Sight, Sound and Beyond

Archive for October, 2014

The Day I Visited Prison

criminologyOctober is a very memorable month for me. For starters, you have the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron St. of Animals, and I have quite a few friends and family members who were born in October. I always say that if I were not born in August, I would choose to be born in October. There is something very special about this month. It is one of the most beautiful months of the year with the different colored leaves. According to a book of daily quotes I have called The Daily Calm, the month of October is the month of Wisdom. Oh how I couldn’t agree more! Besides the feast days, birthdays and wedding anniversaries that fall in this month, there is one day in October that I shall never forget: the day I visited Fishkill Correctional Facility on Friday, October 22, 1999.

After 15 years, the memory is still clear in my mind, and it is something that my close friend, Mary Wu, and I talk about till this day. We were both seniors in high school taking courses for Mercy College credit, one of which was Criminology. Part of the course included a visit to prison to learn about the realities of crime and prison life. I had heard all kinds of stories from students who had gone the previous year. I heard things like: “They get in your face and yell at you.” Because of my very sensitive nature, I was very nervous about going. How would they react if I didn’t see something or hear what they said? What if they ganged up on me?

The prison had a youth program called YAP (I think it stands for Youth Assistance Program). It’s primary aim was to warn teens not to travel down a criminal road, which ultimately leads to prison. Because of the program’s effectiveness, I am assuming it is still around today.

Anyway, many of the inmates I would be meeting were in gangs and were serving time for murder. This was serious business, and I remember asking our teacher if I would survive the experience. I will never forget his response: “Yes, you will survive, but it will be a day you will never forget.”

We traveled by school bus to the prison, and when we arrived we wanted to turn back around. After seeing the barbed wire that surrounded the prison, my classmates and I got all nervous. We were all told to wear plain dark clothing that day, and I remember wearing all black, hoping not to stick out like a sore thumb in the crowd.

We went inside and went through something similar to a booking process. We were finger printed, and we walked through metal detectors. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to end up back there again. The officers there gave us a rundown about what we should not do, like giving out any type of personal information.  They also told us the realities of prison life and despite what people think, prison is a dangerous place. I remember hearing that inmates make their own weapons and get into nasty fights.

We went downstairs where we were met by eight men with very thick New York City accents. They were yelling and cursing, and I was trying my best not to pee myself. We were led to a room that had chairs arranged in a circle. There were some windows around to let light in, but for the most part, it was a dimly-lit area. We were told where to go and how to stand. I remember them looking at each of us straight up and down. One of them stood just inches from my face and said: “Put your hands at your sides.” Like a good soldier, I did what I was told.

Then they all introduced themselves by saying “My new name,” which was followed by a series of numbers. I remember learning that the first two numbers was the year that they were convicted. Most of them were convicted in the early to mid-90s. They definitely had me scared. I remember one of them saying to us, “Today you don’t belong to your mother! You don’t belong to your father! You don’t belong to your teachers! You belong to me!” In my mind I cried out: “I belong to God!”

When we were finally told to sit in our chairs, each one of them took some time to speak on various subjects ranging from peer pleasure, drugs, violence and prison life. I was wide-eyed the whole time, afraid to move. There was a lot of yelling and cursing. The F word was definitely used quite frequently.

I did not dare move. If I had an itch, I did not scratch it. I sat as they instructed us with both feet flat on the floor and my hands on my knees. My gaze often fell upon Mary, who sat directly across from me. I wondered what kind of thoughts were spinning around inside her head.

I remember the loudest guy there was the biggest, and his name was Mr. Attitude. I remember him sharing his story about what happened to him when he arrived to the facility.  It was a very loud and emotional account, and I remember at one point he began to cry as he spoke. All different kinds of emotions were flooding inside of me. I felt afraid, but I also felt moved with compassion for them.  It was all happening in front of me, and all the stories were real. This place was real.

At one point, my class and I were broken up into four groups.  Each group contained three students and two inmates. Mary and I were in separate groups. At this point, the volume was taken down a few notches. They spoke to us in a softer tone and answered questions we had about their stories and how they became part of the YAP Team. I remember I didn’t ask any questions because I was just so taken with the whole experience. I knew it was real, but it was so surreal, and I couldn’t believe I was there. I had never spoken to anyone who killed someone, and I had never been inside a prison.

The overall message that they had was they wanted to reform and live better lives, and they wanted to prevent teens from going the route they had taken. Their message was to listen to your teachers and your parents and to do the right thing and not end up where they had ended up.

I admired them for their efforts to change, and I truly believed in them. To this day, I think about them and hope that all eight of them have found the better path to follow. I remember walking around with a heavy heart that entire weekend, trying to take in everything that I had witnessed. I remember thinking about what they were doing at that moment and what would become of them in the future.

That following Monday, our teacher told my class and me to write letters of thanks to the YAP Team. After completing my letter to them, my heavy heart became a bit lighter. I felt a sense of closure, and I was glad I had visited the facility and that I heard what they had to say. They had a powerful message and the experience had a very profound effect on me. I remember writing something like: “I did not particularly care for all the yelling, but I understand why you did that. You were trying to scare us away from hell and in order to do that, you had to scare the hell out of us.”

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To Bless or Not to Bless

Sunny and Nikki September 2014

Sunny and Nikki
September 2014

That is the question.

The feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the Patron Saint of Animals, is October 4th, and every year around this time, I always ponder the idea of having one of my parish priests bless Sunny and Nikki.  St. Francis loved all of God’s creatures, and once preached a sermon to a flock of birds. He saw animals as our brothers and sisters because they were God’s creatures, just like human beings are.  He said of animals: “Not to hurt our humble brethren is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission — to be of service to them wherever they require it.”

I love this!  There is no one who would deny the importance of human life, but I find that the opposite is true when it comes to animals.  Animals are more than just creatures who roam the earth.  For many centuries, animals have been of great service to man by providing food, clothing and transportation.  And what about the animals who reside in our homes with us?

People love dogs and cats, but birds are still looked down upon when they are just as intelligent and loveable as their furry friends.  The famous line I hear from people is, “They are just birds.”  When I spoke about having my birds blessed to a family member she remarked: “I could see if you wanted to bless a dog, but birds?” When I mentioned St. Francis’ love of birds, another family member added, “He liked doves, not parrots.”  How did he know?  I think St. Francis would have loved being in the company of parrots.  If he were living on earth today, I bet he would enjoy a nice trip to the Bird Jungle in Scarsdale, NY.

Yesterday, I gathered my courage to call up my church rectory and explain my request to the parish secretary.  She seemed a bit confused.  “What do you want to have blessed?” she asked.  I guess Holy Rosary Church doesn’t get a lot of avian visitors.  Once I got the green light that one of our priests, Father Martin, was available, my father dropped the girls and me at the rectory and waited outside until we were finished.  While I was briefly waiting for Father Martin, I took the girls out of their carrier, placed them both on my left hand and held a towel in the my right.  I held the towel directly underneath them because I didn’t want the girls to leave any gifts behind if you know what I mean.

Father Martin arrived and greeted all of us.  He commented on how cute the birds were and assured me that I was doing a good thing.  It was nice to have one person confirm that I wasn’t completely nuts.  He led us to the sacristy, and before Father began the blessing, Sunny said “Hello” a few times, and Father said hello back.  I was surprised Nikki didn’t say anything since she is known as the big talker.  I guess she got a little shy.

Father recited a special prayer for animals while the girls watched him with childlike wonder.  He blessed them both with holy water, and I thanked him.  His blessing was very sincere.

I don’t know if the girls got anything out of it, but it was quite special for me.  Actually, it was like an avian baptism so I was thrilled.  I once read somewhere that looking at a bird can lead you back to God.  I believe there is truth in that, especially today. We live in a high tech world full of wonderful things created by man, but this is no match to the wonderful living creations God made.

Though we are the most intelligent creatures on the planet, we are still lacking in one area and that is love. I have found that animals are great teachers when it comes to learning how to love. Their love is so simple and unconditional, and I believe that this is how our Lord loves all of us.

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