It’s well-known that the United Statesimprisons more people than any other country. Too often it seems we throw people in prison and forget about them. They’re wayward people who deserve punishment for their bad deeds, right? But, what happens after prisoners get released? According to a 2011 Pew Center study: “45.4 percent of people released from prison in 1999 and 43.3 percent of those sent home in 2004 were reincarcerated within three years, either for committing a new crime or for violating conditions governing their release.”
California’s recidivism rates are some of the highest in the country. California also spends a lot on its prison system. The state spends more money locking people up than it does funding higher education. Prison reform in the US is necessary; what we have now isn’t working well.
Last night I went to an alumni mixer for my business school. My friend and I mingled, exchanged pleasantries, answered the question oft-asked in SF, “Who do you work for?” and eventually landed in chat circle with three others. A man named H shared the story of his career ascent: “I made some bad choices in my life that I take responsibility for. I wasted a lot of time. I spent 8 years in prison.”
Say what now? Prison? Like Oz-style with shanking and what not?
Yes, prison. San Quentin prison. You know, where Johnny Cash held his first prison concert?
He went on to tell us about the program he joined in prison that helped him reset his life. It’s a program called The Last Mile that focuses on teaching prisoners business skills and providing project-based learning experiences. They eventually transition into a paid internship with one of the many technology companies in the Bay Area.
As I listened to H speak, it impressed me how forthcoming he was about his past and the path that led him to this point. He admitted to having made mistakes, but took the steps to change the course of his life for the better. Through The Last Mile, not only is he now employed with an up-and-coming technology startup, he had the opportunity to meet and learn from top leaders in the industry, the kind of people with whom ladder climbers dream of rubbing elbows. Had he not shared his story, I would have assumed he’d taken a more traditional route to reach his current state. His appearance and demeanor were professional and he spoke knowledgeably about the work he does. He enthusiastically praised the program and seemed grateful for the opportunity.
I didn’t ask what led to his imprisonment. It’s unimportant (to me). What’s important is that in the present he’s working hard to carve out a fruitful life for himself.
I greatly appreciate knowing that organizations like The Last Mile exist. It’s one kind of reformation our prisons need. People aren’t disposable. Prison shouldn’t be a place people go to learn how to become better criminals or lead to a vicious cycle from which people can’t escape. As H said, paraphrasing one of the speakers he’d met: “We recycle cans and bottles, why can’t we recycle people? Give them another chance?”
I wish H the best. I hope there are many more out there like him, being given a second chance at life.
I volunteered in Moshi, Tanzania (TZ) for three weeks with a program called Give a Heart to Africa (GHTA). With the aid of volunteers and donations, GHTA strives to empower Tanzanian women through education. I considered other organizations for my voluntourism trip and eventually settled on GHTA because the program fees were very reasonable and all the funds go directly to running the school and management of the house. Volunteers are unpaid, including the founders and the organizers.
Here is part I of my stay as a volunteer, written during my trip.
MEET THE OTHER VOLUNTEERS
There’s a rooster who cock-a-doodle-doos every night beginning at 3am and continues until well after the sun rises. One of the GHTA managers wants to print t-shirts with the rooster’s head in the center of a red circle with a strike through it. He’s notorious and wanted. On nights when I forget to use my earplugs, I lay awake during his moonlight sonata and debate which is worse: trying to sleep through nature’s animal chorus (including neighborhood dogs that bark and howl at each other nightly) or man-made noises like the car honks and alarms, garbage trucks and loud drunks I experience at home in L.A.
The volunteers all share one large 3-bedroom house which is next to the small school. Up to six volunteers share bunks in the house. The house/school manager resides in a small “studio” just behind the main house.
I didn’t have a roommate until A_ arrived in week two, declaring to me within the first hour we met:
I usually don’t like Americans, but you seem cool. Perhaps because you travel and you don’t have that annoying American accent?
A_ is half Arab/half Polish with a mostly Australian accent. She’s striking; a girl the boy’s flock to. She has long, dark, wavy hair; large green eyes, and a willowy figure. She’s 21, a student at a private university in London, and full of energy enough to power a Prius.
We roomed together my remaining two weeks, the first few days of which, she quizzed me about my life:
“Where are you from?
“What’s your family like?”
“What are your plans here?”
“What have you done so far? How do you like it?”
“How old are you? You look really young!”
“Do you work? What do you do?”
“Don’t you hate when men aren’t straight up and play games with you?”
She is inquisitive, to say the least. I have never met anyone like her.
George slept across the hall from us. He is a tall, lanky, but athletic, 25-year old from South Carolina with perfectly straight white teeth, boyishly cut brown hair and a slight Southern drawl. He speaks with a booming voice, is gregarious and innocently straightforward. He has enough energy to power a dam. I met him my first night in Moshi when he invited me to join the other volunteers on a safari the next day. He has an amazing knowledge of geography and will share random facts with you such as:
“For each 15 degrees in longitude, the time zone changes by 1 hour,” (or something like that).
He also seems to have memorized the entire catalog of country songs that charted between 1990 and 1999. Over the three weeks I was in the house, I heard him sing country songs to himself, to the students (which helped them learn English) and to the other volunteers. He is pure entertainment and a sweetheart.
Next door is Ka__ and Je_ a mother / son duo from Northern California. Ka_ is German/Dutch and of an age where a lady doesn’t tell. She’s blond and her German-accented English is endearing and pairs well with her welcoming attitude. 22-year old Je_ is tall, slim and would probably make a fantastic fashion model. He’s super chill, though some tough life experiences have left him a bit hardened. He’s very easy to talk to and shares my sense of fun. We became fast friends and he’s my buddy for most of my stay in Tanzania.
Cockroaches live in the house too. I don’t like cockroaches. They are disgusting scum of the earth that refuse to die, live in people’s homes without paying rent or at least washing dishes and the ones in Texas even have the nerve to fly around flaunting their filth. While I sneer at them and smother them in bug spray, my roommate screams and runs away in fear, as though they will morph into an aliens with giant tentacles and chase her around the house. I feel like her protector.
The weekday housekeeper, Me___, is a former GHTA student in her 40s. She’s feisty, takes her job very seriously and is determined to teach the volunteers Swahili one phrase at a time:
“Good morning, Me___.”
“No. Habari za asabuhi, Me___!”
She will wash your clothes for what amounts to US$.13 a shirt and $.18 for pants. Between teaching every morning – during which the sun bakes the non-a/c’d classrooms, playing soccer with the local kids who visit twice a week, my daily “beauty regimen” of sunscreen and mosquito repellent, and hot, dusty 20-minute walks into town, I had plenty of clothing for her to wash. She’s a clothing ninja. We leave our shoes on the patio to avoid tracking dirt in the house. One morning I walked outside to find my flip-flops missing. Another volunteer, noticing my confusion, asked “Are you looking for your shoes?”
“Me___ washed them for you.” This would be a regular occurrence. If Me___ noticed a speck of dirt on my sneakers, she’d clean them. I’d feel bad because the next day I’d walk into town and come back with dust-covered shoes. She’d just wash them again. I overpaid her purposely.
We also have a cook, another former student turned employee, who prepares dinner Sunday through Friday nights. She is very sweet and sings songs in Swahili while she cooks. The menu, posted on the fridge, rotates every two weeks. Dishes vary; sometimes it’s Tanzanian cuisine like chapati, ugali, mchicha (myummy!) and pillau. Other days we have meals based on recipes provided by former volunteers, such as: zucchini fritters, pasta with sauce, and chili. We usually eat dinner together every night except Friday and Saturday when many volunteers go away for weekend excursions. Having dinner together each night gives us a great opportunity to discuss our days, get to know each other better and form a semblance of a family.
I THOUGHT COLD SHOWERS WERE FOR TEENAGE BOYS
The house has two bathrooms. One is in George’s room, the other we share between the other two bedrooms. The first week and a half of my stay the water in the shower was freezing cold and no one could figure out why. There are two buttons to press to activate the water heater before showering, but they damn sure weren’t heating the water. For over a week I took cold showers: shivering, speed cleaning and all the while trying to imagine I was in a sauna (it sorta worked). Eventually a technician fixed the issue. I’m not sure what he did, but we went from ice-cold showers to burn-the-skin-right-off-your-body steams. Given the option of cold or hot water to bathe in, I choose hot. It also gave me the opportunity to teach the students a new English vocabulary word: scalding.
TURN ON THE LIGHTS
Electricity in Tanzania is a problem. Depending on who you ask you’ll hear that it’s either because they’re short 900MW, or the government is corrupt and makes deals with sketchy electric companies. Either way, from time to time the electricity goes out without warning. I experienced this my first night in Moshi when I arrived to a pitch black house. The power went out for more than a few hours at least three more times while I was there. On one such night, only A___, George, and I were in the house. The lights flickered out in the middle of dinner. A__ became slightly panicked:
“What if the cockroaches start coming out now because it’s dark? What are we going to do? I can’t take it!Why are they heeeeeere?!”
We grabbed lanterns, candles, and flashlights. A___ refused to make a move without George’s accompaniment in case a bug needed putting to death.
What to do at 7pm with the lights out? Go to bed? Too early. Read? Too dark. Talk…to…each other? We talk a lot as is. Play a game? Play a game! The house had playing cards and board games.
None of us could remember the rules to any of the card games we knew, and without Google to help jog our memories, card games were out. We decided to Scrabble. We played Scrabble by candle and lantern light. A___ won and I came in second. I blame the poor view of my letter tiles for my loss. I am just a tad competitive.
Scrabble by candlelight makes for a good bonding experience.
DO YOU HAVE JUSTIN BIEBER IN AMERICA?
One of the non-live-in volunteers is a local, Pr_. Pr_ is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and so laid back I’m surprised he doesn’t walk in constant recline. He and I had a fun conversation after dinner one evening. He shared with me:
“We really like some American music here! We like Jay-Z, Rihanna, Beyonce (pronounced without the inflection on the final ‘e’), Ne-Yo, Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, 50-cent, Keyshia Cole…”
I informed him that Keyshia Cole spells her first name wrong (but I’m biased), Rihanna is actually from Barbados and Nicki Minaj from Trinidad, which he found surprising. He asked:
Do you have Justin Bieber in America?
I laughed – hard – and told him that we very much have the Canadian Bieber in “America,” much to the dismay of many of us.
Jay-Z came to Tanzania (Dar Es Salaam) a couple of years ago (with Beyonce in tow) and tickets cost about $20-$30. When you consider how little some people make in Tanzania – some as little as US$1 / day – it’s a huge investment to see these performers, but people are such fans that they do it.
Is it true that Americans are quick to shoot each other with guns?
In TZ knives and machetes are much more prevalent than guns.
It’s a shame that one of the images of Americanism that we export to other countries, is that of US Americans as trigger-happy, homicidal asshats.
ARE YOU VOTING FOR OBAMA?
I had hoped to escape thinking about or discussing the inane 2012 Presidential election on my trip, but there is no getting away from talking about American politics even on the other side of the planet. Quite a few times in TZ, when I mention I am American, the response is a wide-eyed variation of, “Oh, Obama!”, “He’s our ‘brother'” or “Yes we can!” POTUS has quite a few fans in TZ.
I get drawn into discussions about everything from the state of the US economy, to why some Americans are so against universal healthcare, to gay marriage, and to the horrid racism directed at President Obama and The First Lady. Once the topic of racism surfaced, Je__ shared some of his less than stellar experiences living as a biracial, young man in North Carolina. A__, my non-American-loving roommate, couldn’t believe her ears. But, that’s racism: it’s so asinine and absurd that it’s almost unbelievable if you don’t see / hear the incidents for yourself.
We took turns volunteering to wash the dishes after lunch and dinner each day. Often when George volunteered, his dishwashing time would turn into an American Idol audition with him belting out country songs. Once, I volunteered to dry while he washed. It thrilled him to learn that I like to listen to country music sometimes. I requested he sing a George Strait song from the 90s. He obliged, singing “Blue Clear Sky“, and followed it up with another song, aaaand another song, while A___ and I grinned and tried to sing along. I’m sure the neighbors could hear him since he was loud enough to out cock-a-doodle-doo the rooster with the death wish.
Once the dishes were done (man), we moved karaoke night into the living room and he went on a tear. He told us about country rap and one of his favorite country rap artistsCowboy Troy. I’ve never heard of this dude.
Not only did George sing for us, he rapped. Imagine a really tall, lanky, “aw shucks” white guy loudly singing a country song with a twang and suddenly busting out into a rap that includes the lyrics:
What’s-your-name is; now don’t be scared.
Get on the dance floor, girl, you heard:
Hands on your knees, arch that back.
Shake that podunk a dunk an’ make it flat.
I'm Keisha ("Kee-shuh", not to be confused with Ke$ha). I am a (later) thirty-something, non-mommy, non-wife, who lives in San Francisco, California New York and has lots of opinions on lots of things.