others. And what should make this a grave concern is that if one takes scripture seriously it is clear that no greedy person can be considered a part of the kingdom of Jesus. Note:

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.
- I Corinthians 6:9-10 (NRSV, emphasis mine)
So what do you think? Should the church begin to do some major house cleaning based on an increased love of Mammon, an issue Jesus gives so much attention to?

Note: The Merriam-Webster definition of greed is "a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (as money) than is needed."