Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Biking While White

Three days a week, I ride my privilege to work.  The five mile trip, from one side of New Haven to the other, takes about 30 minutes. Although the route is flat and not particularly strenuous, I still get sweaty and a little gross, so I wear my old yellow t-shirt and jeans. Riding through Fair Haven, Downtown, and then Beaver Hill, no one gives me a second glance. Sure, I look shabby in my messy, sweaty clothes, but my race and class privilege still come shining through. Stopped at a light on Ferry and Grand today, an older woman at the bus stop waved and shouted out to me, "Americana!"  Yup, that's me - the middle-aged, middle class White lady on her bike. No one thinks I am loitering or going to hurt them.  People generally smile or ignore me.

My class and professional position also facilitate this mode of transportation because I have a job with a very flexible schedule - I can basically start and stop when I want, insuring that I am on the road before it gets dark and not bothered if I come a little late. At work, I have my own office and access to a clean bathroom, so I have plenty of space to store my stuff and get settled.

So, to be clear, I fully appreciate that my ability to bike peacefully to work each day is a reflection of my socio-economic and racial privilege. Still, it occurred to me this morning, that biking does de-stabilize this privilege in some ways by moving me from the driver's seat of the steel machines around which our entire society has been built, to another more precarious space - the bike. This morning, I began to wonder how biking can help me to understand the lived experience of Black and Hispanic people in this country.

Can I ever know what it feels like to be a Black person in America? Of course not. But I can listen, hear, imagine. Last weekend, the Arresting Patterns conference in New Haven engaged artists, writers and thinkers in a process of building expression of and understanding about criminal justice systems in American, with a particular focus on  the experience of African-Americans.  

Words, images and ideas from this conference echoed in my head as a drove cautiously through the streets of New Haven this morning. I enjoy the ride, but am very conscious of the fact that I could die at any time.  I ride on high alert, watching ever car door, trying to anticipate the changing landscape, watching the trucks. Especially the trucks. I know that one wrong move, one shift, and the trucks will run me over, kill me. They'll run me over because they don't see me, because they don't understand what I am doing, because their desire to get where they want to go quickly is their main motivation. One could argue that it's not really their fault, it's the system. It's the roads that are too tight, the bad mirrors, the lack of drivers' education about biking and how to share the road. But even without an articulated sense of malice, the big trucks can kill me and most people will probably assume it was my fault. I was where I shouldn't have been, my clothes were too dark, the truck thought I was stopping. People on bikes get hit all the time, it's not really news, it's just something that happens. Given all the bike related accidents, you'd think things might change, but the political will to make the streets safe for all is not there. 

It's really great to see other bikers when I am on the road, especially at unfriendly intersections. An exchange of smiles, a nod, a knowing. Also happy to see the walkers, and even skateboarders! Honestly, I don't feel I have a lot in common with skateboarders, but I recognize that they are allies: they are riding in the open without a steel shell. Also key is the support of my biker friends and family. My car-driving peeps are great, they appreciate and respect the biking community, but it's not the same. It's the bikers who teach me what to wear, introduce me to the guys at Devil's Gear, laugh about their flat tire stories. Show me where to lock my bike. Really understand when I tell them the story about hitting a pothole. 

There's a section of my ride home that really is not designed for bikes.  Merging from Goffe Street onto Elm in front of the Broadway shops is a confusing intersection of one way streets. The cars go really fast. There is no bike path. The sidewalks are disconnected.  Where does the bike rider fit in? So I just get in the middle of the lane, ride as fast as I can, and hope the trucks don't kill me.  Sometimes, I will avoid that intersection, even though it is the most direct path home, and drive in a big circle all around it just to avoid that one dangerous place.  The detour is an inconvenient waste of time, but at least I won't get killed.

Just beyond that intersection, there are a few blocks of thick green bike lanes, recently installed by the City.  Here I ride in supported safety, sometimes as fast as the cars. Why are these lanes only near Yale and not everywhere across the city? Glad to see the Yale bikers are safe, but what about the rest of us?  Planners may argue that the special green lanes are too expensive to install.  The old city streets aren't wide enough. The car people complain, they say it unnecessary and unfair to build protected lanes. It slows down their traffic, gives them less room to park.  But cars are already going 45 miles an hour down Elm!  How fast do they want to go? 



This is a metamorphic rock. See the layers?

I wasn't thinking about Ed when I went to clear out my old office.  My old office, that had become Alana's office, and now will become something else. The study is over and the moment of truth about all those papers and books I had kept in the hopes that someone else might read them had arrived. Get out the recycle bin. I was actually thinking of

George Carlin and his forever funny piece

about all of our stuff and the enormous efforts we make to get stuff, store stuff, move stuff.

My Rolodex was among the more obsolete items that drifted through that space, settling in a bottom drawer, at rest. Are you familiar with the rock cycle that I have been studying with my boy in preparation for Middle School exams week? Rocks start deep in the earth, formed from molten lava or dead birds, and then rise up to the Earth's crust where they are moved around until they settle in a riverbed and are transformed into something completely different by the every day touch of water. And then it happens all over again in a different way. And so my Rolodex, which was a way to keep track of the people I had met and hoped to know, had settled in the bottom drawer only to be brought forth by the passing of time and when I leafed through it the small square papers were no longer the people I know but rather the people I knew. A memorial of sorts to a time and place gone by.

The card with Ed's cell phone was handwritten because his business of advocate, rabble-rouser, person living with HIV didn't issue cards. It was clear that I had written the number quickly, it was slanted and messy, he had probably been sitting in front of me, telling me a story about one of life's speed bumps, when I scratched the numbers into time. To call him on that day or the next would have been effortless; he came around a lot and always made himself available. I thought of how he lay in the VA hospital at the end, so silent and yet somehow still moving, his energy filling the room. If I could call him and talk to him now, what would he say about the boy's rock exam, my job search, the peeling paint on my back porch.

Part of working in the HIV community involves having the names and stories of people who have passed on in your Rolodex, your email contacts, your memories.

A week later, I was interviewing a formerly incarcerated person living with HIV in Rhode Island. Unique and amazing in his own way, he reminded me of Ed: his eyes, slight build, his storytelling, his anger. He told me about coming out of prison to a homeless shelter last winter and losing forty pounds as he drifted between meals and place. Whether Ed was present with me on that snowy morning or not, he heard this tale, he knows it well. It's his story. A story formed from heat, pressure, and chemical reactions that (re)surfaces, settles, and is transformed in the telling, the hearing, and all the little waves that surround it, to form yet another layer in a narrative of bureaucratic apathy and resilience that is rock solid but also capable of shattering into a thousand pieces if slammed hard enough.

Florida Love

First couple of Key West
Where does your heart live? In my 45 years, I have lived in thirteen places and feel a strong allegiance to each of these domains. All this love can make for a confusing narrative. The Southeast Mass Jamaica Plain girl from Florida via Swarthmore who lives in New Haven. Born in the USA, married to a Spaniard, and now I think I'm Danish. I'm like the Taco Bell Breakfast Waffle Taco: Weird combo.

So from all these magical places, I could never pick a favorite, but don't even get me started on my Florida love. Heat, Art Deco, Cuban coffee, ocean air, mangrove trees, old people, young people, beautiful highways. Much love and so happy this week to see the Sunshine State join the list of now 36 states that allow same-sex marriage. This is a fight that has raged in Florida since the 1970s when Anita Bryant came to town peddling hate and fear. I hold this moment for the men I met in my work with people with AIDS in Miami Beach during the early 1990s who weren't allowed to decide about their partners' health care, couldn't hold onto assets, and had to move out of their apartments when partners passed. Your struggle is not forgotten.

Today when I was driving to my new favorite place, Providence, RI, that Macklemore song came on the radio. I know it's yesterday's news, but I still find it stunning and astounding that song plays on Top Ten radio everywhere, even in the red parts of my blue state. And now in Florida. What a year it has been. #samelove

Endorphins for Breakfast

My new alarm clock.
I come from a long line of powerful, smart, not-a-morning-person, Howland/Clark women. We can change the world, but preferably not before 10:00 am.

One of my strongest memories of my maternal grandmother is the warm sleepy smell of her bedroom that lingered all day long in that back room by the sea. In contrast, my paternal grandmother was true to her Ohio farming roots. Her bedroom was a place of action with a sewing machine and lots of space to walk around. Her bed was always neatly made and looked as if no one had ever slept there. I didn't get those genes. My sleepy grandmother had what I would describe as a lightly-made bed. The cover thrown over it was easily removed to facilitate napping or just a momentary lie down.

One of the joys of my fake life here in Copenhagen is that most days I can wake up at will and putter around the kitchen for awhile - in true Vovo form - before heading out into the world. But there have been some early mornings: Occasionally I would teach a 8:15 am class or have to catch an early train out to the prison. It was through this early morning action that I learned the merits of the bicycle as an alarm clock. You may be half asleep when you leave the house, but after you ride your bicycle through Copenhagen during the morning commute, you are awake. More than awake, you are ready.

In the US, we tend to drive to work. Sitting with coffee and NPR in the traffic. Especially in winter or rainy weather, the warm car is almost an extension of the bed, cozy and undemanding. For children, the commute is similar.  Either the warm car or the even warmer yellow bus that bumps along at a moderate speed, lulling its passengers off to sleep. So when we arrive at work and school, we are barely emerging from our REM and need a few class periods or cups of coffee before we are really ready to engage in the day. The tone is notably different in my Danish workplace: Colleagues and students alike are all fully awake at 8am.

So here is a solution to our problems: Bicycles for all. We worry our children don't get enough exercise, don't get enough out of school, and the yellow buses are notoriously late and lost. So let's auction off the buses and buy every child a bicycle.  The people who used to drive the buses can work as crossing guards and bike traffic controllers to ensure the children's safety. I bet test scores will soar. Adults will no longer have the "I have to drive to work so I can drop off the kids" excuse and get on the bus or a bike of their own. Come on America, wakey, wakey!

Wear Anything

Socks like this, but better.

On the subway today, I sat next to what I would describe a very normal "typical Danish" looking man.  Maybe early 30s (but still working the hipster with his Beat headphones), dark hair, handsome. Nothing really out of the ordinary here in CPH, until I was getting off and noticed that he was wearing pink striped socks and funky black shoes with the longest, narrowest, toe box I have ever seen.  Think Wicked Witch of the West. I could not find the anything close to these shoes on Google images. This was the best I could do:

Shoes like this, but way better.

You'd be hard pressed to find this classy-funky combination in the US, unless you happened to bump into a Scandinavian guy on holiday. Serious metrosexual fashion.

Indeed, this is a well-dressed bunch.  Thanks to Kaveh for sending me 

this link to a two minute NY Times video

about style in Copenhagen. If you are curious about what's cool along the Lakes, watch this short piece, the locals describe better than I ever could what people are wearing around town. In a nutshell: Simple, classy, elegant, greyscale, comfortable. Tattoos. 

I found particularly interesting a comment from the DJ, the first person who they feature. Describing the fashion environment, he said, "We can wear anything and know everybody will be OK with it." This sentence captures a social sense of tolerance and equality that Danes are very proud of.  And while it has a lot of truth to it, the society is changing rapidly and the things upon which everyone agrees are coming under discussion.  For example, a few years ago, the government proposed a ban on head scarves and other religiously symbolic clothes in courtrooms. So you can wear almost anything.

This is a major point of contrast between the US and Denmark.  In the US, the assumption is that everyone is different. In Denmark, the assumption is that everyone is the same. These are contrasting theories or frameworks that shape our worlds and social policies in very different ways. That, and the fact that Danish men wear pink socks and fancy shoes.

Laying Concrete in the Rain

Laying concrete in the rain, Horsens, 2014.
When I arrived in Horsens, a small city in Central Jutland, it was night and I could sense all the shops would be closed. I got the yummy warm chicken curry like-a-Hot-Pocket-but-better pastry, a Thai salad, and my favorite flavor of Swedish Vitamin Well from the 7-11 at the station and started walking towards the hotel. It was wet, but not rainy, and windy and cold. All the clever Danes were doing cozy at home.

I was going to spend the night in this dark place so that I could be up and ready to meet a colleague at the Horsens station at 7:30am the next day. Together, we would travel to an open prison in a rural area outside the city to conduct interviews and spend time with the women incarcerated there.

The construction across from the train station and a lack of street lighting made it hard to figure out what road to go down, but they were all headed in the same direction, so I set out, switching from one side of the road to the other in order to stay on the sidewalk, which was under construction on both sides. As it turned out, I had picked the correct street and was at my hotel in no time. I passed no one on the street during this 10 minute walk, a couple of cars, but mostly silent and empty, even though it was only about 9:00pm. Esta claro que no estoy en Espana.

There was no one at the hotel reception either. Just a small neat sign stating that staff would be "right back."  As I sat there for about 15 minutes, wondering if I should eat the Hot Pocket before it got cold, I began to think that maybe there was some kind of raging party going on deep in underground Horsens that they had forgotten to invite me to. Or there had been some kind of alien invasion and all the citizens of Horsens were now living on Mars. Eventually, the receptionist came back, looking apologetic and busy - I was not alone after all.

The next morning, when I retraced my steps back to the train station, it was still dark and windy and now it was raining, too. Again, the streets were empty except now the sidewalk crew was at work. With lights, and machines, and big bright heavy orange overalls, laying down concrete in the rain. I imagine the crew would rather work under better conditions, but it's October in Central Jutland: If you want to put in a new sidewalk, you are probably going to have to do it in the rain. So get on the orange suit and do it. It might be a little sloppy, especially during the downpours, and it will certainly take longer to dry, but the job will get done.

People often ask me what I expect to achieve as a social scientist working on issues related to women's incarceration in the United States.  The US prison system is huge and deeply flawed, what am I going to do about that? How could my ideas and writing possibly change anything? Laying concrete in the rain, my friends, laying concrete in the rain. Pull on the boots and get out there. While we cannot control the weather, we can do the work, and when the clouds break, even if just for a few hours, our work will set. We may not get the entire path done, but the conditions on that one section will be smoother, even passable, so the next person coming down the road won't have to detour quite so often.

A Story for Your Syllabus

How do we know what we know? How do we teach? How do we learn? As parents, teachers, students, and life-long learners, these are the questions that beg for answers. 

What works for me are stories. Narratives filled with rich detail about how people have experienced the world around us. Stories have the power to not only to teach, but to engage and in our world of multi-tasking distraction, this is half the battle.

I cannot remember how I first learned about Timothy Black's book,

When a Heart Turns Rock Solid

, but my Amazon account records show that I bought the book on October 17, 2013. The book sat on one shelf in my home, and then another, quietly waiting. I finally began to read it on the plane to Denmark last August.  Since then, the book has been living on the the small blue table next to my bed in the two-room cottage I am renting in 

Vanløse, patiently sharing its story on the nights I managed to read a few pages before drifting off to sleep. Yesterday, when I finally sat on the couch with this book and read the final chapter, the Rivera brothers were there with me, nodding off, cracking jokes, and telling me like it is.

This is a book about one Puerto Rican family living in the Hartford-Springfield area written by a critical sociologist who is unabashedly political and opinionated. It may not be the truth, but it is a truth. About drugs, incarceration, police, neoliberalism, the mortgage crisis, urban education, racism, labor, family, and the persistent hope of the human spirit.  You could try to learn or teach about these phenomenon through textbooks and journal articles, but I don't know why you would. This story not only explicates and illustrates these complicated concepts, but it also manages to keep you entertained and entranced by these real-life characters. Put it on your syllabus.

Eating Local

The Department of Nutrition and Health at the Metropol University College where I am visiting this semester offers an interdisciplinary Master's degree that includes a broad array of courses and education related to food and wellness. One of the courses teaches about food supply systems, where does our food come from and why does it matter? Speaking with the course instructor reignited my confusion about supermarket choices. The cucumbers from Denmark come from just a few miles away and have the very happy Danish flag on them, but may not be as nutritious as the ones from the South of Spain that were flown in on a plane last week and might actually have a larger carbon footprint. Decisions, decisions, complicated by competing priorities.

While vegetable choices can be confusing, my time here in CPH has confirmed that when it comes to baked goods, the local treats rule. I momentarily forgot this rule last week when, in a fit of unexpected nostalgia, I bought a cupcake. Odd because I don't eat a lot of cupcakes at home but I guess it looked too East Haven to resist, plus the shop bore my younger sister's name. I bought it on auto-pilot.

Well, let me tell you, that was one bad cupcake. Freezing cold. Thick hard icing like a chunk of sweet butter on top. But what did I expect? What do Danes know about cupcakes? The smarter choice is the very delicious, very local, chokorung (pictured above). It looks like a giant rabbit turd but is actually a tasty chocolate delight. A sweet rye bread roll with chocolate chunks covered in nuts, it's moist and chewy and is sold very cheaply from large baskets next to the cash register. It is the obvious choice when you walk into the bakery and you will not be disappointed.

Travelling through a variety of Danish prison spaces during the last month, these food supply debates fade in and out of my thoughts. Correctional policy here is so brave and innovative, investing in rehabilitation and informed by rational thought rather than fear and revenge. It really looks good when you see it here, laid out on the streets of Copenhagen and in the back country of Central Jutland. But what would happen if I were to return to US and try to cook up the same scheme in Connecticut? Would it work as well or would it be like the cold cupcake - a cultural artifact from another place that fails to recreate the taste and texture of the original? Given our national palate, is it possible to change the ingredients of incarceration, a US concoction for which the politicians and citizens alike have shown such an enormous appetite?

Who knows? Thirty years ago, no one could have predicted that my father would be eating cold quinoa salad for dinner. I'll bring a few chokorungs in my suitcase when I come home next month and see if there aren't a few daring souls willing to try a bite.

Walking to the Bus

After the morning commute.

I biked to work today. Unremarkable because I am living in Copenhagen where structures are in place to make biking easier, cheaper, and faster than any other mode of transport. Remarkable for me, however, because it was raining. I have previously avoided biking in the rain because it seemed cold and slippery but today as I walked out of my building, I noticed that all the bikes (except mine) were gone so I got peer-pressured into it.  If my little 5 year old neighbor can bike in the rain, so can I. Lean in.

Overall the trip was uneventful. The huge elevated bike path means that passing cars don't splash you and I wasn't going at any speed that risked slamming on brakes or sliding into traffic. However, it did become immediately apparent to me that I did not have the right gear. I definitely need a pair of those rain pants that everyone was wearing.  Not a very stylish, to be sure, but neither is all morning at work with soaked blue jeans. As the Danes say, "There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes."

And then there was the issue of my eye make-up which is, apparently, not waterproof. See my Viking friend Floki above for the visual. Together with the soaked blue jeans, a pretty chic look.

What I really want to write about today, however, is not the famous Copenhagen bike system but the less renowned bus system. For me, the buses are one of the most remarkable and telling parts of life in Denmark. What I have noticed every time I take the bus is that no one ever runs to the stop. 

Most of my bus riding experience comes from taking the J and D lines in New Haven, my lovely hometown on the Long Island Sound. The hearty bus riders of Elm City will tell you, if you see the bus coming down the road, you better run for it. Fast. Bags? Children? High heeled shoes? No matter. You better run because the next bus might be coming in 20 minutes, or not. Really, you have no idea when the next bus is coming so you better get that one you can see if you intend to get to your destination any time soon.

Here the 2A bus that runs through Vanløse and Frederiksberg into the center of Copenhagen seems to run every 5-10 minutes, all day, every day. What that means is that you don't have to run. If you have just missed a bus, you will wait only 5 minutes and then another bus will come. To further reassure you, each bus stop has a little digital board that indicates when the next bus will arrive. And so all you have to do it stand patiently and wait, observe the street life, practice breathing, send a text, but don't worry, the bus is on its way.

In my mind, this reliable bus phenomenon epitomizes what it means to live in a large social welfare state. There is a lack of anxiety that really takes the edge off of everyday life. You can breathe deep and relax knowing that if you miss the bus, another one will come and you will still be on time to your destination. If you fall and break you arm, you will go to the hospital and be mended without risking bankruptcy. If you want to further your education, university and professional schools are free and you will receive a small salary while studying. If you lose your job, you will receive adequate unemployment compensation until you get your next job. If you make a mistake, you will be punished but your life will not be ruined. Worst case scenario, you end up with wet jeans and messy make up. Don't panic, don't stress. The next bus is just around the bend.

Bus, Train, Taxi, Plane

Baby, I can take you there.

I went to the 2014 Academic and Health Policy Conference on Correctional Health in Houston, TX, which was wonderful.  My poster about prison foodways was well received. Excellent. But what I want to share with you right now is how I got there.

I live in New Haven, which has an airport but it's small and expensive; the closest "real" airport is just north of the city Hartford, about 50 miles away.  It has never been completely obvious to me how one might travel from New Haven to Hartford's Bradley International Airport via public transportation.  I have always driven there.  However, last month I had to go to the airport to fly to Houston for this conference and I couldn't use my car (long story, just take my word for it). Pondering out loud how I might get to the airport without a car, my friend Stacy, Queen of the Trains, said to me, "Take the train!"

I had no idea that taking the train was an option.  I thought I would have to get the notoriously unreliable not-so-super Supershuttle ($49+tip).  Happy day, I took the train.  In the post, I lay out the trip's details for my friends in the Elm City or those who might want to visit.  Take the train!

  • 9:15 am     Leave my house and cross the street to wait for the CT Transit city bus.  (Not a lot of advantages to living on one of the city's biggest streets, but this is one of them.)
  • 9:21 am     Bus arrives. This morning's D ride is very crowded and filled with personality.  My suitcase is in the way, but everyone is nice about it. Adult fare = $1.50 (Personally, I think city buses should be free, but that's just me.) 
  • 9:43 am     Get off bus on State & Chapel and walk to New Haven's historic Union Station.  Nice flat walk.
  • 9:51 am     Arrive at the train station.  Read several chapters of The AIDS Generation.
  • 10:30 am   Board Amtrak train departing (on time!) from New Haven to Springfield, MA. Train has a fair amount of people, but is quiet and not too full. I read several more chapters of The AIDS Generation.  Fare from New Haven to Windsor Locks = $17  
  • 11:38 am     Arrive at Windsor Locks (WNL) train station.  The taxi that I had called for 10 minutes before was waiting.  Driver clearly smokes several packs a day, in his taxi. #TBT.  Ride to the airport is 10 minutes and a flat rate of $16.  Plus tip = $20.
  • 11:48 am     Check into flight at kiosk.  No need to park!
  • 12:07 pm     Through security and drifting around airport.

Cost = $38.50
Time = 3 hours (door to door), would have been closer to 2 hours if I had gotten a ride to the train station from my house.

My train trip was clearly less expensive and not that much more travel time than Supershuttle or driving. The trick is really scheduling as this Amtrak train runs only about every 2 hours. The 10:30 brought me in just in time for my 12:51 flight, but there could have been a lot more waiting.  Also, the train station in WNL is just a platform and a big parking lot that is next to nothing so waiting there on the way home could be not great.

Still, good to know, right?  You can take the train to Bradley!


Lovely trip to Target today. Photo album for the Haiti pictures. King-size comforter to replace the one the dog has slowly destroyed over the last four years. Reese's peanut butter cups. Living the life at Exit 9.

In case I had forgotten that next week is Valentine's Day, Target was nice enough to remind me. Lots of love to be had there in the form of red shiny things and sweets. So, I was already feeling the holiday when I got back to the minivan and turned on NPR's Snap Judgment.

What a story they told today in their show about love. The story of Sonny and Peter who met in 2001 and were married 10 years later. Lived experience of incarceration. Lived experience of love. You really can't make this stuff up.  Please listen.

Click here:

Happy Valentine's Day.


Maria is a member of Families for Justice as Healing.
Link to website & like on Facebook.
One of the main problems with self-published books is that they don't enjoy the promotional boost that can be provided by the big house publishers. If you don't know a book exists, you can't read it. Thanks to social media, this barrier has been somewhat diminished, but I imagine it is still an uphill battle to get into libraries and onto bedside tables when you strike out on your own.

I heard about Stinging for Their Suppers from my friend Dave who works at a college near another college where the book was produced. There was a flyer about a launch event which he copied down and emailed to me. I found the book's Facebook page and ordered a copy for $15.  The book took several months to arrive.

I learned about Upper Bunkies Unite when my mother sent me a newspaper article that mentioned Andrea C. James, the book's author. A google search of her name led me to her organization's website and the Amazon page selling her book. Two days later it was on my kitchen table.  I think Amazon Prime may be an evil force that ends commerce as we know it, but I kind of love it.

Both of these books are written and published by formerly incarcerated women and describe, among other things, their experiences with food and eating while in prison.  Stinging for Their Suppers is written by a collective of women who were incarcerated in California.  Upper Bunkies Unite is written by a Boston woman who was incarcerated in the federal system. The raw flow of these books and the font and design of the manuscripts remind the reader that these are self-published books and this is a good thing. What you see is what you get. If you want to learn about women's lived experience of incarceration, read these books.

Both books, especially James' Upper Bunkies Unite, serve as a point of contrast to Piper Kernan's now semi-famous Orange is the New Black which was published by Random House and promoted to the point that it became a made-for-TV miniseries. Upper Bunkies and Orange describe life in the same federal prison camp for women in Danbury, CT, and were written by college-educated middle-class women. However, while Kerman's book is infused with humor and is almost campy at times, James' tone is a combination of loving dismal outrage. This difference may be attributed to alternative perspectives due to race- James is African-American and Kerman is White - and/or socio-political upbringing.  Kerman describes herself as largely oblivious to prison issues prior to her own incarceration while James recounts an activist upbringing in Roxbury that allows her to write about her personal experience with a larger socio-political perspective.

Another difference is that Kerman does not have children and James had three children when she went to prison. Kerman openly acknowledges that not having children on the outside made her incarceration more manageable. James doesn't dwell on her own maternal separation, but her description of her peers' suffering, especially when news of a child's death arrives to the camp, are powerfully infused with a deep empathy and compassion that reflect her own standpoint.  James' narrative takes full responsibility for her crimes at every turn while begging the question, how much time is enough, especially when there are young people waiting for their mothers on the outside? Like her book, the photo included above, which comes from the website for her non-profit community group, Families for Justice as Healing, demands an answer to this pressing question.

The differences in these narratives may also come from the fact that James' book is self-published while Kerman's book is not. Kerman is the author of her book, a personal and brave account of her lived experience, but still one must wonder about the extent to which Random House's profit margin may have (re)shaped her story. How would Stinging and Upper Bunkies read if they had passed through countless editorial and marketing meetings? The difference between Mrs. Field's perfect mall-baked cookies and Vovo's Toll House creations, consistently burnt along the bottom and soggy in the middle. Both completely different delicious versions of the same recipe.

Brave Not Fearless

The front page of today's New York Times ran Philip Seymour Hoffman's obituary, leading with this headline: "Actor of Depth, Fearless in His Choice of Roles"  So here's the rant:  People are not fearless, they are brave. When Mr. Hoffman portrayed eccentrics, addicts, social outcasts, overweight people, master manipulators, and priests, he was exhibiting bravery. And tremendous talent that, as I understand it, comes from a place of empathy and social intelligence. To describe him as fearless, dismisses the courage and strength it took to live in these roles and suggests that he was some kind of psychopath.  Who among us is fearless in the decisions we make about our lives?

He was also being brave when he stopped using drugs 20 years ago, when he fought against his addiction, signed into rehab last spring. The tragic end to his life illustrates how difficult this journey was. Hard to hide, to stop, to self-medicate. Easy to make a mistake, to trip, to stumble, to fall.

Last summer, Cory died of a drug overdose. Alone in the hotel. Yesterday's news was similar, another white man found dead surrounded by his works and empty heroin envelopes. Like Heath's story. These famous guys who get the press are just the tip of the iceberg: In 2013, nearly 200 people in CT died of a drug overdose. Mostly white men living in the suburbs. Mostly opioids, heroin and oxy pills.

So here's the lecture.  Not me ranting and raving, this is science.

  • Don't use opioids. Not heroin, not pills, nada. Not fun, not funny, hard to put down. When the demons, peer pressure, boredom, and everything is staring you down, try to be brave. See if your health insurance covers mental health services. Talk to someone. Share your story.
  • If you use:
    • Don't use alone. 
    • Use small amounts when you are starting to use after prison or treatment. Tolerance changes.
    • Find a doctor who can prescribe you Narcan (Naloxone). Keep it on you and give it to the people who you use around.
    • When you stop using, consider Methadone to prevent relapse.
In the wake of this awful death, let's all try to be just a little bit braver. Scary to talk to our friends and family about drugs. Scary to embrace harm reduction when what we really want is for it all to go away. Scary to really see the people around us. Scary to see ourselves. Let's be brave for the drug users, for the drug users' families, for the Corys, Heaths, Phillips who are fighting hard every day to stay brave.


Dinner in Haiti
When I was in Haiti last month, we ate a big breakfast every morning at the hotel cafe. At the first place we stayed, these meals were quite extravagant. Plates filled with bright orange mango, sliced avocado, spicy grits, hot chocolate, and cod fish. At the second place, the selections were more limited, but still plentiful. Bananas, cold spaghetti with sliced hot dogs, spicy meat pastries, hard boiled eggs.
Spicy grits in Port au Prince.  Can you say, "Yum!"??
At lunchtime, we ate with the children at the workshop site.  These meals were brought in from a local restaurant.  Again, this was a big meal.  Usually rice and beans with vegetables (canned beans, carrots, beets) and chicken. Delicious.

Lunch: As in a lot of places around the world, this is the main meal of the day in Haiti.
By the time we made it back to the hotel after the workshop, it was late and we were all exhausted. We mostly wanted to take a shower and get going on the evening tasks required to prepare for the next day. Having already eaten two large meals, we weren't really that hungry, just hot and tired, so we chose not to go out for dinner. However, as the evening wore on, the munchies arose. Around 10 or 11, we'd invariably start looking around for snacks. These snacks were all items that we had brought with us from the US. The trip's organizer, who was familiar with the workshop's daily rhythm, had told us to bring snacks. What snacks to you pack for the trip to Haiti? Processed, packaged food that can be transported, will not go bad, and doesn't need to be cooked.  Peanut butter crackers, trail mix, chips, crackers, granola bars, candy, tuna.
Sound familiar?  I had packed the prison commissary.

My experience with these foods mirrored the stories that women told to me about their days and nights eating in their prison cells. At first, these snacks are kind of fun. Skittles and peanut butter offered a welcome taste of home. But after a few days, cold tuna on crackers gets old. Very old. Without any prompting from me, the folks in my Haitian travel group began to engage in the same food-related activities that my study participants had described.  Asking each other, "What have you got? Want to trade?" Experimenting with different combinations, mixing the food in an effort to make them more palatable. After several days of this, none of us wanted to ever eat granola or peanut butter again.  Imagine 18 months.  Imagine 5 years.

When I got back from my trip, I received a copy of a prison cookbook written by women incarcerated in the CA system called, Stinging for Their Suppers: How Women in Prison Nourish Their Bodies and Souls. Pity I didn't have this resource when we were in Gonaives. Did you know you can make lemon pie with graham crackers, Sprite, and non-dairy creamer? Written as a collaboration between faculty at the Claremont Colleges, an LA community-based organization, and formerly incarcerated women, this lovely cookbook provides dozens of creative recipes that highlight the ingredients for survival and joy in the face of hardship. Worth reading to catch a glimpse of prison life and also learn some creative cooking ideas - you never know when it might be just you and a box of crackers.


I went to Haiti for 10 days a month ago. The opportunity to travel there arose when I learned about Project Istwa, a New York-based non-profit that organizes photography workshops for Haitian children. Istwa means "story" in English, or "historia" in Spanish. Seemed like a good match for me since I have lingered on the idea of storytelling for some time now.  What are the stories that children tell when they hold the camera? When they control the gaze and framing about their lives, what appears?

In our world of selfies and 10-year-olds with iPhones, a program that allows children to take pictures may seem unnecessary. But in the community that we visited, photography was a welcome and novel opportunity. The children we spent time with live in the outskirts of Gonaives, a coastal town in the Northwestern part of the country.  Their community is inland, providing them with safety from the floods that tropical storms bring to this region, but also placing them far from the town center, off the grid.  No electricity, no running water or sewage system, no Internet, spotty cell-phone coverage, and certainly no 1-hour photo developing. In this environment, the chance to take pictures and keep the 4x6 and 8x10 prints was greatly appreciated.

Their photos captured the desolate beauty of this place.  The blue sky, the dry bush, their brightly colored concrete homes. The images portrayed the important places in their community - the water pump,the park, the basketball court, and shop - but most of their pictures were of people: Mom, Dad, Friends, Teachers, Cousins, Grandmother, Sister, Brother, Aunt, Uncle, and the old lady who lives down the road. Each face, stance, and special outfit telling a story of its own.

So what I can I tell you about Haiti?  What did I learn? What can I share?  Honestly, not much.  I know little about Haitian history and culture. I don't speak Creole. My time was spent primarily in one small pocket of the country, a micro glance which makes it impossible for me to construct any claims about the country. I saw and experienced all kinds of things that were hard for me to really understand or process given my lack of background or context about this place.  I can tell you this - Haiti is stunning to look at and deliciously warm. The people are busy and patient.  I felt very safe and welcome.

What the experience came down to for me was about 20 people.  Twenty new characters in my story. The other volunteers, folks from the US and Haiti who worked alongside me in organizing the workshop. Their memories, their humor, their problem-solving skills, their reflections on the path we traveled together. The children in the workshop.  Not all 32 who participated in the project, but the half dozen or so who somehow ended up by my side and inside my imagination. The ones who shared their photos with me, who sat with me in comfortable silences, who played tic-tac-toe over and over again, who looked at me with a smile and a nod that suggested that they had seen me. Getting to know them on their own and then seeing them on the last day at the photo exhibit surrounded by their friends and family was truly a privilege. Our children, our future.

Bearing Witness

I just read four memoirs by accident.  

I read the books intentionally, they had all been on my list for months, but I didn't really realize that they were all memoirs until the middle of the last one, when I was hanging out in Sonia and Kevin's apartment in New Haven, and I realized I was exhausted. It really was a lot for one girl to take in! Over the last few weeks, I have lived in a sweltering shotgun house in Mississippi, driving along the Gulf Coast at night with the windows down and the music up, gotten into all kinds of adolescent boy trouble in Orlando, selling sneakers and eating dumplings in Taipei, I've been homeless, high, and hungry, carrying the heavy book bag all day long until coming to rest at the top of the stairs, I've worked 19 hours a day as a corporate attorney, trying to remember my insulin, my niece, and my dreams.  Like I said, that's a lot for one girl.

A well-written memoir, as all four of these are, offers you more than a story, it offers you a friend, an opportunity to bear witness to the intimate details of another person's life. When my plane to San Antonio was delayed on the tarmac for two hours last week, it didn't matter to me at all. I wasn't on the plane anyway.  I was in Abuelita's apartment with Mami and Nelson, listening to the subway rumble by.

Perhaps the familiarity, the ease with which we all became friends, comes from our random intersections. I was just a few miles from the Ward family home when I visited Mississippi with my father.  Was Jesmyn in one of the cars that flew by as we drove from Bay St. Louis to Long Beach?  When Eddie was raging around Central Florida, I was there, with my baby girl, visiting Mickey.  I was in NYC during the years that Sonia and Liz describe.  I wasn't in their New Yorks, but I may have been on a late night train with Liz or read newspaper articles about Sonia's cases. Reading about their lives brings me back to those shared spaces and my own memories.

All of these books are tremendous, but if I had to pick one, one that really touched me, or should I say, reached in and ripped my heart out and then messed with my brain, that would be Liz Murray's 

Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard.

  I had originally bought this book for my daughter, dismissed it as an after-school special type book for teens, didn't bother to read it myself.  Funny what we think we already know.  When Edith didn't pick it up, the book somehow came creeping back to me. What an amazing surprise. Talk about bearing witness. The depth and complexity of this memoir comes from the way in which the first half of this book serves to chronicle not just the author's own life, but the life of her heroin-addicted parents. Her story bears witness to their drug use, their addiction, their friendships, and their family. If you have ever wondered what drug addiction looks like, this honest and loving book is for you. Given her parent's persistent injection drug use in the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s, I might have anticipated their diagnoses with HIV, but I did not. Perhaps in part because it hit me by surprise, these chapters were gripping. Murray's narration of her mother's diagnosis and life living with HIV and dying of AIDS in the early 90s rings so clear and true that if you have ever borne witness to such a passing, you will be there again, in that place, that hospital, exactly as you remember it.  Reading this book, you will actually smell the room. It was as if she had somehow entered my own memory and transcribed it onto the page. It made me cry, and I don't cry when I read.

So that's my endorsement.  Read a memoir. Bear witness. You will be surprised to learn that the person you thought you knew has a lot up her sleeve.

Sotomayor, S. (2013).  

My Beloved World

. New York: Knopf.

Murray, L. (2010). 

Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard.

 New York: Hyperion.

Huang, E. (2013). 

Fresh Off The Boat: A Memoir

. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Ward, J. (2013). 

Men We Reaped: A Memoir

. New York: Bloomsbury.

Now I am going to read

Townie: A Memoir

, because Shawn told me to.