Numbing Up


 

 

“I just want to feel numb,” he said.

The young man sitting across the table sipped his drink and munched on some chips, looking down.

The obscenity he had carved into his arm a few months ago had almost faded away. The pain I saw in his eyes hadn’t.

He pulled hard on the skin on the top of his left hand, and then he poked at it hard with his finger.

“See,” he said, “it doesn’t hurt. I can barely feel it.”

He bent his fingers back, the large knuckles cracking and popping. I winced, sympathetically feeling that pain in my own hand.

There was a story that came with it, about being angry and high; ramming his fist into a bridge pillar on a dark, hopeless night. The pain felt good, felt real, a release from his misery.

The pain made things clear, an atonement of his many sins.

I reached over and lightly touched the top of his hand.

“I can’t feel that,” he said. “Nothing.”

“Have you told anyone about this?” I asked.

He shook his head.

“If I tell people things that are wrong with me, then I’m weak. I don’t want to be vulnerable,” he said.

“Then, they’ll pick on me, kick me when I’m down.”

“Not that I don’t deserve that,” he said.

I didn’t have a good response. He’s vulnerable enough already, I thought.

“What are your plans now, about getting out?” I asked.

He shook his head, then looked down.

“I don’t have a home to go to. So, maybe some kind of half way house.”

He’s got some work ahead of him here, this correctional facility where the staff work with youth, working on their treatment, their education, building them up so that they can be self-supporting, self reliant.

There’s a few years of high school left for him. He came here without any high school credits, but he’s doing the work, and moving ahead in his classes. He’s surprised himself, getting good grades, moving ahead, grasping concepts, and being able to hold his own in class.

When we talk about his vocation, his trade he wants to learn, he brightens up. When we do our math and our writing, if I can make the task relate to that work, he gets it, and he learns.

He’s not the dumb ass his dad thinks he is; he’s no longer getting high on the street, and being the wanna be gang banger.

Still, there’s that desire to just be numb, to not feel, and sometimes, the desire to just end it all, to just curl up in the corner and die.

A few weeks ago, he seemed so down, I asked him the question, the ‘are you thinking of killing yourself’ question. The carving on the arm was fresh then, and the hole he was living in was dark, and getting deeper.

We had a heart to heart talk then, and things got better. He used the word “trust”, and liked having someone around he could talk to, someone to trust. He liked that I kept showing up, even if sometimes he didn’t think it was worth my time.

I kept showing up, kept proving him wrong about wasting my time.

I even saw a smile, then another one.

The medication seems to help some, and the latest pill hasn’t fully kicked in yet. There’s his basketball playing, working up a sweat and playing a good game with some of the other guys here. He’s pretty good at it, and the other guys want him on their team.

And, the weightlifting. Another guy is training him, gradually increasing the weights, building him up, finding that spark of confidence and trying to fan it into a real flame.

I show up, and sometimes we work on his math, sometimes his writing. Usually, we end up talking about what life was like on the streets, him looking to get high, getting into fights, being angry at his mom for getting high, and dad – not showing up, not being in his life.

One day, I met with him and his teachers, talking about his grades and his work. The conversation shifted, and we talked about his depression, his suicidal thoughts, his fear of getting out and not making it. There was a lot of compassion in the room, a lot of caring, a lot of concern.

We weren’t giving up on him, and I could see him taking all that in, feeding his soul.

Today, he’s back talking about just wanting to be numb. It’s familiar talk, and probably all that he’s known most of his life, a familiar way of dealing with the world.

He and I, we are trying to change that, to look at some positives, to work on some tasks and succeed, to change the theme in his life.

I’m seeing progress, at least a willingness to keep working on the good stuff.

Perhaps that’s enough, at least for today.

I’ll be back, and I’ll keep cheering him on, believing in him, seeing him as something more than someone who just wants to be numb.

 

–Neal Lemery 3/1/17

 

My Ticket To Prison


 

 

It was my ticket to prison. Following the guard’s direction from the loudspeaker, I pushed the ticket machine button. “128” was printed on what looked like a raffle ticket for a drawing.

“Drive to the top of the parking lot, park and then wait with the others until your number is called,” the faceless stern voice commanded.

I soon found myself with the other visitors. We huddled together in the early morning icy wind. After the two-hour drive, it felt good to stand up, but the wind made me yearn for the shelter of the gatehouse down the hill. It was surrounded by coils of ribbon wire, overshadowed by the guard tower with the black, one way glass.

One lady kindly asked me if this was my first time here.

She told me the routine, what to expect, adding that it was a cold, heartless place to visit.

She and her mother had been coming to see her son for several years now, and it was always a hard thing to do.

“We’re his only connection to the world, to family,” she said.

“It’s the only thing we can do for him, coming here every week,” she said.

Her voice dropped and she looked away. I could see a tear in her eye.

“Numbers 120 to 130,” the voice crackled over the loudspeaker.

We moved hurriedly down the hill into the gatehouse. Paper money was changed into dollar coins for the vending machines, and people took off their jewelry, shoes and belts, and handed their driver’s licenses to the guards.

When my turn came, I identified who I was seeing and then set off the metal detector.

“Glasses, too.”

As directed, I moved, blindly, sideways through the metal detector, satisfying the stern faced guard glaring at me.

We all had the back of our right hand stamped, with invisible ink. When we left, a guard shined an ultraviolet light on our hands, making sure we weren’t inmates, that we hadn’t switched places and were organizing a great escape.

I reassembled myself and sat on a wooden bench with some of my cohorts, waiting for our turn to walk in small groups through another steel door and across the yard to the visitors’ building.

Once inside, I was directed to several rows of plastic chairs and low tables, more appropriate for a fourth grade classroom than a prison visiting room. There were a few vending machines on one wall, offering chips, sodas, and coffee.

The room was dimly lit with a few florescent bulbs and small barred windows near the ceiling. The dark cement floor sucked up what little light came through the windows.

A large modern painting of a tree leaned against a gray wall, near a large chair on a platform, where a guard sat, staring out over the assemblage of visitors.

There was nothing else in the room that resembled life on the outside, and I wondered if the painting hadn’t been hung yet, simply because it was so out of place here.

We were grandmothers and aunts, a few girlfriends, two guys who might be brothers of inmates, and a lawyer.   He looked out of place, in his three piece suit and large three ring binder. He paced and looked at his watch, anxious to get on with the rest of his day and finish up his business with his client.

The rest of us had our prison visit clothes on. The rules said no blue jeans, no blue shirts or jackets. Blue is the color of inmates here, and the prison wanted a clear distinction.

We waited, and waited some more.

A few inmates came in, embracing their loved ones and then sitting on the opposite side of the small tables.

We waited some more, and I saw the kindly mother and grandmother look at their watches and the big clock on the wall.

I caught their eye and shrugged. They nodded and shrugged back.

Finally, my young friend came out of the side door. He and all the other inmates were clad in blue jeans and blue shirts, with blue lanyards and their prison ID cards around their necks.

We hugged and took our seats.

I hadn’t seen my buddy for four months, since he got sent upstate to adult prison, after serving all the time he could at the youth prison where I go every week. He’s got seven more years to go, and had to move to adult prison when he turned twenty four.

What got him here was something that happened when he was thirteen, when life was crazy, chaotic, without guidance and direction. He was arrested at seventeen, and treated like an adult in court.

The system pounded on him, maxing him out, making sure he got the presumptive sentences reserved for the worst of people.

But he’s not. He was a kid himself when he came to prison, never been in school, never really parented and raised to be a healthy young man.

The youth prison was good for him. He finished school, and let his curiosity lead him to becoming an expert gardener, craftsman, and artist. He taught others, taking on leadership, gaining the skills and confidence of a healthy, productive young man. He’s everything you’d want a young man to be in this world.

We talked for the next hour and a half, two friends catching up on our lives, and the news from the youth prison.

His dad died last month, a heart attack ending a troubled life, leaving the relationship with the son in prison still unresolved, still unhealed. The anger and bitterness now mixed up with grief, with the emptiness of not being able to go to his father’s funeral, to take care of his widowed mother, and the rage and violent life of the younger brother.

We tested out the vending machines’ offerings of soda and coffee. Starbucks has no worries about the competition here.

My friend has a good job, managing the kitchen garden. He’s ramped up the composting, and is planning new crops for the summer.   His eyes twinkle as he tells me of his plans and the new watering system he’s designing.

He’s saving his money for a guitar. Prison rules wouldn’t let him bring his old guitar with him, but he’s scribbled out some new songs, and another guy has let him borrow his guitar once in a while.

I can’t send him a guitar. He has to buy it from the prison canteen.

“They worry that you’d send in drugs with the guitar, you know.”

We laughed. He’s too serious of a musician to think about smuggling in drugs or being a criminal.

“There’s ‘yard night’ in the summer,” he tells me. “I’ll have my new guitar by then.”

You can bring your guitar with you, and guys play and sing, and tell stories. They even barbeque and turn the prison yard into a house party, at least for two hours on a hot summer night.

I don’t ask him much about life here. I can tell he’s not wanting to share, not wanting to explain the emptiness, the boredom.

He grins when he talks about the botany book I sent him. College level stuff, and good for his mind. He reads it every night, soaking up the science, the methodology. He redraws the illustrations, creating new works of art in his cell.

Last year, he petitioned the Governor for clemency. About twenty people added letters of endorsement, from the youth prison’s school principal to most of the volunteers. The prison staff weren’t allowed to endorse the petition, but loaded up their letters with assessments and evaluations of what he’d accomplished.

We attached his portfolio of botany illustrations, and photos of his wood carvings and wood burnings, and the multi-layered wooden bowl that won a special blue ribbon at the county fair. We sent copies to legislators, and we wrote to the Governor.

Nothing has happened with that, and now he’s in this prison of 800 men, medium security for the next seven years. Or, until the Governor might decide that he needs to be out, needs to be working on his bachelor’s degree in botany at Oregon State University, and creating fine works of art for the world to enjoy.

We didn’t talk about all that. The silence from the Governor’s office lies like a stone in my heart. It’s too painful for him, too. Seven years more is a long, long time.

The guard in the chair boomed out, “Visiting is over. Inmates to the rear. Visitors to the front.”

We stood, and I picked up our empty coffee cups. Awkwardly, we moved to the end of the table, and hugged one last time.

“I’ll come again soon,” I said.

“Oh, you’re busy. I’m doing fine,” he said.

He doesn’t lie well, and looked down at his shoes.

“I’m not too busy for you, son,” I said.

“I’ll be back,” I said. “You’re an important guy to me, you know.”

For the second time that day, I saw a tear form in someone’s eye.

And when I got back to my pickup, there was more than just a tear.

 

—Neal Lemery 2/5/2017

Restringing Guitars and Young Men


 

 

Fridays are my day at the local youth correctional facility. In the morning, I work in their garden, helping young gardeners tend to their chickens, vegetable plots and herb gardens.

 

We plant, weed, water, and harvest, and then preserve and dry the results. Most every week, we cook, enjoying the bounty of our work, and treating the young men to fresh, nutritious produce and the concept of healthy nutrition and living.

 

The real gardening comes in our conversations, the camaraderie of young and older gardeners, working and learning together, truly being in community.

 

They are learning where food really comes from, and how to be invested in that process, being self sufficient and healthy. The metaphor of the garden is not lost on them, as they work to become strong, healthy, productive farmers of their lives.

 

I also work with some of the young men individually, being the “surrogate parent” and being the visitor they need and wouldn’t have otherwise. I’m the “family” who shows up with some baked goods or candy, and just visits for an hour. Sometimes, we play games, but mainly, I just listen, offering the compassionate ear of the uncle or dad who is missing in their lives.

 

I’m tender and kind to them, being the encouraging voice, the cheerleader, the supportive dad they wouldn’t otherwise have.

 

Today, one of my young men and I restrung one of the guitars there. It is a “state” guitar, which means it’s the guitar that gets played by those who don’t have their own instrument. The guitar is played a lot, and replacing the strings has become a regular task for me.

 

The guitar gets loved to death, played hard by lonely, frustrated fingers pouring out the emotions of the neglected and abandoned, the incarcerated, the young men who have no other way of expressing themselves. I’m like that guitar, a place where the emotions of these young men can have their voice, a willing ear, an appreciative audience for what they need to say.

 

My guy has had a rough year. He’s one of the lucky ones, not serving a mandatory sentence, a guy who can walk out the door if he’s done all his treatment, completed high school and shown he can be a responsible young man.

 

He literally has the keys to the front gate, but the old voices keep telling him he’s worthless, and should be abandoned and left out for the trash man.

 

Like so many of the young men here, being responsible and healthy is a new experience, and the fear of going back into the world, and being around the family and friends who were a big part of the bad times that brought him here, is one huge scary nightmare of parole.

 

The thought of being successful in life is a new idea. For most of their life, they’ve been told they are worthless, failures. My job is to be a spark of encouragement, the mirror of their successes and self worth, to be the dad who believes in them and is proud of who they are becoming.

 

My job and the job of the guitar are a lot alike.

 

My buddy has derailed himself a number of times here, despite all his good work. The old ways, the old voices still show up, beating him down with the whips of shame and guilt, the indifference to the beauty of their young souls.

 

Today, though, he moved ahead. He took the initiative and restrung the guitar, without much help from me. With confidence, he completed the task, grinning as the new strings sang out their song in his confident fingers. His eyes twinkled with pride as he showed others the work he had done.

 

We did more than restring an old, well-used guitar. We restrung a young man and gave voice to the new, self-confident man now playing his songs, happy with what he’s done and who he’s becoming.

 

–Neal Lemery, 12/9/2016

Restrung and Resurrected


The old acoustic guitar hung on the back of the guitar rack in the all-purpose room at the prison camp. It was a “state guitar” as the boys called it, looking every one of its years, the wood dull and nicked up by all the young hands that had held it over the years. It looked out of place next to the fancy shiny electric guitars that some of the boys had, their “personal” guitars.

I would pick it up and play a little accompaniment when one of the guys was showing me a riff he had learned, or was playing a song he’d written. And, sometimes, when I was waiting to meet with one of the guys, I’d take a few minutes and play it. But, it was usually out of tune, and often, one of the strings had broken. It wasn’t as banged up as Willie Nelson’s “Trigger”, but it was moving down that road.

In the last few weeks, I noticed it looked sadder, more neglected than ever. All of its strings were missing, along with four of the six bridge pins that held the strings in place. Of course, no one could play it anymore, and it was getting dusty, and moved over into the corner of the room.

I was afraid someone would toss in the garbage. It deserved more respect than that. It was, after all, the “senior guitar” here, and had a long history of providing some joy to the lives of the incarcerated youth who’ve come through this place, year after year.

The guitar was here when I first started coming, six or seven years ago, and it has been well used by perhaps more than several hundred young men who have held it in their hands, and picked out a tune or a chord or two or three. Young guitarists of every range of talent here have enjoyed its decent, respectable voice and have had it bring some joy into their lives. Perhaps it has saved some lives, as well.

I wasn’t going to give up on the old guitar, a “Johnson”, not a trendy or fancy name in musical instruments. It had earned my respect, though, for being its stubborn self and for bringing joy to many a young man. I wasn’t going to just let it slip by the wayside. I was determined to bring it back to life. “Mr. Johnson” deserved better.

I was in the city a few days ago and decided to stop at the guitar store, to see if they had some extra bridge pins. They did, for fifty cents a piece, and I invested in a good set of strings, too.

Today, I was back at the prison camp, and brought the strings, the pins, and my tools for changing strings and tuning up the guitar. A few of the young men gathered around as I went about my tasks, asking questions, and offering a hand as the strings and pins began to provide us with a guitar with actual strings and the beginnings of some notes.

“Mr. Johnson” was coming back to life, and he had attracted a growing fan club.

Our flash mob guitar string changing class attracted others, followed by a robust discussion of string replacement theory and whether each string was properly tuned.

At last, we reached consensus. I clipped off the ends of the strings, and handed Mr. Johnson to the first young man who had come to help. He hesitated, claiming he didn’t know how to play, and others soon were standing in line to test our work. But, he gave it a tender strum and grinned from ear to ear.

Smiles appeared, as the guitar made its way around the circle, and a few stories were told, of how they enjoyed playing it, the quality of its sound, and the good times that centered around the old guitar. They enjoyed hearing Mr. Johnson being resurrected, returning to their lives as tool for some personal joy and satisfaction.

I put away my tools, and headed off to my meeting with a young man, as the guitar was carefully taken outside, to be played by our flash mob guitar restringers.

Near the end of the day, I came back to the prison, meeting with some other young men in another part of the prison. Where I parked was close to the work camp and their outside recreation area. When I walked out to leave, I heard a guitar and young men singing, and saw them gathered around in the twilight, playing the old acoustic guitar.

Their voices filled the prison camp yard, a freshly written song being sung in earnest, filling my heart with joy. My eyes watered up, too. It must have been the dust in the air.

Yet another story was being created tonight, of young men and songs, and friendships being forged around the playing of that guitar, reborn and doing its work once again.

When I got into my truck, I came across the receipt from the guitar store. Six guitar pegs, $3, and a new set of good strings, $14. It was the best money I’d spent in a long time, small change for the price of some big smiles on the faces of those young men, and resurrecting Mr. Johnson.

–Neal Lemery, July 13, 2016

Punishment or Rehabilitation


Punishment or rehabilitation?

We have a choice. We can change lives.

Punishment Fails. Rehabilitation Works.

James Gilligan, a clinical professor of psychiatry and an adjunct professor of law at New York University, is the author of, among other books, “Preventing Violence” and “Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others.”
UPDATED DECEMBER 19, 2012, 11:43 AM (originally published in the New York Times)

“If any other institutions in America were as unsuccessful in achieving their ostensible purpose as our prisons are, we would shut them down tomorrow. Two-thirds of prisoners reoffend within three years of leaving prison, often with a more serious and violent offense. More than 90 percent of prisoners return to the community within a few years (otherwise our prisons would be even more overcrowded than they already are). That is why it is vitally important how we treat them while they are incarcerated.

“How could we change our prison system to make it both more effective and less expensive?

“The only rational purpose for a prison is to restrain those who are violent, while we help them to change their behavior and return to the community.

“We would need to begin by recognizing the difference between punishment and restraint. When people are dangerous to themselves or others, we restrain them – whether they are children or adults. But that is altogether different from gratuitously inflicting pain on them for the sake of revenge or to “teach them a lesson” – for the only lesson learned is to inflict pain on others. People learn by example: Generations of research has shown that the more severely children are punished, the more violent they become, as children and as adults. The same is true of adults, especially those in prison. So the only rational purpose for a prison is to restrain those who are violent from inflicting harm on themselves or others, while we help them to change their behavior from that pattern to one that is nonviolent and even constructive, so that they can return to the community.

“It would be beneficial to every man, woman and child in America, and harmful to no one, if we were to demolish every prison in this country and replace them with locked, safe and secure home-like residential communities – what we might call an anti-prison. Such a community would be devoted to providing every form of therapy its residents needed (substance abuse treatment, psychotherapy, medical and dental care) and every form of education for which the residents were motivated and capable (from elementary school to college and graduate school). Getting a college degree while in prison is the only program that has ever been shown to be 100 percent effective for years or decades at a time in preventing recidivism. Prisoners should be treated with exactly the same degree of respect and kindness as we would hope they would show to others after they return to the community. As I said, people learn by example.

“My colleague Bandy Lee and I have shown that an intensive re-educational program with violent male offenders in the San Francisco jails reduced the level of violence in the jail to zero for a year at a time. Even more important, participation in this program for as little as four months reduced the frequency of violent reoffending after leaving the jail by 83 percent, compared with a matched control group in a conventional jail. In addition to enhancing public safety, this program saved the taxpayers $4 for every $1 spent on it, since the lower reincarceration rate saved roughly $30,000 a year per person. The only mystery is: Why is this program not being adopted by every jail and prison in the country? Why are taxpayers not demanding that this be done?”

Why indeed?

Soul Killing and Redemption


Soul Killing and Redemption

When you see your mom yelled at and beaten up by the man she loves, when you’re four years old, what do you do?

When you realize that your dad was never, ever around for you, and isn’t in your life, what do you do? Now, at 22, you hear he wants to see you, but in your heart, you figure he hasn’t been around for your whole life, so why start now? The care and the love just hasn’t been there, not when you’ve needed it. Why make the effort?

When you are standing in the yard when you’re five, and you see a guy with a knife, chased by a cop, and you watch them fight, and you see the knife, and then the gun, and then the blood, what do you do?

When your sister dies when you are four, and no one can tell you why, what do you do?

When your mom’s boyfriend yells at you and beats you up, and throws you out of the house when you’re’ seven, and then you start setting fires around town, what do you do?

When the people at school think you are a bad boy and don’t fit in and therefore stupid, you must need to be in a special needs program. Just because you already know all the answers in class and are bored to death, and you don’t like to sit still and you yell when you get angry, because that is how your family does it, and you don’t think anyone cares about you, because of everything you are inside, what do you do?

When you are fourteen, and the best thing to do is to hitchhike a thousand miles and come back in a few weeks, and people decide you need to go to detention and sit in a cell for a month, what do you do? Is “runaway” such a bad thing to be, after all that?

When the only man in the family is a drunk and has been in prison, and there’s no other guy around who even talks to you, what do you do?

When childhood and adolescence is a long list of institutions and court appearances and a long road of counselors and programs and treatments, and that is just what life is, now, what do you do?

When you’re nineteen, and you beat up a prison guard, and you find yourself in a ten foot cell in the penitentiary for six months, what do you do?

When the rage and the anger burn deep inside of you, and then someone calls you a dumb Indian, AGAIN, what do you do?

When all the “bad” labels someone can try to pin on you have all been slapped on you, your whole life, and you’ve had about all you can take, what do you do? And, then, you also know that you’ve been treated like all your family and your people have been treated for the last two hundred and fifty years, and not much has gotten any better, what do you do?

And, when you read a book by Sherman Alexie and the story of the boy on the Rez is also your story, and the rage and anger and love and beauty of that boy is also your story and your life, and that you are not alone in all of this, what do you do?

When you can take a few scraps of leather, and make it into a beautiful work of art, or when you write and then sing a beautiful song, deep from within your own precious, sweet soul, and you know you really are a wondrous child of God, what do you do, inside these walls?

When all this churns and simmers inside of you, and so many voices keep telling you that you’re stupid, and poor, and a criminal and won’t ever amount to anything, that no one comes right out and says that they love you, and the world keeps locking you up, in so many ways, and all you want to do is run through the woods, and feel the sun on your face, and be one with God, what do you do?

When you are close to getting paroled and you get accepted into a halfway house that you actually think is a good place, and then the date you get out keeps getting moved around, and now you don’t know for sure if you get out this week, or next month, or maybe in a few months, or ???, and no one seems to care enough to answer your questions about that, what do you do?

And, we wonder why some guys don’t do very well once they get out of prison, why they can’t seem to adjust very well to life “on the outside”, and follow all the rules, and don’t use drugs and alcohol and don’t get into fights. And, then, when they become husbands and fathers, we wonder why there might be some “issues” at home about life and relationships and parenting and being good citizens.

But, we should be “tough on crime” and “put away the bad guys”, and then we will have a peaceful and safe society, just because we put a higher percentage of our population in prison than any other country in the world. Is that what defines this country?

As Dr. Phil might ask, “How’s that working for you?”

And we spend all this money, and time, and people’s care and concern for young people in prison, and give lip service to “rehabilitation” and “crime prevention”, when maybe we should look back a bit in time, to when kids first come into this world. And we know they are looking to have a mom and a dad, and live in a quiet and safe and “normal” home, and love to go to school, have good friends, and do wonderful, loving things in their lives.

And, when none of this happens, and instead life is filled with rage and the distractions of a crazy and lonely society, self medication and self deprecation, and not having a place in this world to grow and put down your roots and feel cherished, and then, if you don’t fit in, we lock you up and institutionalize you, and reinforce criminal thinking, we wonder why you don’t do better?

We know what works. We know, now, how the brain grows and learns about relationships and how love, the right kind of love, waters and nourishes young souls, and how the wrong kind of relationship is a poison, not just for the community, but for every precious soul in this life.

We know that all this good work takes time, it takes love, and it takes compassion.

And, not that our schools and prisons aren’t staffed with kind and committed people, who toil in these fields day after day, dealing with the toughest and most challenging situations and personalities. And, not everyone can be “saved”. Yet, they don’t give up.

We can’t give up. We can take the time, and we can make the commitment, maybe just with one person. Have that conversation, make that connection, get a bit involved in their life. Listen, and then listen again. Listen with your heart, with your humanity, and not with the expectations, and biases, and the vantage point of someone who hasn’t lived how they have lived.

Transform a life. You may think that young person you listen to will learn from you, and, by listening and caring about them, their lives will change. And, perhaps that is true. What will really change, though, is your life. You will see things differently, and you will understand who you are, and what you are all about, and how to change the world.

Put an end to the soul killing. It kills all of us, slowly and surely.

–Neal Lemery April 29, 2013

Searching for Potential


 

from Ruralite Magazine, February 2013

Searching for Potential

Neal Lemery spends Sunday afternoons demonstrating ‘normal’ to young inmates

by Denise Porter

Neal Lemery plans to continue his volunteer work at the Tillamook Youth Correction Facility now that he is retired. He wants to help break the cycle of violence.
Every Sunday, cup of coffee in hand, Neal Lemery and a few buddies sit at a table in a small canteen swapping stories. Sometimes they play guitar or a game of cards. Mostly they talk about their future goals, trips they would like to take, dreams.

Other times, the conversation gets deeper and one of the buddies opens up about his childhood: his addict parents, the homelessness and sexual abuse that were what he understood to be a normal childhood.
Neal’s buddies are among the 50 inmates serving sentences for some type of sexual offense at the Tillamook Youth Correctional Facility.

Neal visits several times weekly. The task both gives him joy and mentally exhausts him.

“It’s pretty draining,” Neal says of his visits. “When I come home Sunday afternoon maybe all I’ve been doing is sitting at a table having coffee and playing a game. But this ‘normalcy time,’ is such a new thing for them and they drain you. They’ve never had it before and so they just absorb it. You have to monitor yourself.”

Neal has spent his life working with Oregon’s judicial system. He retired January 2 after 12 years as the Tillamook County Justice of the Peace. He was an Oregon lawyer for 32 years, served as a defense attorney and judge and has spent his entire career in Tillamook—the town where he was raised.

“I’ve sat in all the seats in the criminal justice system here,” he says.

As the Justice of the Peace, Neal officiated nearly 1,800 civil marriages and doled out traffic and fish and wildlife fines.

He says he has always tried to be fair-minded. Rather than locking people away, Neal values educating them. He asked drunk drivers to attend classes—and then report to him after the class with an essay about what they learned.

His biggest challenge as a judge was enforcing mandatory sentencing laws.

“We used to give judges discretion to do the right thing,” he says. “Certainly we’ve taken that away in criminal court. I think you need to consider the person and their circumstances and what’s best for the community.
“We have our own unique values and my job is to reflect the community’s values. The way to fix it is one person at a time, one day at a time. I think if you can change one person, it’s a good day.”

Two years ago, Neal took a call from a friend asking if he could mentor a young sexual offender whose father had died when he was only 15, and whose drug-addict mother would visit her son stoned. Since then, he has made regular visits.

These young men are locked away for a reason, he says. They committed a crime. But the truth is, their behavior was learned. Most were sexually abused as young children.

“People want to blame the ‘neighborhood pervert,’ but really, for nearly everyone there, it was a family member that abused them,” Neal says. “From them, they learned to victimize people.”

Some inmates will never recover from their own trauma, he believes, but he says others can and will, with the correct guidance and can be shown how to break the violent cycle they have known.

“We’re trying to figure out who they are, because they don’t know,” says Neal. “I come, we play Scrabble, have a nice Sunday afternoon like ‘normal’ people would. They’ve never had that. They’ve never gotten mail or a birthday card in their lives.

“One kid freaked out because we gave him a birthday party. He’d never had one. Can you imagine that? There’s been so much sexual abuse and violence; they just don’t know who they are as people.”

Neal’s wife, Karen Keltz, a retired high school English teacher, comes for many visits, too. Karen helps the young men finish high school paperwork and mentors them through college courses.
“She loves it,” says Neal. “They need a mom figure—a sober, decent mom that cares about them, too.”

There is one inmate who Neal has especially enjoyed mentoring. Perhaps it is because the young man is a gifted musician, learning the guitar from Neal in just a few weeks, or perhaps it is because he took the initiative to finish high school, is enrolled in college online and has nearly a 4.0 GPA.

“He writes songs, jazz, blues, rock and he wrote one about me,” says Neal. “It makes me cry every time he plays it for me. The lyrics say something like, ‘You never yelled at me, or gave up on me; you showed up and changed my life.’”

One of the ways Neal pledges to help is by being there when the inmates are released. As part of their terms of release, each needs to spend the first six months in the town where he committed his crime.
Neal sees them settled, enrolls them in college, takes them camping—a longtime wish of one inmate—and gives each every chance to succeed.

Neal plans to learn new hobbies and travel during his retirement. He also will continue to volunteer and mentor and will draft new legislation.

“I want to work on something systemwide around the state for better and more transition services,” he says.

Neal has roughed out a book about mentoring young men.

“There really isn’t a book out there that talks about the crisis in our country of growing up without a father,” he says. “The message I got at home from both my parents, and especially my dad, was ‘You have a brain and a body. You are a child of God, go out and do something!’ A lot of people don’t have someone in their lives to tell them that.

“That’s where I came in—in court as a judge and now, as a mentor. I say, ‘You have potential. You need to use it.’ And I will follow through the next time we meet and ask you, ‘Now tell me, what have you done to reach your potential?’”
Posted January 30th
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