The Idle American Part III, Barb’d Wire column, Beat of the Street newspaper.

   The Idle American Part 4     (see previous issues for part 1&2)

….so as he continued to trade his written words for supplies, he was also discovering much about himself and those around him. In the confined environment of prison pent up emotions can sometimes lead to turmoil, and even violence. Violence for him was not so much a foreign language, but more like an old standby that had served him well as a quick and ready solution in his youth. But this was prison…

    In prison, just like “out in the world” a lot (I mean an awful lot) can depend on who you know. Since he had done work, using his writing hustle, for many of the top dogs on the block, he no longer need worry for his safety; it was a non-issue. Again he could see the power of words–the power of understanding how to communicate was palpable and real, and this was his epiphany.

    If only I could use this skill out in the world, he thought, how much better and meaningful my life could be. But how?

    Finally the day had arrived, not his “end of sentence” date, mind you, but the next best thing–early release on parole. Yes, soon he would be free. This time things will be different, he told himself. His experiences with heroin addiction had taught him some important lessons about the nature of freedom, and the nature of prison. You see, he now understood that in the same way he had freed himself in prison by freeing his mind, many so called free men were languishing in jails of their own design. Prisons, not of concrete block and iron bars, but of addiction, of relationships, of employment, of health and disability, and of all other manner and way of confining oneself to a singular path. These are the prisons we create for ourselves and are often much worse and destructive than the brick and mortar type. Freedom, he realized, comes with responsibility. Responsibility to himself, to his family, and to society as a whole. He had to stay clean this time, and he vowed to do anything to make that happen.

     So one day when he was walking back from the parole office in Hartford CT. he decided to stop at the Hartford Library’s Main street branch. As he walked in that direction, he wondered to himself about his future. He had no job prospects, no place of his own to call home, no money, no special prison training that would give him a direction to pursue. All he owned were just the clothes on his back, and now he carried the label of “convicted felon” as well. Still, what he lacked in opportunity he made up for in desire. A desire to stay clean, and a desire to be a good and responsible father to his daughter (also a victim of his addiction) and who had been silently growing up without him. He had to do the right thing. He just had to.

     When he stepped inside the library, unbeknownst to him at the time, was an event going on that would change his life forever. The title of the event was “The Day of Caring and Sharing” and it was sponsored by a group of people from an organization known as “Hands on Hartford.” When he followed the arrows to the back meeting room of the library, he had no expectations other than the information posted on the sign out front, which said something about raffles, food and music. But there was more. A lot more.

     As he sat there in that room, amongst so many of the tired faces he had encountered from his days of living on the street as a homeless drug addict, and listened to the speakers, something else occurred to him, and it was this–these people from “Hands on Hartford” they really go out of their way to show how much they care, and they do it with action, not just words. These are the type of people I need to be around, he thought. Not only that, but part of the program included time for an open mike, where anyone could perform a poem or song, or even a prayer. In his pocket was a poem he had written for his daughter during his time incarcerated. So he got up and read it to the audience, and in doing so got the attention of one of the members of Hands on Hartford (thanks Anne), who upon hearing his poetry invited him to come to a meeting. It was a meeting for a local newspaper he had never heard of called “Beat of the Street.”

     A few days later when he attended the meeting, he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. They were going to let him write an article on how he felt about addiction, incarceration, and homelessness, and publish it for the world to read, and on top of that he would receive compensation (not Ramen noodles) which he needed just to survive. And the people…the people, the members of this group, they were all working together to make the world a better place, and all the other writers who contributed were previously homeless or addicted, just like him. It was a perfect place for a recently released, previously addicted writer, who was still on parole. Once he joined the organization, he started his own column called “Barb’d Wire” and met the folks from another dedicated group at “Charter Oak Community Center.” They, he found out, had a learning center which they called B.O.T.S School. He started attending classes at the school, everyone liked his writing, but more than that, they just wanted to help him embrace the change in life style that was necessary for him to progress. Once he graduated from the B.O.T.S school, he was told he could attend Goodwin College for free. This opportunity, for him, was just unreal. Totally unreal.

     Yes, he was given a second chance, and after being inspired by all the amazing selfless acts of these two organizations, he vowed never to return to his old ways, and to join in the fight against poverty, against addiction, mass incarceration, and all the other maladies of society, by helping any way he could. Shortly after he was invited to join the “Faces of Homelessness” speakers bureau, where he could tell his story to help educate groups about homelessness and break down negative stereotypes.

    He is still a member of both organizations today, has over five years of clean time, and by the time you read this article, he will have graduated with an associates degree from Goodwin College, and will be starting on his bachelors degree in human services. He continues to write and speak to audiences about his journey, and hopes to continue his schooling, and if possible, attend law school some day.

     All of this would never have been possible were it not for all the dedicated people, working hard every single day, by showing a virtual endless amount of empathy and kindness towards those trying find a their own way through this complicated maze called life. He, that is I, will be forever grateful to all of the dedicated people who have helped throughout this journey. Change is always possible, but sometimes folks just need a little help and a little opportunity. The end.

           Ralph Gagliardo.

 

 

  

        

Dec, 2016 Issue of “Beat of the Street”

Barb’d Wire                    Mail Time

    Since we have all grown up in a democracy, we have all probably at one time or another been told that if we wanted to express our opinion on a certain matter, we should consider writing our elected officials. This is probably not such a bad idea, although today a lot of people might just try e-mail instead. Writing letters it seems is a lot less popular than it used to be. While electronic transmissions and the like might be great for efficiency they do not work so well for sending messages to friends or loved ones behind bars.The only thing they can receive are good old fashioned envelopes (remember them) with little stamps on one corner, sent by (you guessed it) the great American postal service. A model of efficiency–perhaps not, but still dependable as ever.

    Since this piece won’t make into the paper until the election has long been decided, and well after the Thanksgiving turkey picked clean, the next big holiday celebration will be Christmas. Holidays can be a time of great stress and loneliness for people who lack housing and food security. I ask you to please consider those less fortunate than yourselves while wrestling with your own family obligations. The need is great and constant, even in a wealthy state as this one claims to be. I have faith, that those of you who have the means and motivation to help, will find some way to do so. Allow me to thank you ahead of time. But, that is not the real purpose of this article.

     The purpose of this article is to remind you to write a letter to friends, family, or even acquaintances who are sitting in a cell somewhere dreaming about getting one. I have been there, I can tell you first hand how it feels to be waiting patiently for that mailman to make his rounds, hoping upon hope that today is the day you receive that letter, that letter from the outside that shows you are not forgotten. Then, as watch those around you smile, because in jail the mail (and commissary) are our Christmas, you realize that you aren’t getting any letter, you are not the one receiving the perfume laced envelope with the heart stickers, the pictures of the kids, or the news that your commissary money has been sent. While the rest of the cell block is busy reading and re-reading about the latest news from the outside, you have to ask your celly if you can see his pics, because yours never came. It is a sad and lonely feeling to be the guy who never get’s mail.

   Please, I am literally begging you, take a little time, even if it’s just a single page, and write someone in prison. I promise you it is a rewarding experience. Sometime’s when we show people, who may have made some bad choices, that they are not forgotten, they they are still loved, we give them the hope, and that hope inspires them to change. Nobody like the feeling of being completely disconnected from the world. Studies on recidivism and addiction both show that quality of life and feelings of connectedness reduce episodes of relapse and re-arrest. The reason is simple: the more a person has to lose, the less likely they are to risk losing it by reckless behavior, this is especially true if they begin to heal the wounds of being separated from loved ones for long periods of time.

     Your words and thoughts matter. They can make all the difference in the world to a lonely inmate looking for purpose in life. Please, everybody have a safe and joyful holiday season, but also if you can, take a moment, write an inmate, maybe even one you don’t know too well, it could be that single thread on an empty loom that will weave the quilt of change for a person desperately searching for the motivation to improve themselves.      

         

Barb’d Wire

Barb’d Wire                Wake Up and Smell the Justice

       Justice is defined as fairness, or quite simply doing what is correct. Another part of the definition includes the idea of equality, or treating everyone in the same manner, especially when referring to matters of the law. “The law” often referred to “the criminal justice system” is designed to provide a balanced and equal forum to define acceptable behavior in a civilized society. We all know American history well enough to know that all peoples have not been treated equally all the time; this is a fact; we can’t deny it. What we can do is try to improve, try to evolve, try to make tomorrow better than yesterday. One of the ways we accomplish that is through the use of our free press, our right to assemble, or our right to petition our government to apply the rules of fairness, the rules of justice, to all people, all the time, equally.

     There is in the Connecticut court system today, a policy that does not, and is not, equal in it’s treatment of drug offenders. I can testify to this injustice as a first hand witness to the execution of this policy. The policy in which I am referring has been in place for a very, very, long time. This is how it works:

     If a defendant is charged with the victimless crime of possession of narcotics in Hartford they are almost guaranteed to get a lesser sentence than if the same exact crime is committed in the suburbs. Let’s look at one true example: Three bags of heroin in Hartford court, 3rd offense, sentence–community service. One bag of heroin, Manchester court, 1st offense, sentence– two years–one probation, one suspended. Same defendant in both cases. This is not unusual, in fact it is the norm. Defendants in Manchester court routinely get sentences that are longer and stricter than defendants with the exact same cases in Hartford court. This is not by accident, it is by design.

      This policy is so prevalent that most of the minority population in prison refer to it as Clan-chester. The idea is to let the offender population know that if you choose to do something illegal, you should go do it in the city. I am not sure, but this policy seems an aweful lot like civil rights violations to me. What message is this policy really sending?  That the suburbs are somehow more important than the cities? That a crime committed in the suburbs is somehow worse than if the exact same crime were to be committed in the city? It is not just drug offenders, a vast majority of offenses are treated much harsher in the suburbs than in the cities. Maybe they are treating drug addicts like they are treating the homeless: it is more acceptable to be drug addicted or living on the street if you are in a city, “because we don’t want those kind of people messing up our perfect community.” or “If we lock them all up for a long time they will know not to come back here anytime soon.”  Somebody needs to wake up and realize that people are people, and you can’t escape the fact that towns are not safe havens from things like homelessness and addiction. Wake up suburbanite courts! You can’t scare them all back to Hartford.

                                  Coming soon  “Confessions of a Scrap Metal Junkie”  a memoir.

This article was reprinted from the July edition of “The Beat of the Street” newspaper. All opinions expressed are that of the author alone and do not in any way claim to represent the opinions of Charter Oak Cultural Center or it’s employees.

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Barb’d Wire: The Problem With Labels

THE PROBLEM WITH LABELS           
Is it correct to call a person of color African American? Some say no, because not everyone “of color” has African roots. That makes sense. I am Caucasian and I don’t want someone speculating where my family tree originated, and then labeling me in such a way. European American ­­doesn’t even sound right. So how about “black”? To be perfectly honest, I always felt uncomfortable using that designation. The reason is, that I don’t call people of Indian descent “red” or people from the east “yellow” or even brown people “brown” so why call darker people black, when many of them are not black at all. This brings up another point. I do not like being called white. First of all, I am not white in the same way brown (using this just to make a point) people are not black. The only truly white people I’ve ever seen were Albino’s and they are sort of translucent. So if I’m not white, then what am I?­ off ­white, beige, tan, eggshell,­not too sure? My mother always told me she knew when I was using heavily because my skin turned gray. My poor mom.
In these days of political correctness which should be perhaps changed to “language awareness” everyone is supposed to be selective with their choice of labels. Let’s face it, if you need to describe someone in a hurry, and you don’t know that persons name, you are going to have to use some trait to describe them. Say they just committed a crime and you have to describe the suspect to police, how are you going to do that? Most likely you are going to go with the things you noticed first: Tall, short, male, female, white, black, etc. then maybe what he/she was wearing and so forth. It is highly unlikely, if you get to court that anyone is going to challenge your description because you said “the defendant was black” when clearly the defendant is brown. That won’t happen.
So the whole idea of labeling based on color may be wrong, but in some instances it is a necessary evil. Maybe all this media hype has just made us too damn sensitive? If you are like me, and are just plain lousy at remembering names, then the need to find accurate descriptions for people comes up often. I was always told that black and white were not colors at all. So who are these people of color? If they are darker people, then are lighter people, people of no color? People lacking in color? It’s enough to drive you crazy. Maybe a lot of people (of whatever) are getting sick and tired of all this nit-picking. Maybe the pendulum has swung too far in one direction and is now starting to swing back the other way. It sure seems that way–when you see how many people are supporting Donald Trump.

This was printed in the latest (June 2016) edition of “Beat of the Street” newspaper
Published by The Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford CT.