Tag Archives: invisible

Invisible Places

jailLike any good American, I went to jail the day after Christmas.  Well, maybe it was a strange thing to do.  My youngest daughter, a college sophomore, crawled out of bed on a Monday morning to join me because she just might share my unconventional approach to interesting holiday activities.  But you have to give us the “interesting” at least.  When our host asked his colleague at the beginning of our tour if an older gentleman escorted past us was the murder suspect, we were pretty sure we weren’t returning gifts to Macy’s.

The Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine Law has conducted conflict resolution trainings for the LAPD over the past couple of years—a most important work to be sure.  As a result, several officers have enrolled as students in our Master of Dispute Resolution program, including the officer that commands the particular LAPD jail that we visited.  In our interactions at Pepperdine, he offered to give me a tour, and I jumped at the opportunity.

The jail we visited is one of several that process and hold arrestees for a couple of days until their court appearances, which means that all manner of folks pass through, from benign offenders to death row convicts.  We saw everything.  On the lighter side, we played with the equipment, tried on riot gear, held a Taser, and posed for smiling pictures behind bars knowing we were free to leave.  On the sobering side, we saw the padded cells and the strip search rooms, but more poignantly the prisoners who were not free to leave: the voices yelling for attention; the disembodied hands sticking out from behind the bars, one my daughter saw mimicking a gun; faces behind the glass that embarrassingly felt like zoo exhibits, including the bloodied face of a man booked for assault with a weapon who looked like he lost the assault.

I didn’t feel like saying Happy Holidays very often.  I was impressed by the professionalism of the staff.  I felt, almost surprisingly, a measure of pride in being an American, what with the processed turkey dinner served on Christmas as opposed to the regular fare, the prominent posting of prisoner rights throughout the complex, the attention to cleaning the facility (despite the horrid smell by the shower in the men’s block), and the detailed cataloging of the personal items of the prisoners.  Gary Haugen taught me that the developing world rarely needs better laws, just (non-corrupt) law enforcement, and I was pleased to see a place led by an officer dedicated to enforcing the law with integrity.  But, still.  A jail is intentionally not a happy place to be, which was psychologically jarring on the day after Christmas.

Our world is full of unsettling, invisible places.  There are things we would rather not see, but we don’t have to travel far to find them.  We just don’t hang out in jails very often.  We rarely visit hospitals or nursing homes.  We avoid the homeless and hungry and lonely and stay away from poverty-stricken parts of town.  Heck, there are parts of ourselves we choose to ignore.  If we don’t look, I guess we can pretend these places don’t exist, which I’m fairly positive is a less than healthy approach.

In the women’s block of the jail, we met a young female correctional officer completing the probationary portion of her new job.  She was impressive in uniform, professionalism, and personality.  We instantly liked her.  She is also twenty years old, basically the same age as my daughter.  This young officer sees (and does) things in her work every day that I would rather not think about very often, if at all.  We learned that the LAPD desperately needs more female officers like this, and it struck me that the world must need lots of public servants in lots of invisible places.

I am humbled by those already there.

In 2017, I intend to spend more time in invisible places.  The tourist spots are just too crowded anyway.

Make Them Know

“Make them know.”

In Jesmyn Ward’s award-winning novel, Salvage the Bones, Skeetah, a poor Mississippi teenage boy whispered that phrase to his treasured pit bull, China, before sending her into battle against her nemesis, Kilo.  I found it to be the most gripping line in a terrific book.

Salvage the Bones is a fierce story of a poor family as told through the eyes of a teenage girl, motherless, surrounded by men and boys, secretly pregnant, and trying to understand life as Hurricane Katrina warms up, bears down, and then inundates their world.  Among many compelling topics the novel explores is the idea of invisibility, which is where the phrase “make them know” leapt off the page and demanded my attention.  Unnoticed, overlooked, neglected—those are not good words, and undeniably not a good feeling.

My little family of four lost our home eleven years ago today in Hurricane Katrina, and although we surprisingly have fond memories of that great national tragedy due to a heightened sense of community and the opportunity to meet great-hearted strangers full of love, the raging waters surely had some of our tears sprinkled in.  And, to be honest, from time to time, a little bit of spit in it projected in anger toward institutions including but not limited to governments and insurance companies, pardon the legalese.

And I’ll tell you, if you ever want to get punched by someone from Mississippi (and who doesn’t?), then say that you thought Hurricane Katrina was just in New Orleans.  Please know that it wasn’t.

Make them know.

When you mix marginalization and anger and leave it in the microwave too long, you start to hear those words building in your heart.  And more often than not, they emerge violently.

So why does my family have fond memories of a tragedy in our lives?  Despite the infuriating institutions that failed us?  Despite the relatively speaking inordinate attention our New Orleans neighbors received?  It is because we were loved.  We were known.

In this tragic world of ours, where the recipe for violence is constantly prepared in the kitchen, the best advice I can offer is to be about the work of making others known.  Expecting others to do it themselves is not healthy for anyone.