Death Row part 1


Death Row part 1

This institution is the location of Death Row in my state. That sentence is an attention-getter but I found out when I visited at that time Death Row was integrated into the rest of the prison. It was not segregated, so to speak.

You mean the guys who are on death row are in your, uh, living area? I asked the inmate sitting across from me in the visiting room. I didn’t have the correct language.

Yeah, the next guy to go is right below me. I saw him this morning. As a matter of fact, he was just outside the door there. He refused a visit this morning.

He refused a visit? Why?

I don’t know. Just now.

Maybe it was his lawyer.

I walked in with a lawyer, he had a carrying case and a rolling file box full of documents and I offered to help him (he was older than me) but he told me he could bench press more than these bags and he does this all the time. In the hallway later as we were walking in together he opened with an irrelevant story about coming into the institution once with [horse] riding boots and how difficult it was to take them off, etc., I suppose his way of trying to roll off the rudeness with which he rejected my offer.

How many on death row would you say? I asked the fellow I was visiting. This was the first time I had met him and the first time I was given entry inside this institution.

About twenty eight, I think. It’s about one a month.

We were well into our conversation when death row came up, and in my head the picture from the movies I had of a separate unit, somber and isolated, etc., was all wrong. Frequently I am all wrong when it comes to my expectations about prison.

No, they are right here with the rest of us, he told me. You can see it behind their eyes, if you know what I mean. Every person is different, but most of them are of calm demeanor. I look behind the calm demeanor and I read them through their eyes.

Later I looked it up. There was a challenge to the death penalty in my state in 2006, on the grounds that the lethal injection protocol violated the Eighth Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment) because the instructions, the protocols around lethal injection were too vague, and were not administered by a qualified anesthesiologist.

The attorney general then, who later became governor, challenged and executions were resumed in 2007, and it does seem that the frequency approximated one a month. I don’t know if this was deliberate but it was mentioned by the man I was visiting as if it was.

I could see that executions happened with more frequency than under the previous two governors, but with even more frequency three and four governors ago, during the last decade of the twentieth century. The last decade of the twentieth century: more frequency of executions, anyone could see this with a simple search.

I didn’t want to dwell on the death row aspect of the institution, I had talked to this man several times on the phone but this was our first meeting. He had a lot to say.

He launched into his story though I don’t ask about their stories. I come to teach and listen and teach and talk and teach mostly and if the story rises I listen, if it doesn’t I’m fine with that too. There is always what to do for me when I come to prison, but since this was my first visit to this particular institution and I wasn’t approved for a class here, I could bring no materials with me. He had plenty to talk about and I listened and we talked a few things through, about the complexity of identities that he was working through, about what goes on inside himself and the institution, what it’s like for him, what he was looking to in the future, there were no silences as we sat head to head for several hours.

The details were rich in this man’s story but I am reluctant to reveal too much though it is interesting and relevant and right in the middle of the review of prison life and societal approaches to incarceration and justice, justice, justice, but it is his story – though there is much in his story that is all story – still it is his story and I’ll keep it to myself unless there comes a time I can be of service to him and others like him who are living within walls this way.

On the drive back I was thinking about what sustains, I often go there in my mind when I come out of the prison. The guys I speak to run into the wall of NO so often I think: could I run into the wall of no that often and keep coming back? I run into obstacles of no here and there and I can barely manage that, could I run into the wall of no as consistently as they do and still manage to sit with quiet and hope and possibility? What sustains?

I was telling someone I know who has been in prison this story and he interpreted it for me. In prison you live in a reduced world, he said, it’s a small space and you came into it sat and listened to someone who gave over his expertise. It’s what he knows about. You listened.




Attentive to Mental Illness-Mental Health


On Suicide

She wrote me a note before we did a community session on suicide. She was not in a place, she said, to come to the session but she wanted to make a contribution.

She gave me permission to use her words as a prompt for the participants to write about their experiences. The following is from the original piece she wrote to me, her words:

I am a survivor I suppose. I have attempted suicide several times in serious ways and I believe I am alive to share a few things I’ve learned. I feel some sort of purpose, I am always looking for that but here goes — I hope this helps someone.

People could listen more with their eyes as well as their ears. When you are contemplating suicide, you don’t conceptualize it. You may not express it.

 Be observant. Don’t ignore anything. Take everything seriously. I wanted someone to hold my hand – I’m not going to leave you, God will not leave you, I’m with you, I will never leave you, that’s what I wanted to hear.

And most importantly: this feeling is going to pass. You don’t think it’s going to pass. You think it’s never going away. It feels permanent.

 I wanted someone to say to me: I wish I could be there with you. Call me. Don’t be alone.

Some time later I met with her at a coffee shop.

I’m starting to feel like I want to get out more, she said, to be of service to others. I often feel a terrible negative energy running through my being, but I think I can offer something. If I could help someone else, it would mean so much.

Version: I love this piece for the wisdom it contains and because it came from such a difficult place in this person’s life. This was not an easy piece to write.

She was at a low enough place in her struggle that she couldn’t make the session, still she felt the necessity to give away some of what she knew. She wanted to help someone else. Where does this kind of compassion come from? All she wanted was to give a little away from what she had learned from her living.

What she wanted most was to be of service to others. And she knew that because of her life, she had some secret wisdom to give away: what it’s like to live with what she lives with, what it feels like from the inside, what she would have liked to hear from others, what someone else could have given her when she needed it most.

It think this is a remarkable document because it has a giving sensibility and because it has real wisdom about what it feels like when a person is struggling to stay alive, to find a way in the world when the inner world goes dark; to come back from the edge and describe what it felt like there.

It has strategies for living that come from the crucible of a person’s life. I think it’s a remarkable piece for all these reasons and every time I see the writer I remind her how much her piece has helped others because as she wrote: if I could help someone else, it would mean so much.

jsg, for No Shanda*

Jews Attentive to Mental Illness-Mental Health

*Shanda means shame, there is none




We were debating how to bring everyone into the camp

when someone said, there is no one outside the camp tonight,

there is no other, no them, only us – all of us – within.

This from J, maximum security prison, Missouri:

I am quite ashamed of my past. There’s no way I can’t be. And, I repent me mightily of the deeds of my past. I was only 18 when I became incarcerated in Illinois. I was young and scared. The Illinois prisons are quite different from Missouri ones. Illinois has hundreds of gangs and is much more violent . . . Probably because of my poor choices in the past, I am strongly committed now. Please accept my apology.


This from P, on parole from Missouri DOC:

Isolation, fear, suicidal –I was giving up on life.

I had no intention to live — once I got out.

I felt very weak, the officers knew I felt weak so they picked on me, the others picked on me too.

I eat slow so — I never got to eat a whole meal. Horrible food.

It was just horrible, did I say that? I never wanted to go back. My only solution: Suicide.

One thing positive – I had a friend. She would visit me. I never saw my family, maybe once, I had lost a family.

We got out on December 30th. My room mate was dead by January 3rd.

She was half my age.



We measure our grief

In years

One year, two years, twenty.

I am softening to my sadness


In a year of days

I remember I don’t remember every minute.

I want the seconds back

I remember and cry for all

I love the most.



I was married a long time ago. Had three kids. My wife took them and left. Been in and out of treatment programs. Been in jail a few times too. I just couldn’t stay clean.

I died on August 4th. The report reads heart failure, but I died of drug addiction. I hope my children remember the better days.


On the wall of the synagogue was written this: do not give in to despair.

I taught that there was no way around the darkness within, there is only the center. There is always the possibility of moving through, but through the center only. Takes courage.



He asked me
Are you sad today or unhappy?

What’s the difference?
If I feel bad sad or bad unhappy.

With unhappy you are attached to Sadness
With sad you are not attached.

Sad may be the condition of your Existence
We all know people like this.

And often they are great Creators
Or they find a way

To redeem the core of sadness

they build a life of beauty or service.

Many of the old Greeks were like this
Aristophanes never told a joke

Though he created many
So too the Hebrews Akiva was always laughing

Though he was as serious as dirt
About his purpose.

Sadness may be a condition
A response to the nature of things to disappoint.

We all imagine the world better
Don’t we?

But with unhappiness
you may be attached to your Version Of Yourself.

Tell a joke

Especially today.

Tell a joke and let me know
You’re pushing through Daily

And you’re neither a fool
Nor are you Numb.












I was called to do a funeral for a young woman who died from an overdose and left an eight year old son. I had never met her but I should have met her. She did eight months at a local treatment-residential facility and someone should have referred her to me, me to her, but I never met her never heard about her and a couple of months out of the facility she died.

I was called to do the funeral because I get this thing, etc., but the frustration for me to come in at the end of a story to make words to remember and explain and try for a little healing is a worthy activity but too late.

Elegist. How much more would I have liked to spend some time with her, to try to get her to the meeting I know has given life to so many.

But the treatment game is like other games, with all the same limitations of professional turf and incompetence and ignorance and carelessness. She was somebody’s mother, somebody’s daughter, not the expert’s mother, not the expert’s daughter, not the referring agency’s kid. Up against all the limitations of everyone’s profession, including my own, when the human need recedes; how many times have my own colleagues neglected to make the right referral. I am stuffed with these stories.

I thought of her when I greeted a man new to the meeting, it was soon after she died. This man I never expected to see again. His story had been public, all over the newspaper, involving crime and weapons and prison time and a lot of years incarcerated. He introduced himself to me at the meeting, asking if I remembered him. Hello, he read the balloon over my head betraying me, of course I remember you and I’m surprised you’re alive it read out above my head.

He had ten days clean after so many years, a long history of treatments and prison and one hell of a mess of life. When he returns and comes for healing, he comes here.

Here. Still. Alive.


For Shalvah, Shalvah means Serenity,

working the borderline between substances and Substance


Profound and Stupid Continued


Profound and Stupid Continued

Or: I Ain’t Goin’ Back

You know me from the prison. I was one of the group when you came to visit. Maybe you’ll know me when you see me. I got out.

Where are you now?

In town. Staying on my brother’s couch.

Do you have a car?

No. A bike. But it’s broke.

Is there a McDonald’s in walking distance?


Meet you there tomorrow at 1:30.

At 1:30 I walked in, he knew me but I didn’t recognize him. We sat down. He looked like eighty years old to me. I read out his shoes, he was wearing someone else’s shoes, cut out the toes so he could walk in them.

I asked him to fill me in. I confessed I didn’t recognize him.

During the course of our conversation, he mentioned he was one of the guys who insisted on walking me out when I visited because there was some dangerous talk among the skinheads targeting me that day [see story Profound and Stupid, skinheads with neo-nazi thought pardon the expression are the major problem in the institutions in my state].

That was me, he said, I was in them who walked you out. It was nothin’ really. They’re punks we know how to handle them.

He was a big man.

How old are you?

Fifty nine.

How long were you in prison?

Thirty years.

When he said thirty years I went quiet. The curtain parted for a moment and I sat staring at him the reality of thirty years of his life in that place penetrated and I struggled for a moment to hold back my tears, this wasn’t my life it was his life and I had no right to cry over his life but I wanted to, I felt myself cracked open to the sadness of that and his voice gentle, pleasant, without a hint of negativity.

Only this: I ain’t going back.

He said that a few times, in the same way: I ain’t goin’ back.

We talked a little more. I asked what I could do for him.

I need medicine. I can get my diabetes medicine but they won’t cover my ED.

Your what?

Erectile dysfunction. They won’t cover my Viagra.

I looked at him again in quiet. Thirty years incarcerated. Maybe he has someone. I wanted him to get that medicine. I was between laughing and crying but what I really wanted for him was that medicine.

Right, I heard myself saying, let’s get that medicine.

I called the free clinic and said, this is Dr. Goodman. I have a patient who needs to be seen and seen right away.

I got an appointment for the next day.

Do you have shoes? I asked him.


Let’s get you some shoes. How about your bike?


I’ll get your bike fixed. Would some food from the jewish food pantry help out where you’re staying?


Come on.

The food at the jewish food pantry wasn’t nearly as easy to obtain as Viagra and after two days waiting in their lobby (it was more disorganized than the bazaars of Kyrgyzstan) they got him registered and he went home with three bags of groceries.

It’s not easy getting help, I thought, unless you’re crooked.