healthcare, law, politics, rants, YouTube

Women behind bars are having a bloody awful time handling their periods…

Last week, I wrote a post about how adorable YouTuber, Mama Doctor Jones, who is an OB-GYN and mom to four, did a video about a woman who had a baby while she was incarcerated. I was really moved by Mama Doctor Jones’ reaction video to Jessica Kent’s story. Next thing I knew, I was on Jessica Kent’s YouTube channel, which is full of interesting videos about her time in prison. Jessica Kent is tiny, well-spoken, and apparently sober, having spent much of her youth in trouble with the law.

I haven’t yet familiarized myself with all of Jessica’s story, but I have watched a bunch of her videos. As I listen to how this fiery young woman wound up on the wrong side of the law, I can’t help but wonder what might have happened to her if she’d never gotten arrested. She’s very bright and articulate, and I think she’s determined to go far. Jessica has obviously embraced the power of the Internet, and has a presence all over social media. She’s pursuing a college degree, but I wonder if she’s already making a lot of money creating videos for YouTube.

Last night, I watched a video by Jessica Kent that made me very angry. It was about how she and her fellow female inmates in Arkansas were forced to make tampons out of the maxi pads doled out to them. Jessica explains that female prisoners in Arkansas are not given tampons and, in fact, can only get really poor quality maxi pads– and just two per day at that. Jessica says the pads are state issued, and she’s never seen the type of pads the state issues for sale outside of the prison walls. Because the pads are so poorly made, they have to be turned into tampons, which last longer than the pads do. So Jessica made a video to demonstrate how to make the tampons.

This is absolutely infuriating!

More than once, Jessica implores her viewers not to try to make these “tampons” at home, since the pad she’s using is not really the type she would have used in prison. Apparently, the pads we can get at the store are too “cottony” and “powdery”. In any case, I can’t imagine why someone would want to make a tampon like this if they weren’t incarcerated and forced to do so.

Jessica says that not all states have this draconian limit on feminine hygiene supplies in their prisons. For instance, when she was incarcerated in her home state of New York, Jessica had no problem getting all she needed for that little feminine monthly chore. New York, of course, is a blue state, and human rights are apparently more valued up north.

For some reason, the powers that be running the prisons in Arkansas think that two maxi pads per day are all a female prison inmate needs when she’s menstruating. I think about my own menstrual habits and realize how disgusting and unhygienic that is. As a woman, and a person with a public health educational background, it amazes me that prison officials in Arkansas are allowed to get away with this practice. At the very least, it seems like it would be a serious health risk to everyone who is incarcerated. Many diseases, some of which cannot be cured, are spread via blood exposure. Plus, it’s just so nasty!

I read in another article that, in some prisons, women who can’t get proper feminine hygiene supplies will pass up visits with family or their attorneys when they have their periods. They have to wait until they can get their laundry done, before they’re not sitting in their own blood. Kimberly Haven, the author of that article, writes that before and after each visit, inmates are strip searched, and have to squat and cough. The whole process is so demoralizing and horrifying that a lot of female inmates would prefer to skip it, even though attorneys and family members are powerful advocates for the inmates.

In another article, I read about how, in Connecticut, two female cellmates would have to share five state issued maxi pads among themselves. Every woman is different, of course, so there’s no way to tell how long a period is going to be and how often feminine hygiene products need to be changed. But the inmates in Connecticut also had to learn how to stretch their products out, sometimes by reusing them. The inmates in Connecticut could purchase supplies from the commissary, but for those who don’t have money, that $2.63 cost might mean one less phone call home or not being able to pay for a visit to the prison doctor. Also, realize that prison jobs often pay very little– like 20 or 30 cents an hour. It takes a long time to make enough money to buy the proper supplies if there’s no one on the outside helping.

I have stated before in this blog that I’m not a big fan of incarceration, but I especially dislike inhumane treatment toward people who are incarcerated. Yes, it’s true that the best thing for anyone to do is to avoid going to prison in the first place, but people who are locked up are not going to improve their behavior if they’re treated cruelly. Forcing women to handle their body functions in this way is demeaning and cruel, and it doesn’t deter crime. Prison is supposed to be unpleasant– it shouldn’t be dangerous and unhealthy.

According to my reading:

In 2017, then-Sen. Kamala Harris and her colleagues Sens. Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Richard Durbin introduced a bill to provide free menstrual products to incarcerated people in federal women’s prisons. The Federal Bureau of Prisons issued a guidance memo, separate from Harris’ bill, mandating that menstrual products be available to all incarcerated people in federal correctional facilities at no cost shortly after. In 2018, Congress passed the First Step Act, a more general justice reform effort that included access to menstrual products. 

So… if you’re a woman who goes to a federal lockup, or a prison in a blue state, you’re more likely to be able to take care of these basic body function needs. But there’s no legislation in most states that require state prisons to accommodate menstrual periods. Frankly, I think that’s a sin, and I would love to see some high profile lawsuits happen that force states to do a better job in this area. In a wealthy country like the United States, this unsanitary practice should be outlawed. We’re supposed to be “better” than this… although I think many Americans are fooling themselves thinking that the United States is a civilized country. When we have female prisoners who are sitting in their own menstrual blood every month for want of adequate feminine hygiene supplies, we’ve lost the right to refer to ourselves as “civilized”.

It’s also unfair that prisons don’t automatically take care of this issue, since this is not a problem that male prisoners have to face. In fact, men don’t even need toilet paper as much as women do, but according to Jessica’s videos, women in Arkansas prisons only get two rolls a week. That’s really not much, especially when it’s that time of the month. But a lot of men involved with making laws don’t want to hear about this problem. It’s too “gross” for them. The first paragraph of an article in the Public Health Post opens with:

When Arizona’s all-male House of Representatives heard House Bill 2222 on feminine hygiene products, Representative Jay Lawrence said “I’m almost sorry I heard the bill…I didn’t expect to hear about pads and tampons and the problems of periods.” Introduced by Rep. Athena Salman, Arizona House Bill 2222 allocates funds to provide women in state prisons with unlimited and free access to feminine hygiene products. Access to sanitary menstrual products is considered a basic human right in European prisons. Not so in the US.

Wow, Jay… you’ve shown us just who you are with your lack of compassion or comprehension of how necessary it is for you, and your male colleagues, to hear a bill about providing necessary supplies for women who menstruate. I wonder if Jay Lawrence can even fathom how humiliating and shaming it is for a woman to have to deal with this problem when she can’t get the supplies she needs. Does he have any women in his life that he loves? What an asshole.

Aside from how gross, messy, and unsanitary this problem is, the practice of turning pads into tampons could potentially be unsafe or even deadly. Consider that the inmates probably don’t have the cleanest surfaces for improvising these products and they may not be able to keep themselves optimally clean. Then they’re sticking the tampons into their body orifices, where the improvised tampon might abrade the skin or otherwise introduce pathogens into the body. An inmate could potentially get very sick or even wind up with toxic shock syndrome doing this. Toxic shock syndrome can lead to sepsis, which can cause a person to lose limbs or even their lives.

A tampon did this to Lauren Wasser.

Model Lauren Wasser, who was not incarcerated when she left a tampon in too long and got toxic shock syndrome, lost BOTH of her legs to the sickness. She very nearly died.

I know a lot of people don’t care about the plight of prisoners. Personally, I still see them as human beings who are entitled to decent, respectful, and humane care when they are incarcerated. And part of being humane is making it possible for people in custody to be able to take care of private, personal body functions like menstrual periods. I know I would support legislation requiring that clean and hygienic feminine hygiene products be made available to women in prisons. I hope others can see how important this is.

And… once again… I am so glad menopause is around the corner.

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healthcare, law, true crime, YouTube

Mama Doctor Jones posted a video that made me cry…

A few weeks ago, I somehow discovered Dr. Danielle Jones, an OB-GYN from Texas who has a super cool YouTube channel. I really appreciated her video about the abortion ban in Texas, and why it will put so many women at risk. I shared that video multiple times, and it’s important enough that I’m going to share it again.

I read yesterday that Dr. Jones and her family are moving to New Zealand. I can hardly blame them! Texas is becoming a true hellhole for women.

Yesterday, as our bathrooms were getting repairs, I found myself watching more of her videos. I initially really tried to resist the lure of Mama Doctor Jones, but she’s adorable, funny, and warm. Hell, I haven’t seen a doctor in about eleven years, but if I found one like her, I might make a change. She really seems personable. That impression was especially strong when I watched a video she made, reacting to a video done by a woman who was forced to give birth while she was in prison.

This video broke my heart.

A few months ago, Mama Doctor Jones shared a reaction video she produced after a bunch of her followers sent her a video made by Jessica Kent, a popular YouTuber. I watched this video yesterday, not expecting that I would end it feeling so emotional. I’ve never made it a secret that I am generally uncomfortable with the way many people tend to view prison inmates as “less than human”. This video, which isn’t even the original, really drives home that point. Yes, prisoners deserve punishment, but not at the expense of decency and humanity.

This is the original video.

In October 2011, Ms. Kent, who is originally from New York, was arrested in Fort Smith, Arkansas for drug and gun charges. When I heard she had lived in Fort Smith, I was immediately interested. Bill and Ex lived in Fort Smith at the time of their divorce. It was the location of a lot of trauma for Bill, too.

Anyway, Jessica was high at the time of her arrest, and had no idea that she was pregnant by her then Laotian drug dealing boyfriend. But she was feeling sick and it wasn’t getting better, so she visited medical staff at the jail. Since she was detoxing from hard drugs that she was using intravenously, Jessica thought that was the issue. She was wrong. A very busy nurse, who had a lot of other inmates waiting to be seen, bluntly broke the news to Jessica that she was expecting. She was sent back to her cell.

Two hours later, Jessica was loudly told she had to be moved from her cell because she was pregnant. Dr. Jones is shocked by that treatment, correctly pointing out that Jessica’s pregnancy would put her at risk in a prison environment. It’s also no one else’s business. Jessica then explains why it was dangerous for the guard to let people she was pregnant. During her three month stay at the county jail, Jessica was not given any prenatal vitamins, nor was she taken to a doctor. It wasn’t until the guards realized she wasn’t going anywhere that they needed to have her examined.

Jessica explains that she realizes that she broke the law and deserved to be punished, but the doctors’ visits were completely humiliating. She was dressed in her orange garb, completely shackled and cuffed, and forced to sit in the waiting room of a free clinic with everyone staring at her, whispering, and taking pictures. And while I don’t necessarily think that someone in jail should necessarily expect private accommodations in medical facilities, I do think this scenario is a reminder to people that inmates are human beings. If you wouldn’t point, whisper, and take photos of a regular person, you shouldn’t do it to an inmate, either. Besides being tacky and rude, it’s also potentially dangerous. Jessica says the nurses also had no respect for her privacy, and were not respecting her patient’s rights.

When she was six months pregnant, Jessica was sent to prison. She was taken in a van, completely shackled. And even though her condition made her need to pee every twenty minutes or so, she was not allowed to use the bathroom. I wonder how she managed to deal with that. Poor thing… and yes I say that, even though I know she broke the law and was being punished.

At the prison, Jessica was required to squat and cough. But she was six months pregnant, so it was physically impossible for her. The guards screamed at her, then made her sit on the floor cross-legged for six hours. I have never been pregnant myself, but I can imagine how difficult it must have been for her to move at that stage of her pregnancy. I can’t believe the guards wouldn’t understand that. But maybe a lot of them are not much better people than some of the folks they’re guarding. I understand the need for strict security, but it disturbs me that the guards seem to lose their humanity and common sense. At least in some places…

Jessica was repeatedly told she would lose custody of her baby forever. She was totally despondent and upset hearing that. Even if it was true, and in her case, it wasn’t, that kind of stress, along with all of the other stresses of being locked up, could not have been good for the baby. Jessica was so freaked out about the prospect of losing her baby that she tried to deny being in labor. She wasn’t ready to lose her child.

Another inmate noticed Jessica’s condition, so she alerted the guards, who made her walk to the infirmary in full blown labor. When she gets to the door, she had to be buzzed through three doors. She’s in agony, but the nurses told her they had to wait until “shift change” before she could go to the hospital. It makes me wonder what happens in that prison facility when someone is having a life threatening emergency.

Jessica was bleeding, so the nurses put her in a wheelchair with a pad on it. She sat alone in that chair for about three hours, bleeding. It was her first baby, so she was terrified and in extreme agony. The ambulance shows up, takes her to the hospital, and was fortunately sent with a somewhat kind correctional officer. But the nurses at the hospital were rude and condescending to Jessica. They didn’t speak directly to Jessica; they only spoke to the guard. Then, when the baby was born, Jessica didn’t want to look at her, because she was afraid she would fall in love with her and that would break her heart.

The correctional officer, much to her credit, ordered her to look at the baby. Jessica looked at the baby and fell in love with her… and, in fact, I think that may have saved Jessica’s life. I think it gave her a reason to straighten out her life. That baby girl gave Jessica some hope. This was the bittersweet point in the story at which I got really choked up. It also made me feel sad that I never got to experience that for myself.

A couple of hours later, a guard noticed that Jessica’s leg wasn’t chained to the bed. The guard stated it was “policy” as she chained Jessica, even though Jessica couldn’t walk anyway. A doctor told the guard that it would do Jessica some good to be able to walk, but the guard restated that chaining her was “policy”. They completely ignored Jessica’s rights as a patient, which she maintained, even though she was incarcerated. Jessica was not allowed out of the bed unless she was going to the bathroom. And given the atmosphere, Jessica was actually afraid to ask to use the toilet.

A doctor later tried to give Jessica some Percocet for her pain. Jessica asked for ibuprofen and strong coffee, because she thought she was going to get just 24 hours to see her baby. But the doctor very kindly told Jessica she was going to give her another 24 hours to bond with her daughter. That time passed very quickly. Two big guards showed up to take Jessica back to prison. Naturally, the “mama bear” instincts came out… the guards basically threatened her and Jessica came to her senses. And Jessica said to the baby, “I’ll be back for you…”

Heartbreaking… and again, perhaps the point at which, deep down, she decided she needed to get straight. It must have seemed like an insurmountable challenge, and yet she still managed to do it. I am very impressed by Jessica’s fortitude. So many other people would never have been able to make that climb.

When it came time for Jessica’s release, the guards handled her roughly and took her back to the prison. Her milk came in, which was physically very painful, and she became despondent. But Jessica was smart enough not to express the suicidal thoughts that were in her head, because she knew it would mean being stripped, put in a “pickle” suit, and thrown into a dark, horrible cell, where she would sit for 72 hours, alone, but observed. Jessica had to wrap tight ACE bandages around her breasts to make the milk go away.

Jessica didn’t see her baby for six months. The foster baby kindly sent photos of the baby, but they were sent back, since inmates were only permitted to have five photos in their possession.

Much to her credit, Jessica worked very hard to keep the promise she made to her baby, once she got out of prison. It took a couple of years, but Jessica eventually did succeed in getting full custody of her daughter, Micah. She is now a very popular YouTuber. I haven’t had a chance to watch a lot of her videos yet, since I only discovered her yesterday, but I think she’s going to be yet another YouTube personality I follow. I’m impressed by how bright and articulate she is, and how she’s managed to turn her life around, against all odds. I’m also interested in prison reform and true crime.

Isn’t it interesting how one thing leads to another? I only recently discovered Mama Doctor Jones, and now I’ve discovered Jessica Kent through Mama Doctor Jones and her followers. I enjoyed hearing what an actual doctor has to say about Jessica’s case. I, myself, have had just one encounter with an OB-GYN and it was a horrific nightmare. What would have happened if I’d had a compassionate doctor like Dr. Jones when I had my first “female” exam? Anyway… I appreciated watching this video. I also enjoyed watching Dr. Jones’s video about giving birth to her fourth baby, which really gave an interesting perspective of her experience as a patient.

Also worth watching…

YouTube is an amazing vehicle. So many talented people, who otherwise never would have had a chance to blossom, now have this incredible medium in which to get their voices heard. If I weren’t so camera shy, maybe I would try it myself. But I don’t like feeling like I have to be camera ready, so I stick to blogging… and sometimes I think I don’t come across in my blog the way I really am.

Any readers who know me offline can tell me what they think about that. I probably come off as dumber in person. 😉 You can take that as you wish.

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book reviews

Repost: A review of With God in Russia, by Walter Ciszek and Daniel Flaherty

I thought about this book review recently and decided it was time it was added to the new blog. I am reposting it as/is, the way I wrote it on June 23, 2018.

Sometimes Facebook can be a great place to find books, even from memes posted by long, lost co-workers from twenty years ago.  That’s how I happened to read Father Walter Ciszek’s harrowing story of being held prisoner the Soviet Union for twenty years.  My friend, Courtney, is a devout Catholic and she shared a meme featuring one of Ciszek’s quotes.  Not being Catholic myself, I had never heard of the man.  I do find books about the Soviet Union and the prison experience fascinating, though, so I decided to download Father Ciszek’s book, With God in Russia: The Inspiring Classic Account of a Catholic Priest’s Twenty-three Years in Soviet Prisons and Labor Camps

With God in Russia was originally published in 1964, but it has been republished several times.  I read the version that was released in June 2017.  The price was right at just $1.99.  The book is Father Ciszek’s story written by ghostwriter Daniel Flaherty.  It includes an afterword by James Martin. Father Ciszek, who died in 1984, has been considered for possible beatification or canonization since 1990.  His current title is Servant of God.  

Who was Walter Ciszek?

Walter Ciszek was born in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania in November 1904.  His parents were Polish immigrants who had come to the United States in the 1890s.  When he was a young man, Ciszek belonged to a gang.  He later surprised his family when he decided to become a priest.  At age 24, Ciszek entered the Jesuit Novitiate in Poughkeepsie, New York.  

In 1929, Ciszek volunteered to serve as a missionary to Russia, which had become part of the Soviet Union in 1917.  At that time in Russia, there was a real need for Ciszek’s services.  Religious rights for most citizens were curtailed and those who were religious suffered from persecution.  There weren’t many priests around to offer religious services to believers.    

In 1934, Ciszek went to Rome to study the Russian language, history, and liturgy, as well as theology.  He was ordained a priest in the Byzantine Rite and took the name Vladimir.  Just as an aside, not being Catholic myself, I don’t understand the practice of taking different names for religious reasons. I was a little confused as I was reading the book and Ciszek was referred to as Vladimir.

In 1938, Ciszek went to eastern Poland to do his missionary work.  The following year, the Soviet Union invaded Poland and forced Ciszek to close his mission.  At that point, Ciszek decided to go east, into the Soviet Union, under the assumed name Władymyr Łypynski.  He and two others journeyed 1500 miles to the logging town of Chusovoy, where he worked as a logger and provided religious services on the side.  

In 1941, Ciszek was arrested and accused of spying for the Vatican.  He was sent to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow, where he spent five years, most of which were in solitary confinement.  During his time at Lubyanka Prison, Ciszek was drugged and tortured.  After enduring severe torture, he signed a confession.  Convicted of espionage, Ciszek was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor in the GULAG.  He spent four more years at Lubyanka, then was sent to Siberia, where he worked in mines.  Throughout his many years imprisoned in the Soviet Union, Ciszek maintained his deep faith in God and provided religious services to other prisoners.

In 1955, Ciszek was released from prison and was finally able to write to his family, who had assumed he was dead.  He lived in the city of Norilsk with restrictions.  He wrote of how local authorities tried to get him to take a permanent Russian passport, which he refused to do.  Three years after his initial release, the KGB forced Ciszek to move to Krasnoyarsk, where he secretly established missionary parishes.  When the KGB learned of what he was doing, they required Ciszek to move again, this time to Abakan, a town about 100 miles south.  There, he worked as an auto mechanic for four more years.  

In 1963, he received his first letter from his sisters.  A few months later, the Soviet Union exchanged Ciszek for two Soviet agents who had been held by the United States.  He did not know he was going to be exchanged until he was handed over to a State Department representative, who told him that he was still an American citizen.  He left Russia in October 1963.

From 1965 onwards, Father Ciszek continued his missionary work in the United States, working and lecturing at Fordham University and providing counseling and spiritual guidance until he died in December 1984.  He published two more books, one of which was released posthumously, and has left an impressive legacy to Catholics.

My thoughts

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’m not Catholic and I don’t know that much about Catholicism.  I didn’t read this book because of who Ciszek was in a religious sense.  I read it because I am interested in the Soviet Union and what life was like for people who were imprisoned there.  I spent two years in the former Soviet Union just after it fell apart.

Although Armenia isn’t Russia and it wasn’t part of the Soviet Union when I was there, the Soviet Union had only just fallen.  Some aspects of Ciszek’s descriptions of life there rang very familiar to me.  I’m sure Armenia still maintains some remnants of that time even now, although I can see from pictures and Facebook posts from Armenian friends that the country has changed since I knew it.

Ciszek’s story is very engaging.  Flaherty did a good job making it read as if it came directly from Father Ciszek himself.  He describes the monotony of daily prison life, particularly when he was in Lubyanka and basically sat in solitary confinement for years.  He writes of the struggles of staying nourished while he was at hard labor.  I was particularly fascinated by his descriptions of meal times, when prisoners would bring out a large pot of soup and dish it out to all the prisoners.  The ones who were served first got the thinnest and least satisfying helpings and would demand that the soup be stirred before it was served to them.

In Ciszek’s voice, Flaherty wrote of special duties that would score prisoners extra rations.  For instance, the prisoner that would dump the bucket used for toileting would get another bowl of soup.  The prisoners would be so hungry that some were eager to take on that duty.  Naturally, because it was a prison, a lot of the people Ciszek did time with were actual criminals.  He wrote a lot about the “thieves” who would try to trick other prisoners out of their rations in Machiavellian ways.  

I was impressed by Ciszek’s devotion to God, even when it seemed like he couldn’t get a fair shake.  Make no mistake about it, Ciszek’s time in prison wasn’t fun.  I remember how Ciszek was given extra rations one day, not told that it was to last him for two days he’d spend riding on a train to another prison.  There he sat with his Russian handlers, who had plenty to eat and didn’t share with him.  When a piece of buttered bread fell to the floor on the train, he tried to get it with his foot without attracting the attention of one of his guards.  The guard eventually did catch him in the act, but Ciszek pleaded with him to let him eat the dirty piece of buttered bread.  The guard was indifferent, so he got the bread.  There is something about the desperation of that story that sticks with me.  Ciszek appealed to the guard’s humanity to ease his suffering just a tiny bit and it worked.

Although I am not a very religious person, I am fascinated by people who are committed to their faith, particularly when their commitment is genuine and not motivated by greed or a desire for power (although those people are also interesting for other reasons).  Father Ciszek was able to maintain faith, hope, and courage in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.  He did not become a bitter shell of a man who hated God or blamed God for the twenty plus years he spent incarcerated in Russia.  Instead, he turned that situation into an incredible life story, full of adventure and hope.  He sets an example of a man who did not give up or give in to self-pity or doubt.  A lot of religious people, particularly the leaders, could learn from Father Ciszek’s example.

In any case, I highly recommend With God in Russia, particularly to Catholics who aren’t already familiar with his story.  I found it a very interesting and inspiring book.  I suppose the very fact that I read it proves that not all Facebook memes are useless.

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon on sales made through my site.

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book reviews

A review of Long Way Home, by Cameron Douglas

I’m not sure what prompted me to read Long Way Home (2019), written by Cameron Douglas, son of Michael Douglas and grandson of Kirk Douglas. I think it’s because I read an article or maybe even a book by someone who met him when he was a child and thought he was a nice kid. Nice kids, unfortunately, go off the rails sometimes, particularly when they grow up too privileged and lack discipline. That’s what happened to Cameron Douglas, who has spent a significant part of his life behind bars.

I grew up watching Cameron’s dad, Michael Douglas, in movies like Romancing the Stone, The War of the Roses, and Fatal Attraction. I always liked Michael Douglas. I especially liked him in Romancing the Stone, though the sequel to that film, The Jewel of the Nile, sucked donkey balls. It’s hard to believe that a movie star like Michael Douglas, who is also the son of the late movie star, Kirk Douglas, could produce a son who would get in so much trouble with the law. But Cameron, who is also the son of Diandra Luker, chose a different, destructive path. Now aged 41, he seems to have turned over a new leaf with his partner, Viviane Thibes, and their daughter, Lua Izzy Douglas, who was born December 17, 2017.

What the hell happened?

Cameron Douglas seems like he should have had an easy life, but by the time he was thirty years old, he was a drug addict, a thief, and in deep trouble with the law. When everything came crashing down in Douglas’s life, he was sentenced to five years in prison. Five more years were also added to his sentence due to incidents that occurred while he was in prison.

There were signs Cameron was going to be in trouble long before he wound up in federal lockups around the country. When he was growing up, he went to private schools, a couple of which were known for dealing with disciplinary cases. He mentions Provo Canyon School, which was recently in the news because Paris Hilton was sent there when she was a teen. Hilton said that the school was “torture” for her and Cameron Douglas also mentions that it’s a place where kids don’t want to be sent. He went there in handcuffs as a teenager, encountered the mostly Mormon staff, and ended up having an affair with a staffer named Cynthia who had initially invited him to play chess.

From there, Cameron’s life only got more complicated. His stints in rehab and arrests became more and more serious until he was finally busted for dealing drugs in 2010. At one point, he was even the subject of an intervention by famous interventionist Candy Finnegan, who is well-known for being on the show, Intervention, on the A&E network.

Through it all, Douglas describes how his family reacted. Michael Douglas seemed to want to help his son, although sometimes he did so in bumbling ways. For instance, Cameron had a dog named Junior that he shared with his then girlfriend, Erinn, who apparently shared his drug problems. Cameron’s dog was bred with a female dog Michael owned. Michael tried to keep Cameron’s dog, claiming that Cameron was too messed up to care for the dog properly. Naturally, that pissed off the younger Douglas. Junior, whom Cameron loved very much, eventually died of cancer. Cameron broke up with Erinn, in part, because she hadn’t properly taken care of his dog by getting him to a vet before the cancer got too bad.

Michael Douglas also tried tough love, interventions, “kidnapping” his son and taking him to rehabs… none of it worked. Finally, he sort of withdrew, after divorcing Cameron’s mother, who had caught him cheating. He married Catherine Zeta-Jones and had two more children, Dylan and Carys, while his eldest son, Cameron, was incarcerated.

Cameron’s mother, Diandra Luker, is described as sort of a free spirit who grew up in Mallorca, Spain. She married Michael Douglas when she was just nineteen, having only known him for six weeks, and they stayed married for seventeen years. Throughout their marriage, Michael abused alcohol and had “flings”, including with his former co-star, Kathleen Turner. I got the sense that Diandra is a bit flighty, although she had Cameron when she was very young and they sort of “grew up together”. Basically, it sounds like Cameron’s parents were focused on a lot of other things, rather than raising their son properly. But it’s hard to judge them, given the lifestyle they had. Maybe it would have been noble for Michael Douglas to stop acting in movies and take care of his son, but it probably would not have been realistic.

My thoughts

Much of Long Way Home, written historical present tense, is about Cameron’s time behind bars. He admits that he’s intrigued by prison culture and attracted to it. Prior to his time in prison, Cameron kind of played around at acting without much success. He tried to be a D.J., too, but he often messed up those opportunities by abusing drugs and blowing his professional obligations.

I didn’t really like Cameron’s use of historical present tense, although the book is pretty well-written. I don’t know why that style was so irritating to me. It’s the way I used to write papers about books I read when I was an English major. Maybe that’s why I didn’t like it.

I was kind of impressed by Cameron’s comments about his parents and grandparents. I was especially impressed by what he has to say about his dad, who really does seem to care a lot about Cameron, as well as Kirk Douglas, who was proud of Cameron, even though he’d done seven years in prison. Cameron had a tattoo made of himself, Michael, and Kirk. Michael was reportedly uncomfortable with it, but Kirk, who died a few months ago at age 103, reportedly thought it was very cool.

Cameron Douglas has apparently changed his way of living. He got out of prison and is now working to better his life. The change seems to have occurred when he was in prison and he realized what a waste of time it is. He started keeping more to himself or hanging out with people who didn’t want to go back to prison. He started to meditate, quit drinking prison booze, stopped using heroin, and began reading excellent books by renowned writers. It was as if he learned to use his time wisely as a man in his 30s instead of in grade school, when most people learn.

Overall…

I mostly liked this book. I think Cameron Douglas is very honest about his struggles and I never got the sense that he doesn’t realize how very privileged he is. He admits that he has advantages the most people will never have, and getting out of prison and integrating into a more law abiding lifestyle is easier for him than it is for most people who are incarcerated. He includes some photos, too, which were interesting.

Although I know that he has a lot more help than most people do, I’m glad that he’s trying to change his ways. It would have been better if he had shown more respect for his privileges when he was much younger. A lot of people will judge him because of all he has. Personally, I find it hard to judge him. I don’t know what it’s like to be him, or what it was like to grow up with a father who is a movie star. It may seem like that would be awesome, but the reality of that lifestyle may be that it’s empty and fake. Money can’t buy happiness, and the more money a person has, the more likely it is that he or she will be surrounded by people who aren’t “real”.

I think some people failed Cameron when he was growing up, although I find it hard to judge them, too. They were caught up in the chaos of fame and money. Ultimately, it’s sad, because so many “normal” people look at the wealthy and envy them. But they have problems, too… and that kind of an empty existence can make the escape to drug use attractive, particularly for someone who lacks discipline and strong role models. I commend Cameron Douglas for waking up and changing his life, even if he wasted years in prison. On the other hand, maybe the time wasn’t really wasted if he learned something and straightened himself out. I’m glad to read that his parents and stepparents didn’t abandon him. Catherine Zeta-Jones, in particular, seems to have been pretty decent to Cameron, even though he was incarcerated. His family did visit him while he was in prison, including his much younger half-siblings.

I’m not one of those people who thinks people who get in trouble should automatically be thrown away. I think most people have some redeeming qualities and deserve a chance to change their behavior. I have noticed a lot of people think Cameron’s book is “self-serving” and “whining”. Frankly, I’m not sure why those people would read this book in the first place. They don’t seem to have any empathy for people who screw up– (and everyone does, to some extent). As long as he’s done dealing drugs and committed to raising his daughter, I don’t begrudge Cameron Douglas for sharing his story. Maybe someone will learn from it or relate to it.

I would recommend Long Way Home, but only to those who aren’t going to dismiss Cameron Douglas out of hand for being born to “Hollywood Royalty”. He can’t help that. And yes, he should have spent his time as a youth more wisely, but again– as long as he’s learned from his mistakes, it’s all good, as far as I’m concerned.

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book reviews, true crime

Repost: Prison

I’m sharing a couple of old posts from my original blog by request. These two posts were among my most popular anyway, so it was only a matter of time I’d repost them. This one first appeared on my original blog on March 6, 2013.

Holger, this is for you. Thanks for reading.

A few years ago, I got on a prison kick.  No, I wasn’t trying to land in prison.  I just started reading a lot of books about the prison experience.  Then I reviewed them on Epinions.com.  One book I read was called A Woman Doing Life.  It was about a woman named Erin George who got in trouble for shooting her husband at close range for insurance money.  According to the book she published, George is now doing 603 years for the murder and has no possibility of parole.  Her three children are being raised by her husband’s family in England.

It turns out I actually have some things in common with Erin George.  She’s a few years older than I am, but we attended the same college.  I know where the neighborhood where she killed her husband is located.  I’ve driven past it many times.

It’s hard to think about someone who could have easily been my peer, sitting in prison forever.  I don’t know Erin George, but I easily could have.  She could have been a friend of mine. 

Today, someone on RfM posted looking for information on what it’s like to be in prison.  S/he says that an uncle is about to be put away for awhile.  Lucky for that poster, I could recommend a couple of books and even a Web site for family members and friends of prisoners. 

From a purely academic standpoint, I find corrections to be a very interesting subject.  I hope I never have to learn about them firsthand, but I do enjoy reading accounts about people who have done time.  I don’t even think I’m wrong to pay money for books about prison life.  I figure they serve a purpose and writing a book for money is a lot better than committing crimes for money.  It’s hard for people who have been in the big house to make a living once they get out.

For her part, Erin George writes a fascinating book, for many reasons.  She’ll never get to enjoy the fruits of her labors the way an ex-con would.  She is never getting out of prison and she’s doing time in Virginia, which is notoriously tough on crime.

From her book, I guess she’s sorry she committed a crime, though she doesn’t go too much into what put her in prison.  I had to look up her case online to glean much information about it.   

I think once I have some lunch, I might go check out PrisonTalk.com and dig up some more info.

ETA:  Here is my review of Erin’s book.

A female prisoner opens up about life in a Virginia prison Dec 2, 2010 (Updated Mar 6, 2013) 

Review by knotheadusc

 in Books Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros: Very well-written. Realistic account of being incarcerated. I related to Erin George.

Cons: I didn’t like the summaries at the beginning of each chapter.

The Bottom Line: Erin George dishes on what it’s like to do time in Virginia.

Those of you who regularly read my book reviews probably know that I love to read books about real people, especially when they have to do with true crime. I also love to have a good excuse to buy new books. As it so happened, last week I found myself on Amazon.com ordering some productivity software for my new Mac, which gave me the perfect excuse to buy one of the books on my wish list. The one that seemed to be calling out my name to be read was entitled A Woman Doing Life: Notes from a Prison for Women (2010), written by Erin George and edited by Robert Johnson.  

I didn’t know it when I bought this book, but Erin George and I have some things in common. First off, she’s from Virginia, like I am. She’s just a few years older than I am and had once attended Longwood College, now Longwood University, which is the college where I earned my degree in English. And she gets a lot of fulfillment out of writing and working with dogs. Of course, there’s one major difference between Erin George and me; she’s in prison and I’m not. Erin George is currently serving 603 years at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women for the murder of her husband, James George, in May 2001.  

A familiar path on the way to “The Big House”

At the beginning of A Women Doing Life, George describes being driven down a familiar country road, the same road she used to take to get to Longwood. This time, however, she’s not on her way to college. George explains that this will probably be her last trip on this very familiar stretch of road because she’s on her way to prison to start serving a startlingly long sentence. Her three children, Jack, Francesca, and Giovanna, who had once been at the center of her life in Aquia Harbor in Stafford County, were now living with her in laws in England. Actually, given the nature of George’s crime, I’m surprised she still refers to her husband’s parents as family. But by her account, they are surprisingly cooperative in allowing her access to her kids, bringing them to visit her on an annual basis all the way from England.

Erin George doesn’t explain too much about her crime. She hints that she’s the victim of an unfair trial. Instead of writing that her husband was murdered, she writes that he was killed. She never actually admits to the act in a straightforward way, even though she does at one point refer to James George’s murder as “my crime”. Because she had no prior troubles with the law, Erin George had initially bonded out of jail after her arrest. Seven months later, she was returned to jail and was later found guilty of shooting her husband at point blank range, supposedly for insurance money. George never actually tells her readers the details of her crime; I found them out by looking her up on the Internet.

First thing’s first 

After establishing her trip to prison, George offers some details about her initial arrest and stay in jail. According to George, prison is a lot more comfortable than jail is, even though most people in jail are considered “innocent” because they haven’t yet been tried for their crimes. Going to Fluvanna was actually a relief because it meant that she could start to settle in, make some friends, and get a job. George offers a few details about her experiences at the Rappahannock Regional Jail, but then jumps into life in prison.  

As someone who had grown up in a stable home with loving parents, Erin George was somewhat unusual. Her high level of education and intelligence also made her valuable as a Scrabble referee; apparently, Scrabble is a popular way for inmates to pass the time. George teaches inmates who are studying to earn their G.E.D.s.  She is also involved with a program called Pen Pals, which has inmates training homeless dogs so they can be adopted.

In the course of my research for this review, I discovered that one of the other participants in the Pen Pals program is none other than Jennifer Kszepka, a woman who, in 1992, made big headlines in my hometown of Gloucester, Virginia. As a suicidal fifteen year old, Kszepka and two friends murdered her father and sister and tried to kill her mother. They then fled in Kszepka’s mother’s car until they were captured in Eureka, Nevada. Months ago, I had been curious about Kszepka’s case and did more research about it. I found out that she was training dogs in prison. As I researched Erin George, I found her mentioned in the very same article I had found about Kszepka months earlier. I was gratified to read that both Erin George and Jennifer Kszepka are both using their time in prison wisely. Indeed, it was in prison that Erin George discovered her talent for writing and developed a love for poetry.  

George describes herself as a model prisoner dedicated to following the rules. She writes that she’s not impressed with those who get out of prison only to show up again months later. I guess I can’t blame her for her disgust. If I were facing 603 years in prison with no hope of parole, I’d probably be annoyed by former inmates who reoffended too.

The basic necessities of life

Aside from keeping busy with poorly paid prison work, George describes prison food, prison medical care, and the many prison rules George must follow. George is lucky enough to have family members who send her money so she can buy things at the commissary to supplement the prison issued food and toiletries. Many of her fellow inmates are not so fortunate and must rely on their very meager earnings from the state to buy things like ramen noodles and shampoo from the prison run commissary.  

George has plenty to say about prison style health care as well. Contrary to popular belief, prisoners do have to pay to see medical staff. According to George, it can take a long time to get necessary treatments and prescriptions filled. Sometimes the medical staff is less than empathetic toward the women in their care.

Relationships with prison staff

George also writes about some of the people who work in her prison. For the most part, she writes that she’s handled very professionally, but not all officers conduct themselves appropriately. Her thoughts on the prison staff adds yet another dimension to her story about life behind bars.

My thoughts  

I was pleasantly surprised by how well-written Erin George’s book is. She really does have a knack for writing and I can tell that she’s an avid reader. I wish she had explained more about what put her in prison in the first place, but I guess I can understand why she would choose to omit that part of the story. Suffice it to say that this book is really about what it’s like for a woman to be in prison, not how she ended up in prison.  

I get the feeling that before she “went down”, Erin McCay George had never given much thought to the plight of prisoners. Now that she is one herself, she has a lot more empathy for them. I suspect that a lot of people will not be too impressed with George’s plight, since so many people live by the “if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime” mantra. But as a fellow human being, I felt some empathy for Erin George and her fellow inmates. They’re still human beings even if they did commit heinous crimes.

One thing I didn’t like about this book is that every chapter begins with a summary written by editor Robert Johnson. This summary is presented in italics and basically restates what George writes in her chapters. I’m sure Johnson had a reason for including his take on things, but I found it a bit redundant, unnecessary, and annoying. Readers should also know that this book is chock full of quoted references. I actually appreciated the citations, since they make further reading on the subject easier, but they also make the book seem a bit academic and formal.  

At the end of the book  

George ends her book with an afterword by Joycelyn Pollock, whose research is liberally quoted in George’s manuscript. Beyond the afterword, there are a couple of appendices that include a glossary of prison slang terms and a prison cookbook. For some reason, the appendices are presented upside down and you have to flip the book to be able to read them. 

Overall

I guess Erin George’s situation is a grim reminder that anyone can end up in prison, even if they’ve been raised in a loving, stable home and given access to higher education. But every cloud has its silver lining and it appears that Erin George is trying to make the best of her situation. I would certainly recommend her book, A Woman Doing Life, to anyone who is interested in learning more about what it’s like to be behind bars.

Recommend this product? Yes

And here are the original comments from this post.

AlexisARMarch 7, 2013 at 5:35 AM

I can’t read much of prison literature genre because I start imagining myself wrongly accused of a crime and incarcerated, and then i start having bad dreams. Eventually i’ll hit the mature realization that not everything is all about me, at which point I’ll start to experience more of the real world. It’s surreal that you had so many indirect links to this woman.

To my ear, some names just don’t equate with hardened crime. Erin is one of those names. I suppose if the stakes were high enough, even someone given the name, “Holy Mary, Mother of God” might a least contemplate violent crime.

knottyMarch 7, 2013 at 1:11 PM

I did some more checking and it looks like Erin McCay George was at my college the same time I was. She was editor of the student newspaper, a year behind me even though she was older, and there was a big scandal when she was in charge. She published all the salaries of the faculty and there was a huge uproar.

I didn’t know her personally, but I know who she is. That makes this even weirder.

Tambra HaidonJanuary 20, 2015 at 5:55 PM

Very interested in this topic. My Justice class is reading George’s book for our class. I get the feeling our professor believes in George’s innocence however, I am not convinced. This article definitely, and the comment, puts a different perspective on the case. Do you have any information on why George’s sentence was 603 years? Also do you know any place I can read about the facts of the trial? Thank vyou!!!

  1. knottyJanuary 21, 2015 at 11:12 AMHi! That’s really something that Erin’s book is being used in a college class. You may want to read my next post on this topic if you haven’t already. I don’t know exactly why her sentence was 603 years, except that Virginia is very tough on crime and abolished parole. Obviously, she won’t serve that much time– but with that sentence, they are assured she won’t ever get out of prison. Fredericksburg.com used to have articles about the case posted and I had them linked in my next post, but I see now that they’ve been removed. You may want to try the WayBack machine.  

Eliseo WeinsteinAugust 8, 2016 at 8:16 AM

I can see why you have developed an interest in reading about prison. The way you describe and talk about Erin George has made me think about what it must be like for someone to be locked up for such a long time. On a more personal note, I have family members that have been to prison, but we don’t ask many questions about what it was like on the inside. However, I will definitely look into some of your book suggestions.

  1. knottyAugust 9, 2016 at 5:43 AMI would imagine it might be awkward talking about prison to those who have been, though some might actually want to talk about it. I hope my suggestions are helpful and interesting.


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