By CECIL BOTHWELL
Following Billy Graham’s 95th birthday bash at Asheville’s Grove Park Inn, many observers deemed the guest list unfortunate, perhaps unrepresentative, of Graham’s career. Donald Trump? Sarah Palin?
Some blamed son Franklin for the rightwing/corporate tilt among invited guests, accusing the son of tainting Dad’s image.
Such criticism is unfounded. In Graham’s myriad authorized biographies, one can’t miss endless photo-ops with the rich and powerful. Graham was ever eager to shake hands of presidents and despots, movie stars and industrial kingpins, and to offer grandiose approval of their greatness.
To read more, click here.
Some scenes from my latest book: She Walks On Water, a novel (Brave Ulysses Books, 2013)
8th Grade Commencement Speech
Francine Delaney New School for Children
June 4, 2013
by Cecil Bothwell
You are about to step out of your childhood, a step that will take the next four years of your life.
High school is where you will learn the basics about being an adult, about taking charge of your own life, about taking responsibility for your own finances and about steering your own education for the rest of your life.
Really learning how to learn is the most important lesson you’ll gain from these next few years, if you pay attention and take advantage of the opportunities high school offers.And the most important lessons may come when you least expect them.
In terms of earning a living, the two most important experiences in my entire education came when I was about your age. In geometry class I learned the Pythagoran Theorem which involves the relationship between the three sides of a right triangle – that is, a three-sided figure where one corner is 90 degrees.
At the same time, in Boy Scouts, I earned Home Repairs merit badge—that’s a badge you earn for learning how to use screwdrivers, hammers, pliers, saws, drills and other basic tools to fix things around your house.
Most of my adult life I have used those tools and the Pythagorean Thereom to build and remodel houses. If your house is square and level you can thank some carpenter’s geometry teacher.
My most important teacher, not counting Miss Nanette who taught me how to read in First Grade, was a man named Dr. Harold B. Bender. He was my 11th and 12th grade chemistry teacher, and he taught me everything I needed to know to continue my education for the rest of my life. Was it chemistry? No.
He taught me how to use a library to conduct research, how to track down essential information, how to sort facts from fiction, and how to use multiple sources so that I arrived at the best possible understanding of a problem and its solutions. If he were alive today, he’d be teaching students how to optimize internet search engine results.
How did that help me? Well, in my first career, as a builder, I knew how to use geometry and tools, but there was a whole lot I didn’t know about specific building skills. I had started out as a mason – that’s a person who builds with bricks and blocks and stone. In 1980 I traveled to Alaska because I wanted to see the big northern wilderness – and I did see glaciers and grizzly bears and moose and lynx and big horned sheep and Mt. McKinley and all the rest. And I figured I’d find work as a mason to pay my way.
Wrong. They have so many small earthquakes up there that nobody builds anything with bricks and blocks – they just shake apart. But because I had learned to read blueprints in an eighth grade shop class, I got a job as a foreman on a carpentry crew. Unfortunately I had never built a wooden house – so I went to the library and checked out some books. Each night I’d read about what we had to do the next day, and suddenly I was an expert! (At the same time, I asked the carpenters working for me a lot of questions.) When I came back south I became a general contractor, and built homes and did remodeling for another twenty years.
Along the way, I began my second career, as a writer. Here my chemistry teacher’s lessons really paid off. I became a newspaper reporter and editor, I won awards for investigative reporting and have written nine books. Along the way the library grew to include the whole world, when the internet was invented and computers extended research around the globe.
When I was in 8th grade, I thought I would grow up to be a herpetologist. That’s a scientist who studies amphibians and reptiles. I was fascinated with snakes and turtles. In my high school years I had 16 pet snakes and did presentations for Scout troops and school clubs. I was a summer camp counselor when I was 17, and taught all of the nature related merit badges to other scouts. I was certain my future was in science.
What I learned along the way was that my future was actually in learning how to do whatever I needed to do in order to do the things I wanted to do. Learning how to learn was the most important lesson of all. Oh, I still think snakes are fascinating, and I’m always available to catch rattlesnakes and copperheads if my neighbors find them in the garden. I take them way out in the national forest and let them go. But I’ve never made a nickel on herpetology.
Now here’s the thing I really want to tell you today, as you take your next big steps toward adulthood. You won’t really believe me for about eight or ten more years, but if I tell you this now, I think you’ll have a lot higher likelihood of being alive eight or ten years from now, and maybe then you’ll think back to this day and think: Hmm, that old geezer wasn’t as much of a fool as I thought back then.
Your bodies and your emotions are growing up fast right now, and your brain is right behind. What scientists have proven in recent years is that the part of a human brain where good judgment comes from isn’t developed and fully formed until you are 20-22 years old. That’s not a criticism, that’s a physical fact. Right now, inside your head, you do not have the wiring to easily know better.
Your parents might say to you, “You should know better than to go out in freezing rain without a coat!” but actually, you don’t. A teacher might say, “You should know better than to turn in a term paper with doodled cartoons in the margins!” But, actually, you don’t .
There will be a whole lot of experiences over the next few years when you’ll do something pretty stupid, and then argue, “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
That’s why so many young adults take stupid chances. They climb on slippery rocks at the top of waterfalls. They drive too fast, or drive while texting, or sometimes even get hold of some beer and drive while drunk. They hang out with the wrong crowd and get tempted into doing things they might not have thought of on their own, or get into bad situations where someone gets sexually assaulted or into a fight or gets bullied. Trust me, you won’t avoid it all. But with a little bit of smarts you can navigate through these next several years with minimal damage to yourself and the people around you.
Even though, as I said, you currently lack the part of your brain that will make that much easier ten years from now.
To help you out, I’ll now pass along the most important life lesson I learned in school. This was from a Commuinty College professor named Dave Ehlert. It was in a Humanities Class, which is a class where you study how the arts and literature and theater and sports and history and science all come together to create the world we live in.
Dave told us this: If you want to live in world where people drive the speed limit, the first step is to drive the speed limit.
Now that seems pretty simplistic, doesn’t it. But it is actually pretty deep.
At the most basic level, most people want other people who drive throught their neigborhoods to drive the speed limit, to drive carefully, because their children and their pets and their friends and their neighbors are all less likely to get hurt or killed if people obey the speed limit. The reason we have speed limits is because we have agreed as a community that there need to be some rules so we can all live together happily. We’re all better off if we all play by the rules.
In a way, that’s no different from sports. Basketball and baseball and football and tennis and volleyball and ping pong and horseshoes … all of it, would make no sense at all if everyone made up their own rules.
So if you want your neighborhood to be safe from speeding cars, the first step is not to speed yourself. And if you apply that everywhere, then you’ll be encouraging everyone to do the same, and make everyone’s neighborhood safer. And every driver safer too, since mistakes at high rates of speed are more likely to cause accidents than mistakes at slower speeds.
But if you apply that rule throughout your life you’ll find that it helps over and over again.
Do you want to be in a school where people don’t cheat on tests? Then don’t cheat on tests.
Do you want to live in a town where your money is safe in the bank? Then don’t rob banks.
Do you want to be part of a world in which everyone is treated fairly? Then treat everyone fairly.
Do you want to drive a car safe from drunk drivers who do really stupid things? Then don’t drive drunk.
Do you feel better when people don’t make fun of you? Then don’t make fun of other people.
You see, it goes on and on. And many of you have probably noticed that it is nothing more than a special case of the Golden Rule. Do on to others as you would have them to onto you.
From my perspective though, the specific rule is often more useful. The Golden Rule? Well, sure, we should always do that.
Drive the speed limit? Oh, right. More times than I can possibly report, over these many years, I have been in a hurry, and tempted to speed through a neighborhood and abruptly recall Dave’s lesson. And I slow down.
And the lesson doesn’t just have to be negative.
Do you want to experience a community where people express their love and affection for others? Then tell the people you care about how much you care.
Do you want to live in a world where who you are counts more than how much money you have? Then choose friends and heroes for who they are regardless of how rich they might be.
Do you want to be allowed to express your creativity? Then express it, and congratulate your friends who paint or write poetry or dye their hair six different colors or play guitar or draw cartoons.
Do you want to live in a world of happy people? Then do what makes you happy.
We make the world around us every day, by being who we are, by doing what we do, by sharing what we share. The most important lesson you will learn in the next few years is how to learn to be who you are, and to be who you are to the very best of your ability. No matter what someone else tells you you ought to do. No matter what someone else thinks is impossible for you to do.
We old folks are more excitied than you can imagine, waiting to see what kind of world you create for yourselves. I certainly hope you have fun.
I’ll be delivering something like the following (draft) lecture at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Franklin (NC) this morning. Happy Earthday everyone!
Water, water everywhere?
by Cecil Bothwell
Depending on your age, and depending a great deal on my voice, you may recognize that as the Ballad of Easy Rider by the Byrds. It struck me as appropriate to my topic today.
Our lovely planet, dubbed the blue planet because oceans cover 71 percent of the planet’s surface, is facing what we ought to consider a permanent drought.
How can that be? What’s causing the problem? What can we do about it?
The first piece of that puzzle derives from the same fact I just stated. That 71 percent of the earth’s surface contains 95 percent of the water. All of the rivers, lakes, glaciers, plants, animals and clouds share the other 5 percent. That 5 percent is what we call fresh water. The salty stuff is okay for swimming, for cooling power plants, and for all of the animals and plants that are adapted to exist in the sea – but it is of very limited use to human beings and other terrestrial life forms. If you drink it, it makes you dehydrated because it takes more water to get the salt out of your body than the amount you drink.
When you frame it in the old question about whether the glass is half full or half empty, you’d say that a glass full of sea water actually makes the next glassful half empty.
Presently we divert more than half of the liquid fresh water on earth to human uses, leaving less than half for the rest of our companions on big blue. Of course, those figures like all statistics, can be read in different ways. And an important thing about water is that it is constantly shared. No one keeps it for long, in any form other than inside a wine bottle, and even that is likely to be poured out sooner than later.
But, the other side of that argument is that we change the water we use: not so much in our own bodies, but when we filter it, add chlorine and fluoride, heat it, use it for washing our clothes and our industrial machinery, or drain it through fertilizer and pesticide laden fields.
As another aside, one of the coolest things you can tell a child is that we’ve had the same water on this planet since water first puddled up when the planet cooled enough for it to exist in liquid form. The glass of water you drink today was drunk in the past by dinosaurs and saber-toothed tigers, and Aristotle and Vincent VanGogh, and queens and princes and aboriginal Australians and Ghengis Khan’s Mongol horde. The first fish that crawled up on land to evolve into amphibians and lizards and mammals and birds came out of that glass, and the hippopotamus cousins that went back to the sea to evolve into dolphins and whales dove into that glass. If the youngster is still listening, you can add that a baby is about 75 percent water, an average adult is about 50 percent water, and we continue drying out all our lives until we finally die and give back all of that water to the planet. So, when you were born, 75 percent of your new self was once a dinosaur.
Salt water can be desalinated, but that’s a very energy-intensive process. Under traditional methods the water is heated and the steam is collected and condensed. It uses so much energy that the only countries that have done it at a large scale are oil rich water poor countries in the mid-east.
A newer and cheaper method uses membranes to filter out the salt – but even that requires the water to be forced through the membrane and that requires substantial energy to accomplish. Energy is a big factor for another reason as well, and I’ll come back to that in just a bit.
The reason life forms that we know and love evolved on this planet—from bunny rabbits to broccoli, to warblers, to human beings—though not in that order—is because our planet’s atmosphere is constantly desalinating ocean water for us, powered by the incredible energy of the sun. And on much of the planet that fresh water is delivered free as rain and snow and hail and sleet and slizzle and fog.
That free delivery system is part of a central conundrum about water, which is this: How do you price water? Or to ask that another way, what is fresh water worth? If you were dying of thirst, you would literally pay whatever price was asked for a sip, even everything you owned. If you were clinging to a tree in the midst of the rising water of a flood, about to be swept away, you would literally pay whatever price was asked to get rid of the water—or, more realistically—for a helicopter to swoop in and save you.
The price we pay for water in this lovely, lush, green, mountainous, thinly populated place we inhabit is for delivery. If you have a well, you pay an electric bill or have a windmill. If you have a spring above your home, you pay for piping and a reservoir. If you’re on City water, you pay for building and operating the system that gets water to your faucet. But the water is free.
In eastern North America, water has been essentially free forever. And that’s the second reason we ought to begin to consider ourselves facing a permanent state of drought. Our homes, our facilities, our industry, our habits, our aesthetics, have been well watered, and we waste an awful lot of the stuff. Moreover, because of the systems we have invented which are based on free water, we have an infrastructure that won’t work very well with less.
Our love affair with lawns can change, though there are plenty of suburban homeowners who are unlikely to give up their riding mowers until their cold dead fingers are pried from the steering wheel. But our sewer system is a lot less flexible. Toilet design has been pushed to the lower limit of how much water is required to flush. Our plumbing consigns all waste water to the same pipes, despite the fact that wash water from your bath and sinks and laundry could be reused before it heads for the treatment plant. We’ve installed millions of garbage disposals that wash down food scraps that have fertilizer value as compost, and that clog up our sewers, but whose convenience is seductive. And there are waterless urinals now, but they require storage tanks that must later be pumped—so again we’re talking energy.
Now, to get back to the natural desalinization, as you know, the evaporation of water from the sea along with transpiration of plants, puts fresh water in the air as clouds. Both of these processes are speeded up by warmth. Our planet is getting warmer. Whether or not you agree with most scientists who study our atmosphere that much of that warming has been caused by human activities, there can be no disputing the fact that the world is heating up.
So, hmm, if warmer temperatures evaporate more sea water, that should be good, right? More fresh water for all of us landlubbers.
The fly in that ointment is that a warmer atmosphere is also more volatile. Storms are more likely to be superstorms, rain is more likely to be torrential. And the core problem there is that when huge amounts of rain fall in a short time, more of it runs off, instead of being absorbed into the soil. Wells, springs, creeks, branches, streams and rivers depend on fresh water that is absorbed into the soil and only slowly leaked out over the hottest months of the year.
At the same time, in warmer weather between rain storms, more of the soil moisture evaporates, and the trees continue to suck it up and transpire it into the clouds. So wet times are wetter and dry times are drier. That’s the third reason why we seem to be headed into permanently droughty times.
The fourth reason is one that most people are quite surprised to learn, and again it involves energy. The biggest use of fresh water in a modern economy is for power plants. Thermoelectric plants, that is those systems that use heat and steam and cooling towers, coal, oil, and nuclear plants, use 49 percent of the water humans divert for their purposes. Some of it is sea water, but 45 percent of the fresh water we use goes into those plants. If you have heard about the energy/water connection it probably came from a news story about water shortages or extreme heat causing a plant to shut down. The first time that happened in the U.S. was in 1988, in Illinois. But it is becoming more common, with plants in North Carolina and Georgia facing possible shutdowns during recent summer droughts.
Another wrinkle showed up in 2012, when the Millstone nuclear plant in Waterford, Conn., had to shut down one of its two reactors because seawater was too warm to cool it. A heat wave last summer raised the temperature of Long Island Sound, the first time in the plant’s 37 year history that the intake water was insufficiently cool.
At the other end of the pipes, energy is made more expensive because the waste water from a thermoelectric plant is hot, and therefore requires massive cooling systems in order to protect the environment at the outflow. Sometimes, if a large enough cooling pond can be constructed, water can be reused, but as a matter of dollars and cents, it is much cheaper to intake fresh cool water, then cool the outflow just enough to prevent fish kills and other side effects, and send it back to nature.
This brings us to the fifth reason we need to prepare ourselves for permanent drought. Water use has been growing twice as fast as population growth, causing more and more communities to suffer water shortages. As regions of the world develop, electric power comes into high demand. With the massive populations of China and India moving into modern manufacturing, the industrial demand for power and water ratchets up. Then as more workers achieve some level of wealth, the personal demand for modern sanitation and cleanliness rises as well, together with a diet that shifts toward more meat.
Meat production consumes the majority of grain crops grown in the world, and by some accounts, growing that grain uses 70 percent of the non-energy fresh water used by humans.
The sixth reason drought is going to figure very strongly in our future is the biggie, and its the one that drives all the rest. There are more than 7 billion of us on board spaceship earth. Barring a monumental natural disaster or disease epidemic, we are likely headed toward 10 billion by about 2050.
Different experts offer differing guesses, of course, depending on what is factored into their equations, and some believe we won’t exceed 7.5 billion. That’s still a lot of people.
Population growth is slowing as education and wealth liberate more women from multiple pregnancies, and the benefits of smaller families begin to outweigh traditional beliefs and practices. But population increase is a huge force, and with the majority of the population in developing nations only now reaching child-bearing age, the surge will continue.
So even if we take the best case scenario and reach a high point at 7.5 or 8 billion, as wealth and education increase, water demand rises sharply. Here we come back to the question of what water is worth.
In a rich country like ours, most of us would be willing to pay a little more, and certainly be willing to use a little less. Simply due to a growing evironmental ethic, residents in WNC are using less water per capita than they did a decade ago—at least in their homes. But we sometimes forget that we are using Chinese manufacturing water as well when we purchase a cell phone, and Chilean agricultural water when we eat a fresh apple in April, and taking a virtual sip of water in Mumbai when we phone customer service and reach a call center in India.
As I noted early on, a thirsty person can be driven to extremes to get a drink. And a thirsty country is no different. Why did China conquer Tibet in
the 1990s? Possibly partly to find room for an expanding population, partly for the meat —and truckloads of wild animals have been slaughtered and shipped to market—but also to gain control of the headwaters of major Chinese rivers that flow down from the Himalayas. Headwaters which depend on the snowpack laid down during cold Tibetan winters, winters that aren’t so cold any more. Himalayan glaciers are in retreat.
At the same time, climate change is affecting the monsoon rains which are so imperative to the population of the Indian subcontinent.
So the two most populous nations on earth are facing growing water scarcity, and their people are thirsty for development and a better life.
A Pentagon report issued during the G.W. Bush presidency identified climate change and population growth as the two most destabilizing factors in our future. Resource wars could definitely be on the horizon.
A much less known report developed during the Nixon and Ford administrations was never released. Here I come to the religious part of my sermon, which I’m sure many of you have been wondering about.
“When is he going to start preaching?”
That report was called the National Security Study Memorandum 200, or NSSM 200 for short. It detailed the security threat to the United States posed by uncontrolled global population growth. It emphasized the need to educate women and make family planning options available to them. It emphasized that such a policy would not be successful unless abortion were included among those options.
The United States Catholic bishops got wind of the report and used every avenue they could find to block release of the report. They stalled it through the Carter administration and the Reagan administration finally scuttled it altogether. Catholic and fundamentalist Protestants continued to press against any such policy, and during the G.W. Bush administration, all funding for any organization that performed abortions was cut, along with a diversion of substantial resources from effective family planning to abstinence-only programs. Had the U.S. implemented the Nixon-Ford plan, the world today would be cleaner, healthier, wealthier on average, and facing far less dire resource scarcity.
The power of religious dogma to do real harm in the world has probably never enjoyed as explicit a demonstration as when the Bishops intervened.
Every manufacturing nation needs feedstock, and competition for what’s left is ramping up quickly. Easily mined minerals have been exhausted around the world. As Arctic ice retreats, all of the northern nations are exploring the seabed for potential exploitation. China and the U.S. are engaged in a bidding war for mineral wealth in Africa and the Indian subcontinent. Rare earth minerals, which were rare to start with, are getting more scarce, with China controlling most of world production now. And those minerals are essential to modern technology, in your computer, cell phone, hybrid car and more.
Here in the Southern Appalachians the most valuable resource we have is our pure water. Mountains squeeze clouds as air is forced up to cooler altitudes and no matter how climate change affects big weather patterns, that effect of the mountains will only change over geologic time. It is the core reason why Asheville is fighting to retain control of its water system right now. Our pure mountain water was the reason why knitting and weaving factories emerged here in another century. It’s the reason our regional beers win national awards, and why major breweries are building new facilities here. If we lose control of our water, it may be sold down the mountain to South Carolina and Georgia, or voer the mountains to eastern Carolina for fracking operations. If it is going to be sold as a high value resource, the benefit needs to accrue to the people who have paid for the reservoirs, for the pipes, for protecting the watersheds, and not handed off to commercial interests.
No resource outside of air is more precious than fresh water. To compound our water problem, other resource extraction often impinges on the water that is available, as in the environmental disaster of tar-sands mining in Alberta, or hydraulic fracturing for gas drilling in Pennsylvania and possibly North Carolina, or in copper mine tailings in Chile, or gold mine residues in South Africa.
In sum, I think we need to stop thinking of water as free. We need to stop imagining that water will always be abundant. We need to change our minds, and change our infrastructure to prepare for what, during our prospective lifetimes, will be a permanent drought.
Like the experience of the characters in that movie, Easy Rider, I don’t expect it will be an easy ride.
“Flow river flow, past the shaded tree Go river, go, go to the sea, flow to the sea, Flow river flow”
Here’s a draft of a talk I delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Brevard, Dec. 16, 2012
The American Gulag
by Cecil Bothwell
“Make me an angel
That flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold onto
To believe in this livin’ is just a hard way to go.”
- John Prine
The phrase “Angel from Montgomery” refers to a pardon for a prison sentence from the governor. It is also used to refer to a last minute pardon from the death sentence. The phrase originated in Alabama where the capital is Montgomery. The way John Prine framed it in his song, the woman is living in her own self made prison from which she can’t escape. Hence she needs a pardon (the angel from Montgomery).
If we take a thoughtful look at the entire prison system in America, it’s pretty clear that we are in need of an army of angels from every state capitol, to free not only the unjustly incarcerated, but to free our society from a system of laws and sentencing guidelines that is as poisonous as it is ineffective.
My personal experience of incarceration is fortunately very brief. When I was 22 years old I was a member of the Florida Farm Bureau – I was following Joni Mitchell’s exhortation to “get back to the land and set my soul free” and I was homesteading a patch of Florida swamp land while I worked as a masonry subcontractor. The farm bureau had a discount offer from a local tire store, and I needed a new spare tire. I went into the store on a Thursday afternoon. While the mechanic mounted the tire, I went to the counter to settle the bill with the store owner, showed him my Farm Bureau membership card and drivers’ license, and then discovered I did not have my check book. So I said I’d have to return the next day with the check. I got tied up managing my masonry crew on Friday, and decided to make the payment on Monday.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, the mechanic had put the new spare tire in my car trunk, a fact which I discovered over the weekend.
On Monday morning, early, I was awakened by a knock on my cabin door, pulled on a pair of pants and opened the door to greet two sheriff’s deputies with a warrant for my arrest for theft. You might imagine I was pretty surprised. I asked what I had stolen and they said, “You know, kid.” They insisted on accompanying me back into the cabin while I put on a shirt, socks and shoes, put me in the back of their squad car and hauled me to jail. They refused to tell me anything about the charges until I was booked for stealing a tire, and photographed, and allowed one phone call and escorted to a cell where I sat alone, wondering what would transpire. It was late that night when a friend finally appeared to bail me out, after the longest, loneliest day of my young life. Imprisonment is frightening. The sense of helplessness is devastating.
The next day I paid for the tire, told the owner that while I had previously purchased tires for both my car and my flat bed truck at his establishment, I wouldn’t be back. The judge later dropped the charges (although I had to pay court costs) and admonished me that he hoped I had learned a lesson.
I did learn a lesson: I was and remain convinced that if I had looked like the tire store owner in short hair and a plaid work shirt instead of long hair, a beard and a tie-dyed tee shirt, I would never have been charged or arrested. He had an opportunity to teach a long-haired hippie a lesson and the sheriff’s department was more than happy to help out. I doubt that the tire man missed my business.
That was obviously an extremely minor brush with the law, but it loomed very large in my life experience forty years ago, and everything I have learned about our legal system since that time has reinforced that lesson.
Much more recently I started a jail ministry with a few other folks at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Asheville, and garnered a great deal of first hand experience with low-level criminals in the Buncombe County Detention Center, over a five year period.
First, a note about why I wanted to start that ministry. I had been an investigative reporter for Asheville’s Mountain Xpress newspaper for several years and had received a fairly constant stream of complaints about conditions in the local jail. Like any other story that depends on whistle-blowers, it’s urgent that a reporter obtain either documentary proof of allegations, or find believable witnesses who are willing to be quoted on the record. Otherwise you have nothing more than hearsay.
Then a woman died in the jail and her adult daughter came to me alleging that her mother had been denied insulin while incarcerated and had died of complications from diabetes. A lawyer who had spent a few days in jail on contempt of court charges, came forward, though off the record, and told me that she had heard the woman moaning and screaming in pain, begging for her insulin injections, and being left untreated until she blacked out and died. Somewhat later I obtained the state coroner’s report which identified intestinal ischemia as the cause of death, and it only took a little more searching to find that intestinal ischemia is often a result of untreated diabetes.
No one was ever charged for that crime.
Another informant came forward to remind me of a death which had occurred a couple of years earlier, and had gone virtually unreported. I dug into the details I was given, did public records requests and learned that a man had been arrested for driving his tractor-type lawn mower, in his own yard, while drunk. He was put in a holding cell and was found dead an hour later. He died of a broken neck. When I reported that in the newspaper, as part of the woman’s story, I got an anonymous tip from a man who claimed to be a guard in the jail. He said, “We all know who killed him.” Then he hung up.
Then I got a call from a man named Carlos Payne, who said he had information about the jail that he’d like to share with me. From his voice I got the impression, correct as it turned out, that he was a large, black man. And while I have worked hard to overcome the cultural biases I was taught as a child, I have to admit that I was viscerally scared when he indicated that he wanted to meet me, alone, in the basement of a nearby church. A fellow reporter insisted that I not go alone, and so the two of us met Carlos in a darkened room in that church basement.
Carlos was pretty scary, and he’d done time for involuntary manslaughter. But he was also an obsessive/compulsive and had kept meticulous daily records of his time in jail and in prison. Further, he had befriended a guard in the Buncombe County jail who had obtained a print copy of his official record during three months in the jail. The official record completely corroborated his allegations that he had repeatedly requested blood pressure medication for his dangerously high blood pressure, and had been repeatedly refused that medication with the guards noting that his demands were not to be believed. They noted that he cursed them repeatedly for the failure to provide medication.
Finally, he blacked out and fell, breaking teeth which caused bleeding, and was rushed to Mission Hospital where the doctors diagnosed his extreme blood pressure, renewed the prescription he had been asking for all along, and sent him back to jail where they then provided his daily prescription and according to the record, stopped cursing the guards.
His sentence had been for 90 days in jail, with a three year suspended prison sentence as long as he obeyed the rules while in jail and reported to a parole officer during the three years. But when he was supposed to be released, he was taken before a judge who was told by the commander of the jail that Payne had violated the jail rules by cursing at guards.
According to the court record, Payne told the judge that he had only cursed because he was denied life-saving medication, and that he had quit cursing once he was provided with his prescription. The officer told the judge that Payne was lying and that the cursing had continued right up to his release date. The judge ruled that the officer was believable while the defendant was not, and sentenced him to three years in North Carolina’s prison system.
Three years later, out of prison, Payne obtained the written jail record he showed me, and wanted his story to be told.
I tell you all of that to explain why I had been trying to get inside the jail to learn what I could about conditions there for a few years. But I was denied permission by the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jail. They do not allow visitors other than those who come in during visiting hours, to sit in front of a glass panel to talk to one inmate while guards monitor the conversation.
Then I learned about the only exceptions to that rule. Churches are allowed to create ministries which can conduct meetings with up to 10 inmates at a time, and discuss whatever they wish. Some social services organizations are also allowed to conduct counseling sessions.
So, we started a jail ministry through the Unitarian Universalist church. We had to have criminal background checks, an instructional session with the jail programs administrator, and be trained by attending a couple of Bible ministry sessions with a Baptist preacher, but then we were free to conduct our own program. It was and is the only non-bible ministry in the Buncombe County jail.
As it happened, when we finally got going, the old, crooked sheriff had gone to federal prison and a new, much more modern and professional sheriff had been elected. Whereas before, guards were selected as punishment for misdeeds as patrol officers, guards are now required to apply for what are now higher paying jobs, and have special training. Medications are well supervised and according to the inmates I’ve spoken with, guards no longer beat prisoners on the elevators. They used to administer beatings there because it is the only place where there are no security cameras.
We were only permitted to meet with non-violent inmates. Most are there on drug or DUI charges, some for failure to pay child support, and a few for theft, and other relatively petty crimes. Most admitted some guilt, but generally disputed the level at which they had been charged. District Attorneys always throw the book at arrestees, threatening the worst possible convictions, in order to coerce plea bargains to lesser charges. That avoids court trials in terribly overbooked courts.
Although my initial motive for creating the ministry was to get inside the jail, to get a feeling for the place, to hear from inmates in their own words about the experience there … the actual ministry was much deeper. I met people operating in a world that’s mostly hidden from my position in life. Of course, I know the statistics, I read sad tales in the newspaper, I understand the financial cost to society of social welfare programs and the court system, but most of the people in the Buncombe County jail are not newspaper readers, are not politically active, don’t have library cards, don’t come to my book signings and don’t attend services at the Unitarian Univeralist church.
They didn’t go to college, they may not have graduated from high school, most don’t hold regular jobs, and they don’t eat at the mid-scale and upscale restaurants in Asheville. They are invisible from where I usually sit.
Most of the inmates I’ve met express remorse, at least about getting caught, and usually about the lives that had led to their current predicament. While the Bible ministries all tell participants that they must accept Jesus as savior, and that they will never fix their lives without Him, we tell participants that we don’t care what beliefs they have about Jesus, or the Bible, or what will happen when they die. We talk about how they might fix their lives when they get out of jail or prison, to avoid the recidivism that is so characteristic of these people. For most that I met over the years, this was not their first time in jail, and it would not be their first time in prison when they were sentenced.
More than a few told me with surprising honesty that THIS time they planned to go straight when they got out. That is, they would go straight after a couple of weeks, but first they would check in with their contacts, and do some drug deals to raise enough cash so they could live until they found jobs. One young man told me his girlfriend had their baby since he’d been arrested, and he was going to do whatever he had to do to buy Pampers and baby food and baby clothes the first day he got out.
And this is where we run into the deep problems with our current laws, our enforcement policies, our judicial system, our prison system and the collateral damage we are doing to individuals, families and communities in America.
We imprison more people per capita than any other country in the world. We have more people imprisoned than Josef Stalin’s gulag state. The world average for incarceration is 150 per 100,000 population. The American prison system stands at 753 per 100,000.
We imposed mandatory minimum sentences for drug related crimes at both the federal and state levels in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and our prison population exploded.
Those with the most incentive to sell drugs are those with the least to lose. Desperate, out-of-work parents with a small baby, and who have had some exposure to drug dealing have very little to lose and a tremendous amount to gain by making a few sales, usually to people they already know.
Because drugs are illegal, there is a high markup. Marijuana, which is essentially a weed, and extremely easy to grow, could easily be sold for a nominal amount, but because it is illegal, requiring an extensive underground network for production, distribution and sale, the price per ounce runs into several hundred dollars or more, with high profits accruing at each step in the distribution chain. The same is true of other naturally occurring drugs: cocaine, heroin, peyote, and mushrooms.
Once someone has been arrested and convicted of a drug crime, the incentives become even higher, because felony convictions make it very hard for ex-cons to find decent jobs. Even with moderately good intentions, like many inmates I met, the lure of quick cash is strong. And, of course, the odds of getting caught during any one sale are very, very low.
Now as it works out, the people most likely to be arrested for drug dealing are those who carry out their trade on the street, soliciting sales to strangers. Again, it is the poor who are most likely to risk exposure in street dealing, and the poor who are most likely to be customers on the street.
The truth is that surveys reveal that illegal drug use is ubiquitous in American life. As a percentage of the population, white middle class people use as many and often more illegal drugs than poor non-white people. But they don’t get arrested very often. Deals that go down in suburban living rooms, corporate lunch rooms, lawyers’ and doctors’ offices, country clubs and the like are not very likely to run afoul of drug suppression teams from the local police force. Furthermore, there is racial and class bias among law enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges. There are unwritten rules about driving while black or brown, rules that we children of the white ruling class never have to consider, unless we grow our hair long, or adopt other outward badges of nonconformity.
Evidence of bias was never more personally clear to me than about ten years after my day spent as a jailbird. I had just completed a year as a house parent in a group home for developmentally disabled children. I was headed to Mexico on a six week camping trip, and my hair was still down over my collar.
At a stopover in Tucson, reacting to a dare from an old friend, and abetted by tequila, I shaved my head.
Two days later I was standing on a sea wall in Mazatlan, Mexico, talking to a retired policeman. I asked him to relate his most memorable experience after a career with the LAPD. Without hesitation he said he loved the sound of his baton coming down on hippies’ heads during demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. He said they split open like ripe watermelons.
I knew in an instant that he would never have told me that story before my new haircut and I adopted that new disguise for the next 8 years, just to experience the world as a skinhead instead of as a hippie. It was during that time that I first heard myself referred to as Mr. Bothwell.
The racial bias in our enforcement system is so pervasive that it is sometimes, and I think accurately described, as a new form of Jim Crow. Nationwide, about 1 in 138 people are incarcerated, which alone seems pretty high, but, of course, men cause most of the problems, young men even more so.
Among white men, aged 16-64, 1 in 87 are incarcerated. Among black men in the same age group, the number is 1 in 12. For black men in their late 20s, the number is 1 in 8.
When unemployment is high it is always higher in the African American population. Partly this reflects racism in hiring, but it also reflects a reasonable reluctance to hire ex-criminals.
A friend of mine, in Asheville, presents a case in point. Ed Chapman spent 15 years on North Carolina’s death row before he was exonerated. He had been convicted by a prosecutor and law enforcement officers who suppressed evidence, buried the result of a police line-up, and even ignored the jailhouse confession of the actual murderer (who is also on death row, for other crimes.) Once he was released, he’s had a very difficult time finding a decent job, because potential employers identify him as an ex-convict.
Our laws have helped create and build a permanent underclass. Many or most of those young black men have fathered children, and so while they are doing time their babies grow up in single-mother households, and single mother households comprise the highest proportion of homes below the poverty line. And when those young fathers get out of prison, unable to find work, they can easily represent one more dependent instead of one more wage earner in the household. Unless, of course, they are willing to do some drug deals and generate some cash.
And here I might note that while there is a high markup on illegal drugs, there are so many people dealing at the street level that studies suggest that most low level dealers don’t earn much more than minimum wage for their time. But, at least its a job.
For those whose morality is offended by my argument that we should go ahead and legalize the most popular, least physically dangerous drugs, I would say this: the American people have voted with their wallets. We have more drugs on the streets now than when the much heralded War on Drugs was declared about fifty years ago. The drugs are often higher potency. The prices are higher, due to our suppression efforts, so the profits are greater and the incentive to sell is greater. By making less harmful forms of some drugs more expensive, for example cocaine, we have spawned worse problems via conversion to crack cocaine, which delivers more bang for the buck. Because the supply chain for crystal meth is shorter, and often more reliable, if not in your own neighborhood, it is easier to get than other drugs which are physically less hazardous. We have succeeded in making the problem worse.
And at the other end of the supply chain, we are making drug king-pins rich, encouraging an international arms trade across the Mexican border and elsewhere, funding the rebel armies that protect the king-pins and destabilizing governments around the globe. For instance, heroin is Afghanistan’s major export commodity, and some Afghani Taliban groups rely on the heroin trade.
(The following paragraph is an addition to the talk as originally delivered at the Brevard UU Church on Dec. 17.)
The banking industry is implicated as well, because king-pins don’t stuff all that cash into mattresses. The British bank, HSBC, was recently found guilty of laundering billions of dollars in drug money, but was only given a slap on the wrist by the United States justice department. The negotiated penalty was $1.9 billion, a “record” settlement—equal to a few week’s profits for the banking giant. But the government had the legal authority to confiscate all of the banks assets, and all of the assets of all of the bank officers implicated in the laundering. Instead, they were let off easy due to expressed fears about what repercussions a meaningful penalty might have triggered in international finance. If you are caught with a single marijuana cigarette, the police can confiscate your cash, your vehicle, even your home. If you are caught laundering money for murderers, extortionists and international drug lords, you may lose your Christmas bonus. The injustice is bizarre beyond belief. [end of new material]
A year from now we’ll begin to learn how much money Colorado and Washington are saving due to their recent decisions to legalize marijuana. They predict savings in the millions in law enforcement, court costs and incarceration. Some foresee a noticeable uptick in tourism as well. This week, the Obama administration announced that it will honor those state-level decisions and not pursue recreational marijuana users in those states.
My experience with the Buncombe County jail ministry has strengthened my belief that most of the poor souls doing time for drug crimes would much prefer to be home supporting their families. If we legalized drugs, they might get jobs in drug stores because there wouldn’t be a profit to be made on the street, and drug king-pins are not the sorts of employers who provide paid vacations and health insurance. When I asked them about what jobs they have done in their lives, they often expressed clear pride that they had once worked doing roofing, hanging drywall, changing tires, putting down asphalt or even digging ditches for a plumbing contractor. All of us gain some sense of self-worth from contributing to society, from providing for our families, from doing our fair share.
One drug dealer I met in jail even bragged to me about the rules concerning children and charitable giving he had organized among dealers in South Asheville. He insisted that his homies had agreed never to sell to kids, never to sell near schools, and to divert money to a program that bought school supplies for the elementary school in their neighborhood.
I have no idea if they stuck to the sales rules, but I looked into it, and they definitely bought those school supplies – or at least, someone claiming to represent the local dealers had delivered the goods.
When I thought about that, it was hard to claim that school supplies paid for by drug sales were any more or less moral than our state-sanctioned education lottery, which is about as morally twisted a way to pay for schooling as I can imagine.
America can do better. I hope we can all help.