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CURE Group Helps Friends and Family Of Prison Inmates July 1, 2010

Posted by FairSentencing in : Current News , 4 comments

They gather like this once a month in the living room of a split-level house in Eugene’s south hills: a couple of dozen men and women whose group could pass for just about anything.

Perhaps a meeting of Obsidians, rallying around the host’s chicken lasagna to plan their next Cascade Range hike. Or Friends of the Eugene Library, here to discuss the annual book sale.

A banker. A Realtor. A retired school teacher. Protestants. Catholics. Unitarians. People wearing Birkenstocks. A woman who drives a Lexus. A University of Oregon student who takes the bus.

A typical Eugene mix bound by something that, if they’re not ashamed of, don’t particularly want others to know: Each of them has, or had, a loved one in prison.

A son. A daughter. A grandson. A husband. A father. In one case, an ex-boyfriend. But someone.

One by one, they tell their stories.

There’s the 40-something UO student who gets up at 4 a.m. to catch a train to Salem to see her 23-year-old son at the Oregon Correctional Institution, then arrives back in Eugene at 2 p.m. and studies until midnight.

The newcomer — her son was only recently incarcerated — who breaks down as she talks about feeling overwhelmed. “I’m scared,” she says, triggering a pass of the Kleenex box.

The longtime attendee whose 41-year-old son still has 27 years left on his sentence — and who wonders if she will even be alive when her son is released.

They talk about the logistics of visiting a family member in a correctional facility. The perceived unfairness of Measure 11 — the voter-approved law that requires minimum mandatory sentences for certain felonies. The pain of a son in prison who won’t talk to his parents.

Not the type of stories that are likely to draw sympathy from, say, members of Crime Victims United, but the stuff that binds those in this gathering of CURE — Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants.

As the meeting continues, nobody asks what crime someone’s relative has committed; the emphasis is on now, not then. Getting by in the present, not digging up the past. But about a third are connected in some way to someone incarcerated for sex offenses, and the bulk of the rest have loved ones serving time for armed robbery or assault. One is related to a convicted murderer.

For most in the room, there’s a similar unwritten rule for the world beyond the living room, too: Don’t tell anyone that they’re connected to someone in prison.

The reason? Fear. Not only for what harm it may cause them, but for the family member who one day may be trying to make it in the world after being released.

One woman fears it might affect her job if someone knew.

“For those of us with sex offenders, it’s obvious,” says a man. “Who can predict what some vigilante will do? You just don’t know how people will respond — your boss, your neighbors, your relatives.”

As the meeting continues, emotions ratchet deep when a retired man, whose son is now out of prison after serving a two-year sentence for having sex with a minor girl, reads something he recently wrote:

“We relatives of the incarcerated are like phantoms in our moralistic society,” the retiree begins. “We can walk the street, and people don’t know who we are. We come in all colors and sizes and shapes and even ages.

“We don’t have to talk about our affliction. Even our closest friends steer clear of the subject, and we seldom bring it up.

“Tears are often close to the surface. And so are sadness and anger and shame.”

A sniffle here, a wiped tear there.

“During visiting hours at the prison in Salem,” he continues, “we seem like sheep. We wait for the doors to open, we stand in line to be identified and we are all searched with a metal detector, all the while averting our eyes from one another.

“It’s not that we can’t have fun, but there’s something inside. A feeling that we’re different. A dark spot we can’t share or a corner where only we can be.”

This living room, on this May night, is that corner.

Welcome to CURE, an international grass-roots organization founded on the idea that “prisons should be used only for those who absolutely must be incarcerated and that those who are incarcerated should have all of the resources they need to turn their lives around.”

Among other things, the Oregon chapter works with the Oregon Department of Corrections on intake and release orientation. But it’s the monthly gatherings that make it different from other such groups.

“To my knowledge, as opposed to groups like Partnership for Safety and Justice, CURE is the only one that’s an actual support group for people to come together,” says Gretchen Vala, president of the Oregon chapter, which began in 1991.

In Oregon, six monthly meetings are offered (in Beaverton, Portland, Salem, Eugene, Mount Vernon and Medford), meaning only a few hundred of those with connections to the state’s 14,005 prisoners are involved. But if CURE draws only a sliver of those with links to loved ones in prison, the people attending the Eugene meeting see it as a monthly cup of comfort, less a rallying place for lobbying than as sustenance for the soul.

Hugs. Hellos. Dinner. And a time for everyone there to share updates on how they’re doing.

“I was hesitant to go at first, but everyone was so friendly and open about their experiences,” says Larissa Nelson, a 23-year-old recent UO graduate. “The biggest impression I took away was that it’s possible to be supportive of someone who’s being incarcerated for a long time. I talked to a woman whose husband has been in prison longer than I’ve been alive.”

Nelson is an exception. Not only because she’s willing to be identified, but because at a group meeting earlier this month, she was there in support not of a relative but of an ex-boyfriend who made the news recently. Joshua Tel Warner, 23, was sentenced May 12 for his involvement in three bank robberies; earlier, he was featured on the reality show “Deadliest Catch.”

Why bother supporting him? He’s not even a current boyfriend.

Because he has hardly anyone supporting him, she says. “Nobody should have to go through what he’s going through alone.”

Victims of crimes, on the other hand, aren’t apt to be as concerned.

“When somebody steals from you, they take part of your soul and dishonor your soul,” says Philip Johnson of Eugene, whose house was burglarized in 2008 by a young man now serving a nine-year sentence.

If such pain isn’t easily forgiven, it at least helps him imagine the pain of others.

“I may not sympathize with those with loved ones in prisons — feel sorry for them — but I can empathize and try to understand their feelings.”

Even then, Johnson can’t help but see a connection between a parent and a crime committed by that parent’s child. “It’s usually a consequence of how these children were raised,” he says.

That may or may not be true, but CURE attendees bristle at the idea that they are automatically deemed responsible for a loved one’s crime.

“Nobody raises a child to be a criminal,” says a 67-year-old Eugene woman whose 40-year-old son is incarcerated at the Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario for robbery.

“If you had a son who stuttered, people wouldn’t think the parents were to blame for that,” says a 71-year-old Eugene man whose son served a five-year sentence for bank robbery. “But in the eyes of many, prison is different. The underlying assumption is that I’m not an adequate parent. It’s subtle, but it’s there.”

He’s a retired teacher, his wife a researcher. But in the eyes of others, that doesn’t matter. “If you have a loved one in prison,” he says, “then you must be stupid.”

In June 2005, Juliette Marie McShane, then 23, and Nina Marie Deverell, 26, were given Measure 11 sentences — more than 20 years each — for a horrific attack on a Springfield woman. The 82-year-old victim was clubbed over the head with a wrench, doused in pepper spray, tied up, thrown in a bathtub and sprayed with a fire extinguisher. Also, her house was ransacked and her car stolen.

Judge Lyle Velure told The Register-Guard that once their drugs wore off, he found the two women to be bright, intelligent and pleasant; McShane, ironically, had been studying criminal justice at Lane Community College.

Suddenly, she found herself in prison.

“Most of the women at Coffee Creek (Correctional Facility in Wilsonville) did something stupid like this for drug money,” says McShane’s mother, Marina.

What some forget is that life changes not only for the one in prison, but the family members left behind. As a CURE attendee pointed out, “for every prisoner you have parents and aunts and uncles and sisters and brothers. For every prisoner there might be 25 people out there hurting every … single … day.”

“It feels like a foreign tribe has captured your kid,” says Marina McShane, explaining a prison system she believes leans to the oppressive side. “Guards are essentially police. You roll your eyes the wrong way and you lose privileges.”

Steve Doell of Portland, whose 12-year-old daughter was killed by a stranger in 1992, sees things from a different perspective.

“I have empathy for loved ones of those in prison but you can’t forget what their loved ones have done,” says Doell, president of Crime Victims United of Oregon. “And often the way they describe what happened doesn’t match what the record says happened.”

People closely connected to prisoners, he contends, often downplay the severity of the family member’s crimes. The very name of the support group, he says, suggests a “euphemising” of reality. He’s fine with Citizens United for Rehabilitation part of the group’s name, he says, “But people who murder and rape and commit felony assaults and child sex abuse and armed burglaries — they’re not ‘errants,’ as the name says. They’re criminals.”

The man whose son served a two-year sentence for having sex with a minor girl insists others would “see it differently if it was their child” in prison. In an outside world that isn’t as sure, he and the other CURE attendees clearly believe their loved ones are redeemable.

“I tell my son, ‘You made a mistake, but you’re not a mistake,’” says one mother of a prisoner.

Marina McShane says drugs such as methamphetamines brought out a side of her daughter she’d never seen. Ironically, it was Juliette McShane — the one in prison — who helped her mother put things in perspective when Marina was lamenting the length of her daughter’s sentence.

“‘Mom, if someone did to you what happened to (her victim), wouldn’t the rest of us feel the same way her family feels?”

Retired Lane County District Attorney Doug Harcleroad says groups such as CURE remind people of an oft-missed truth involving incarceration.

“These people are unintended victims but victims just as well,” he said. “Loved ones become victims, definitely. Not in the traditional sense, but they, too, are victims of the perpetrators of the crime.”

They’re also integral, he says, to those released from prison making it in the outside world.

“When they get out, these people who’ve been in prison need a tremendous amount of support and those loved ones provide that support, though, frankly that’s not enough,” says Harcleroad, who is now senior policy advisor for the Oregon Anti-Crime Alliance.

Meanwhile, “those who wait” endure a pain they say few others can relate to.

“Holidays are horrible,” says McShane, whose daughter has 14 more years in prison. “Like death.”

“It’s always there, in the back of your mind,” says the mother of the man in the Snake River facility. “You wake up in the middle of the night and think of it. When I first heard about the Columbine shootings, I thought: ‘Oh, those poor parents (of the shooters). The judgment. The isolation. The blame.”

She’s 67. Her son robbed a bank. He’s had run-ins in prison and lately has been placed in isolation, meaning only one hour out of his cell per day.

She offers a photo of her son as a smiling little boy, then as a young man, modeling a Christmas gift scarf in front of a well-decorated tree.

“I wanted to show you that he’s a real person,” she says.

Not just a prisoner. A number. A throwaway. Things, she said, that might be hard to understand unless you’re that man’s mother.

“Every time you watch some detective show and someone in a prison scene says, ‘Be careful or Bubba over there is gonna be your wife,’ I don’t think that’s funny. That haunts me. My child may be 40 years old but he’s still my child.”

The 71-year-old retired school teacher, whose 27-year-old son completed a five-year prison sentence for robbing a bank, doesn’t find much sympathy outside the CURE meetings. People’s general response, even if unspoken, is, “Well, they deserve it.”

Doell, the Crime Victims United president, wonders if sympathy is always in order. “People will say (a loved one) just ‘made a mistake.’ No, a mistake is when you lock your keys in the car. Now, when someone puts a gun to your head and threatens to kill you if you don’t give him your keys, that’s more than ‘a mistake.’?”

As the May meeting winds up, a grandmother admits she’s concerned about her grandson living with her after he’s released. A mother of an incarcerated man laments how society seems unwilling to really forgive; “you’re a felon for life,” she says, “never mind that you pay your debt in prison.” Others talk of the difficulties ex-prisoners have fitting into society after prison when so few are willing to trust them. (Thirty percent, says Harcleroad, will commit a new felony within three years.)

Finally, a couple at only their second meeting since their son’s incarceration admit they’re struggling. “God promised he wouldn’t give us more than we can handle,” says the woman, fighting back tears. “But I don’t know.”

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