March Madness

Elizabeth Ann Sweetnam August 7, 1947-March 21, 2014

Elizabeth Ann Sweetnam
August 7, 1947-March 21, 2014

I lost my only sibling Elizabeth Sweetnam to cancer two days ago, it really bites. She was brilliant, funny and feisty. This is written in her memory, rest in peace Elizabeth. David Rothenberg, founder of the Fortune Society in New York, author of A Fortune in My Eyes, has been a prison reform advocate for decades and is a friend of my sister. Never met the man, but if actions reflect character, David Rothenberg is the real deal. It is a tribute to David’s pioneering work that serious attention is gradually focusing on corrections in America, its dysfunction and the breathtaking expense to America.

An excellent article in the New York Times recently stated that 40% of NY Rikers Island’s 12,000 inmates are now diagnosed as mentally ill.

According to my math, that would be 4,800 people behind the wire at Rikers Island struggling to literally keep their head together; one could reasonably assume that number to be a lowball estimate. Reported use of force by Rikers Island guards has increased 240% over the last decade while the jail’s population has dropped by 15% in the same period, hmmm. The really good news is that recently elected NY mayor Bill de Blasio has appointed Joseph Ponte as the new head of City Corrections. Mr. Ponte apparently has a credible reputation for reforming violent institutions, most recently in the State of Maine; all the power to him. Perhaps Mr. Ponte should reach out to David Rothenberg for candid ideas on local inmate re-entry to society, ideas that work; especially for those 4,800 Rikers Island inmates behind the bars of mental illness. Remember, most of them will be released to join us in society.

Sadly, much American media scrutiny tends to focus on sensational horror and heartache, the more blood and guts the better. Rikers Island doesn’t make the cut, Malaysia flight 370 does. The justified raw grief displayed by anguished Malaysian parents, for all the world to see, was utterly riveting. The sheer volume of coverage is absolutely suffocating. As mesmerizing as the mystery is, and it will be resolved, it says something about our society. If I look at your problems, mine pale in comparison, right? How about March Madness media coverage, getting enough? Are some of the youthful basketball upsets awe inspiring and fun to watch or read about? Absolutely. Do I really care about bracket choices, millionaire college coaches foaming at the mouth over a bad foul call or who ultimately will win, not a chance. They’re chump change in the big scheme of things.

I care about Pope Francis recently appointing an Irish sex abuse victim, Maria Collins, to an eight person international core group, which will advise the Catholic Church on how to start righting some well documented wrongs. Finally! She is an advocate for those victims all over the world, quietly stuck behind the bars of sexual abuse; don’t pull your punches Maria.

I care about Dr. James Gilligan, an American clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University, who co-authored a 2013 report on how the treatment of mentally ill inmates at Rikers Island, violated the City’s own mental health standards. Dr. Gilligan is a hero for those who have no real voice in America these days. I hope Mr. Joseph Ponte, new head of New York City’s Department of Corrections, can implement lasting change. I care that he succeeds, as I am sure the family members of those mentally ill Rikers Island inmates do as well.

As Nelson Mandela once said, “A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don’t have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial, and uninformed.”

Some leading American politicians are now advocating, on a bipartisan basis, for prison reform. Their efforts are motivated by budget concerns, oh well. Perhaps this endeavor will boost their ratings. What ratings you ask? A meager 8% of Americans rate Congress as “very high” in honesty and ethics according to a 2013 Gallup survey; but hey it’s 2% higher than lobbyists who came in at 6%. If politicians will ignore the lobbyists, focus on governance instead of ratings and learn from Governor Chris Christie and “Bridgegate,” perhaps meaningful lasting prison reform will trickle down to a jail near you. Those ahead of the curve, advocating for the mentally ill, especially the mentally ill behind actual razor wire, should be in our thoughts and prayers. They are the game changers.

What gives these brave advocates the passion and fortitude to run against the grain, to fix long standing wrongs that are often justified with “that’s the way it’s always been done” and “walk a mile in my shoes pal?”  Who really knows, they have thick skin in the game regardless and for that I am grateful.

I honor those on the front lines making a difference. The unsung heroes who shun the limelight but know what they have attempted and accomplished. Me? I go to church, listen to good worship music and pray every day while driving to work. I try hard to be a good husband, father and Christian. I fail pretty regularly, but hey I am not in Rikers Island.  I have my health, I don’t have cancer, I have hope and faith plus I don’t know anybody on Malaysia flight 370. Who am I to complain? It all makes March Madness look like an afterthought.

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