Thursday, April 15, 2021

Cooking For The Boys by Ruth Utnage

I do this thing where I will cook for anyone who supplies me ingredients, well, most anyone. I am fairly indiscriminate about the whole thing because cooking brings me happiness, but that's not the only reason I do it.

There is usually a group of guys I cook for because they ask the most, I call them my boys. They wait anxiously while I whip something together. I do it often enough I know exactly what each one prefers and likes. This one hates food that is wet, that one has to have pepperoni in everything, this one wants mayonnaise in most things he eats. I know them all and when I hand them their meal something inside of me sighs with completeness. Content.

It makes me feel good. I enjoy cooking because it makes me happy and I enjoy having people around I can take care of, so to speak. I've always thought that when I retire I will own a little restaurant or cafe where I will be a sassy waitress that harasses her customers. I do that now and it feels amazing, it's not work, it's pleasurable. In fact, last night I was resting comfortably in bed when I was asked to make breakfast burritos. 75 minutes later I was handing out 18 burritos, customized to each one of my boys and it felt so good I almost cried about it.

I even gave one to the shithead, every group has one...but he's our shithead, with a full belly.

I suppose what I'm getting at is I feel human when I'm cooking for others. Finding humanity in a place like this, I'll take that any day.

In here are people. People who are just as human as you or I. Why not love a little more?

With Love
Ruth

To help support or share in my release, please visit my gofundme at:

https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-ruth-utnages-reentry-after-prison

Thanks. 




Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Marshall's Wrapping... by Rory Andes

This weekend, Marshall stopped by like he often does to say hello. As an afterthought he asked if I had any paper towels. I unrolled the roll of perforated towels and handed Marshall a big bundle, in case he needed more than he thought. He went off on his way and told me he was cooking a little and needed the towels for some burritos he was making.... Cool!

After a few hours he reemerged at my door with a tortilla bag that had some sort of weighted substance (not just tortillas) and said, "Here you go! You have to heat them up for thirty seconds."
"What is it?" I said...
"Breakfast Burritos... In the afternoon! Don't worry about how they're wrapped, though. I'm not very good at it."

I had just eaten lunch, so the bag was set aside for a while. It was a great snack for later. As later came and I had a little room for them, I decided to eat these burritos. As I opened the bag, rice went everywhere... All inside the bag, all over the counter, everywhere. I pulled the burritos out and they were loosely held in place by the paper towels, now soaked in some sort of greasy substance that I later determined was pepperoni. I place these burritos in a bowl and tucked the towel together to try and minimize the mess that was happening. I went to the microwave and did as instructed. As I pulled them out, I could now smell the magic happening inside these abominations of tortilla wrapping. Holding one together with only the paper towel, I took a bite. Rice and cheese were the first flavors. Then a bigger bite and then the real beauty in these burritos hit my pallet. It was more cheese, egg, pepperoni, black olives and so much more! Marshall made THE BEST tasting, worst looking breakfast burritos I've ever had.

Later I asked him about the ingredients and to get his recipe. He explained his apologies to me about how it was wrapped and that he didn't warm the tortillas, etc, etc, etc. He said after 15 years of making prison burritos, he still has no idea how to wrap one. The flavors he put together were amazing and I was so grateful for his thoughtfulness. But when he gets out, can someone please teach this guy how to wrap a frickin burrito??

by Rory Andes

Sharing is caring... to include a deficiency in wrapping skills.

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Monday, April 12, 2021

Mask Anxiety... by Rory Andes





If you take a look at this picture, it's me... true story. In it, I'm all dressed up and ready for the worst shit humanity ever created. Within the first 72 hours of the start of the war with Iraq in March 2003, one of the biggest fears we had were missiles tipped with weapons of mass destruction (and if you recall history, we went into Iraq on that very sales pitch). In those beginning volleys, dozens of these attacks occurred. I was in Kuwait, in a tent city off of the runways of Kuwait City Int'l Airport (keeping the airport free of chemical weapons contamination was ultimately our mission early on). US forces had just started the push north and hadn't yet secured Baghdad, so this airport was an incredibly important logistics hub. This picture was taken in those early hours, by my platoon sergeant, in a concrete bunker lined with sandbags, during a SCUD missile attack. I was 26 years old and wondering about what this whole event held in store. While our Patriot Missiles knocked down the vast majority of Saddam's SCUDs, the stress of breathing for hours in a restrictive apparatus resonated with me for a lifetime. It's much like being claustrophobic... the strain of it all gets into your head. But, since masks hadn't been a part of my life since those days, I never really put much thought into it. At least until Covid, and only more lately...

As we have crossed the year mark on the Covid pandemic and masks have become my everyday, every once in a while I find myself consumed in the anxiety of breathing in the required, restrictive breathing apparatus. I'm often surprised at the unlikely times it happens. Walking to breakfast, sitting behind my computer at work, chatting with friends... any of these activities can find me feeling overwhelmed about the difficulty in breathing through a barrier. These activities aren't strenuous, so it took me a while to figure out why sometimes I struggle with the panicked anxiety in peaceful situations. After I made a conscious effort to work at identifying what I was feeling, it always led back to the guy in this picture, sitting in a bunker waiting for an explosion of lethal chemical contamination. It's strange how the mind works. It's always surprising how traumas creep in from time to time, just when we think we have it all worked out. I hope this pandemic can come to a place where the mask isn't such a requirement of every waking moment in this prison, but just like the bunker, you just have to wait and hope... and control your breathing when the mask anxiety grabs you.

by Rory Andes

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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Transgenders In Prison Coping With Media Coverage by Ruth Utnage

So what do we do when we, as transgendered inmates, are exploited by media that is aimed at damaging us and potentially puts us in danger? Here are a few things I have done to help myself cope with just such an event:

1) Understand what the goal of the media coverage is.

This is important because it helps humanize the agency or reporter doing the harm. I need to have empathy because empathy is what they are lacking, I am not them. Let them be calloused and instead I choose to be an example of what change and rehabilitation looks like by not putting more hatred or negative energy into the atmosphere. I look at it as adding positive karma to my karma bank. I already know what it feels like to hurt and exploit someone else, I'll never do it again willingly. I only want to love. A little understanding goes a long way, besides, if I know what their end goal is, I may be able to engage with them in a win-win scenario.

2) Don't react impulsively.

Spend some time thinking about how to respond or if a response is warranted. It can feel like a great idea to immediately counter a report, and sometimes it is, but sometimes it isn't. Remember, they are experts at their jobs, we are experts at us. I'm going to do me on my terms, not theirs. Reach out and get help. Talk to people about options, get advice and feedback, then decide if action is necessary. Mistakes are made on impulse. Avoid it.

3) Calm your emotions.

Reality, some things are out of my control. I don't know about you but I like to live in reality. The reality is, I cannot control what others do, feel, or think. Nor do I want to. I prefer independence for others and myself. Autonomy is highly valuable to me. Instead of trying to control others actions, I focus on coping with my emotions. I want to become healthier, not unhealthier. This means dealing with emotions and feelings in positive ways that are in my long-term best interest. Go see a therapist. Talk to a friend, or thirty, write a poem, draw a picture, exercise, meditate...do whatever helps you understand yourself better and remain healthy.

These aren't the only things possible. I am no expert but I do know that those of us transgendered and gender non conforming folx that are incarcerated have to deal with negative media coverage and it can feel scary. At the end of the day some would like us to feel that the world is a threatening place and they hope that if they become intimidating enough we will bend to their will and narrow ideals of how the world works.

The world is not a threatening place and so many people DO accept you and me right now. Maintaining my mental health and a positive self-image is a number one priority for me because I like me better this way, as I am now. Remember when you came out, the weight that was lifted? Don't add someone else's weight to your load again.

I've done harm to someone. I hate that feeling and I will never allow myself to get to that point again. Part of that is feeling and coping with my emotions and I bet it's the same for anyone who reads this.

Feel free to leave your own tips on this issue. Together we can create a plan that someone can use to navigate situations like these.

With Love
Ruth

To help support or share in my release, please visit my gofundme at:

https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-ruth-utnages-reentry-after-prison

Thanks.



Saturday, April 10, 2021

Ordinarily Extraordinary... by Rory Andes

Big fish stories are common place among fishermen. They're the slight fib, a skewed truth, an intentional misrepresentation of facts to enhance ones status or rating among other fishermen. "If yours was big, mine was bigger," as it may be said. But ordinarily, fishing (and the fish being caught) can only be as big as the true genetics of the species being pursued. An average size, a average value, ordinary... until the story makes them extraordinary.

In the 2003 movie "Big Fish", Tim Burton directs an amazing tale of a father on his deathbed who's stories were a little hard to believe and a son who struggles to find the truth. Fanciful tales of carnies, mermaids and circus freaks, and a life lived among them that, well, seemed like just big fish tales. But as the movie progressed, you learn that perhaps there was truth to his father's extraordinary tales. In fact, through his fathers eyes, everything that would be ordinary to most WAS extraordinary to him. Allow me to introduce the extraordinary parts of a life that seems generally ordinary. My life is full of the extraordinary, at least to me.

I met three movie stars in the course of my childhood, two professional wrestlers, and I went to high school with one of America's all time best Rock and Roll drummers. But isn't one of these people enough to a kid? Seems pretty extraordinary...

As an adult, my perception of extraordinary just got bigger. I touched the soil of four continents, defended two countries in war (one of which, Korea, was in a fifty year old stalemate when I did), and traveled our own beautiful country from coast to coast. I surfed and spear fished off the North Shore of Hawaii, swam off of both the California and Florida coasts, rode a city train through scenic parts of Boston, and listened to the exotic sounds made by the insects on a balmy summer night in Kentucky. I've watched the sun kiss the Arizona sky at daybreak and walked the streets that were the marching routes where a civil rights revolution began in Alabama. Are any one of these events extraordinary? To someone who grew up in one place, it is...

I've experienced the investigation of the Oklahoma City bombing, directly impacted by the terror of the attack on 9/11, and had given the support needed for one of the world's worst tsunamis. I've watch history unfold before my eyes and knowing my place in time, it was extraordinary. I've lived pain I never thought I'd endure and was forever changed in so many ways. I've even enjoyed the company and a few drinks with a serial killer, long before he would ever be known or even caught, without ever having a clue about him. In hindsight, learning of his acts and knowing I experienced him in the wild makes me fortunate...

Which leads me to my last tip of the hat to the extraordinary in seemingly ordinary form... Prison. While it's a given that fame and even infamy exist here, the extraordinary lies in the people who's lives are remarkably different. I call a history making revolutionary for trans rights advocacy, a sister. A mathematician who published solutions for centuries old continued fractions, a brother. A life coach who took National Public Radio by storm, my family. Authors, professors, entrepreneurs, I've enjoyed them all. The things that are extraordinary that I've seen and done in prison may be simply ordinary in many circles, but the beauty is in how I had to be here, in a prison, to experience the value of them. To me, that's extraordinary.

All the fish in my life are giants and all my ordinaries are ordinarily extraordinary. It makes me love the life I've uncovered in my search for its purpose. But if you look carefully, all our live's contain the elements for a great "big fish" story that is so very real and true to each one of us...

by Rory Andes

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Friday, April 9, 2021

The Happiness Project by Marshall Byers

Gretchen Robin's book is super duper insightful, I was splashed with humor, helpful tips to fill my days with more happiness, and how to be the source of happiness for others. Aaaaaaah! Reading her book gave me a fresh satisfaction like after brushing, flossing, and swishing with Listerine. I actually caught myself singing out loud. Thank you www.happiness-project.com

It took years of prison time to uncover my true nature. It was like pumping iron for the soul. My inner happiness is the Incredible Hulk...but a happy green smiling Hulk of course. I am known as the "Happiest Prisoner In The World".

Counting Down The Days,
Marshall Byers



Thursday, April 8, 2021

Cherished Grievances... by Rory Andes

This week, a friend of mine, Kristina, got me hip to a concept that has been really clawing at my mind. She attends a program called A Course In Miracles and she often shares these incredibly deep topics and perspectives with me. One that really grabbed me this week was the "Cherished Grievance", it's the pain, anger, adversity, or any other negative emotion that we simply are unwilling to let go of. In the course of one's life, how much of our hearts and minds are wasted on these types of grievances?

In prison, I see it everyday, however I didn't have such a great label to put on it. I carry a few of these as well. I see guys who have been beaten by a father, or neglected by a mother, or betrayed, abused and abandoned by someone or something and they think these elements define them. They won't let them go. They are cherished... But what if we let go of the things that hurt us? What if we become victors over our adversities and set aside our inner victims? How much more fulfilled could we all be? While it's true that we learn from all things good and bad, it makes so much sense to let go of the parts of our emotions that poison our souls. Let's start living fuller lives by retiring those cherished grievances... Who's with me?

by Rory Andes

Bury the hatchet on the things we can let go of.

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Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Thoughts Become Things by Marshall Byers

The day I wrote "I am a life coach" on my mirror with a dry eraser, was the start of my internship. Yep that's right, my aspiration is very prevalent, and I vigorously work to be effective by practicing what I'm learning as much as possible. My deep desire is to guide and enable clients to achieve beneficial and measurable results in every area of their lives. This brings me a ton of satisfaction. I love my life. My daily moto ... I want to be great, but I want to make others greater. 

Heck Yeah.

Nothing can ultimately confine or limit you. New thoughts create new conditions

Bursting With Happiness,
Marshall Byers 



Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Dispatches from Ray's Planet... by Rory Andes

I recently read a wonderfully crafted piece of literature titled "Dispatches from Ray's Planet: A Journey through Autism" by Claire Finlayson. In it, Claire documents the exploration of her brother's life long travels of being on the autism spectrum in a remarkably creative way... their email correspondence. Understanding her brother, Ray, and helping the reader to understand him is one of the best expressions of love I've been able to witness. This book is that expression.

From the way Ray sees the world to the way Claire figures him out, the writing is a peek into the struggles (and sometimes complete lack of struggle) of those on the autism spectrum. Sometimes called Asperger Syndrome, sometimes called Autism Spectrum Disorder, we find out how Ray engages the world in a way many of us might even find ourselves envious of. I was introduced to the game... "Goongbalong"... one where neurotypical types, the everyday folk, fumble through social engagements without really knowing what messages are being sent or received. Ray explains in his own messages how the inability to say what you mean is an irritant. And I found him being absolutely correct in so many ways!

From his profession as a letter carrier for the Canada Post, to his tutoring of math to students who lack the confidence, Ray is a remarkable human being in every way. Claire shows the beautiful layers of her amazing brother in this loving tribute to him. And for those who suffer their own math anxieties, consider the guy who's appeared to be the square peg operating in round social spaces for over six decades. I promise after reading this book, being bold enough to be yourself (and a little studying) is the cure to those insecurities. Thanks to Claire Finlayson for sharing her wonderful brother with the world and for taking the reader on a insightful journey through Ray's Planet.

by Rory Andes

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Dispatches From Ray's Planet: A Journey Through Autism by Marshall Byers

Written with wonderful intensity and rare candor, Dispatches from Ray's Planet is a whirlwind of wisdom and many different books at once: a delightful adventure story, a very funny comedy, a compassionate self-help guide, an inspiring argument for love and family. This book invites us to grapple with (Goongbalong) the lessons of unwritten social norms and seeing beauty and pain from another's perspective. This wonderfully mastered book swept me right off my feet. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Claire Finlayson takes you on a beautiful journey that not only warms your heart, but causes you to reflect and ponder life more deeply. What are you waiting for...order it!

Spring-sunshine-happiness,
Marshall Byers 



Saturday, April 3, 2021

Disingenuous Legislators... by Rory Andes

This legislative session had high hopes about bringing about real and meaningful change to the ways our state incarcerates. Two of the chief concerns presented before legislation were the impact on state finances and the disparaging impact on communities of color. This session was in good standing to make real changes. A Democratic State Congress and a Democratic Executive who all said black and brown people are being abused by the legal practices that fill up prisons at rates that represent them much higher than their free community counterparts. In one study, black people were just 4% of the community and over 18% of prisons. Hispanic and Native communities have been decimated just as bad.. But, this legislative session was going to change that... and they were on their way because Covid had crippled the state financially and equity had the upper hand. Something had to give, right?

Not so much. President Biden had given this Blue State the bailout it needed to shut down all true and meaningful changes. Those with "Buck Rogers" time structures will have no effective relief. Juveniles that were put up against multi-decade sentences were hoping for... hope. But to no avail. Those that were looking to the Department of Corrections' own Budget Reduction Strategy had hopes. Another fail. The billions that could have been saved won't be. That can got kicked down the road for another time, to be handled by another body of elected officials years from now. Instead of spending that stimulus money on rehabilitating the community to ensure prisons aren't the financial drain they are, the lip service of liberal policies continue. Nobody wants the doors of prisons just opened and they shouldn't be. But don't sell the public on racial equity... right up until the cash comes in. Shit like that shows the true colors of a movement and a disingenuous legislative body.

by Rory Andes

At least we can tax marijuana, right? Priorities...

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Friday, April 2, 2021

The Realities Of Body Imaging For A Trans Woman (at least this trans woman!) by Ruth Utnage

The topic of body image among transgendered individuals, at least in my experience, is avoided. I have had plenty of conversations about how my mind and body feel incongruent with my birth assigned physical gender but the conversation tends to not go any deeper. I haven't really wanted to until I began to develop some confidence in my body image and overall self-esteem.

I have been reading the Glennon Doyle book, "Untamed: stop pleasing and start living" and have been really internalizing some of her concepts on body image and an internal conversation between my insecure and secure selves developed and it went something a little like this:

Secure Self: "I find myself to be beautiful right this second, right now. I am a woman, not a trans woman, but a woman. Therefore, everything I do is what a woman does- the way I walk and talk is all woman. All women are unique and have their own version of femininity, I am no exception. I am pretty, I have a body I like, I am secure."

Insecure Self: "If I am so beautiful right this minute, then why are you trying to change me into something else?"

Secure Self: "What do you mean?", now a little insecure.

Insecure Self: "Well, you say I am good as I am, a woman right now. If this is true then why are you taking hormones to change me?"

I have to admit, this is a tough piece for me to publish or even talk about. It is the nucleus of a trans identity. It is the internal war that occurs inside so many Trans and Non-Binary folx and to be frank, inside so many women in general. The idea that we, as a group have a standard we are attempting to meet feels like it is the chains that bind us to unhappiness and discontent with ourselves.

Talking with someone about this is complicated because it can be taken that if I accept myself as I am then I no longer have a need to transition thus making "Gender Dysphoria" (that diagnosis for transgendered individuals) a body image issue to be corrected via better self-esteem. This is NOT the case though. I am a woman with the parts most most men have and now I must accept that some women have them as well. To this end I must accept that I am a beautiful WOMAN and I also have a need to fulfill my own personal version of femininity. Which, for me, means I want breasts and a vagina and so many other things. Hormones gets me closer to my personal version of myself that I want.

But saying that is hard, for some reason. I am not sure why. Maybe I am the only one, maybe not. I try not to be the spokesperson for every trans person because we have our own voices, the last thing we need is someone else trying to tell us how to think. What we need is someone to say it's okay to think for ourselves. So, to that end, let's have a chat, shall we?

Masculinity and femininity are constructs of a social order. A social order that, in my opinion, was created on narrow minded, racist, sexist, patriarchal, classist, and an antiquated sense of superiority based on religious segregationism. How about we change that.

I'll go first. I love me AND I have my own sense of what I want to look like that makes me feel whole, beautiful AND I can achieve that thanks to science. I'm gonna do that.

To help support or share in my release, please visit my gofundme created by some unusually wonderful folx in the community at:

https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-ruth-utnages-reentry-after-prison

Thanks.

With Love
Ruth



Thursday, April 1, 2021

Time Stamp... by Rory Andes

If you've ever sent text messages, you know that they carry a small piece of information that is often useful called a time stamp. Emails also have time stamps. It's a little signature of when things get sent and received, a coming and going of information. As this is a standard in the free world on a variety of platforms, our prison email system isn't exempt from the time stamp. However, ours reflects the Eastern Time Zone of the United States. The other morning I woke up to two emails from a dear friend who has been out of prison for less than a week. Her messages were stamped 3:25am and 3:30am, times that represented that she was awake and catching up on correspondence shortly after midnight our time.

I felt myself become emotional about these messages. Of course I love hearing from my dear friend, but the time she sent them is what got to me. I thought about her life in this short distance from prison and how it's full enough to have to catch up with some writing in the deepest parts of the night. I beamed with pride and hope that her life, after all these years in prison and turning in at 9 pm, her life was... full. In my mind, I was overwhelmed about how busy she must be and how she is adapting to her life and how catching up on a few emails after midnight is a sign that she's doing things in her life, with her life. A full life where she drifts off to sleep hours past what she used to because she's busy catching up on everything (including me in a little writing). I appreciate the "after midnight" time stamps on an email from friends who've gotten out, because it's a sign that the life they've worked so hard to get to keeps them busy. Keep it up, Dana...

by Rory Andes

I enjoy the signs of a life well lived.

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Wednesday, March 31, 2021

My Horoscope Told Me... by Ruth Utnage

My horoscope told me that this was an exciting time for me. That I should really focus on facing my fears and watch my life seriously change.

I could be critical and point out the vagueness of it. I could remind myself that it was in a weekly TV Guide. Those are options. You know what else is an option? Trying it.

Why not work on facing some fears? Living a life with less fear sounds liberating to me and if I allowed the advice of a TV Guide Horoscope to inspire me...who cares?

Inspiration can come from anywhere we allow our imagination to play. Gratitude comes from taking the time to be thankful. Thanks weekly TV Guide Horoscope, I'll take it.

For the next week I'm going to focus on facing my fears. My internal fears are coming up first. Fear of rejection. Failure. That I'm not "enough of a woman".

You know, I've had a fear that cis women will reject me.

Fear that I'm too 'big boned', not skinny enough, that I'm going to blow up.

Fear of dating. Getting too close to a man. Fear of being hurt.

Fearing judgment if I say I want to have sex. Lol. Can you imagine? A woman who wants to have sex...as if it's an odd thing. Why is that a fear of mine anyway. Piss on that.

I like to think what would Glennon Doyle or my therapist tell me in moments like these? They'd tell me "Ruth, you're not crazy, you're a goddamned cheetah!"

Damn right I am.

I am an unruly, bold, and determined WOMAN who has a serious sense of exactly what and who she is and I don't give a goddamn what anyone thinks about it. I'm a bit wild and possibly untameable and I am about to be unleashed on the order of things...

Now watch it reorder itself around me.

Watch out fears, you might just be in trouble.

To help support or share in my release, please visit my gofundme created by some unusually wonderful folx in the community at:

https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-ruth-utnages-reentry-after-prison

Thanks.

With Love
Ruth



Tuesday, March 30, 2021

His Name Is Van... by Rory Andes

Everyone calls him "Uncle", yet neither he nor anyone else knows why. While he doesn't particularly care for the name, he's become accustomed to it. Even many of the prison staff know him as Uncle. But it's a good fit for his caring nature. He has that vibe of a family friend you might have grown up around. If you know him, he's very much a lovable man. He works hard, he's proud of his family, and he's inspiringly humble. He represents an older generation. He stands a mere five foot, but at his age, it's certain gravity has robbed him of a few inches along the way. He has a brilliant smile and looks at you intently when you speak to him, perhaps to be engaging or perhaps to listen in closer to catch what you're saying. 

Van is an immigrant from Vietnam and English can sometimes be a struggle for him. Without a doubt, only a man his age, who grew up where he did, can know the gravity of the circumstances that brought him to America. This gentleman has a powerful history. As a young man in Vietnam, he was thrust into the position of a warrior, forced to pick a side in a war that ripped his nation apart. He moved up the ranks as a soldier to become a leader, a sergeant, for what was then South Vietnam. However, he's had to do what no American soldier has ever had to do. He's had to watch the country he came from and fought for, become swallowed up in a conflict it wasn't going to win. It was a conflict that killed more than a million civilians and displaced over 6.5 million more of his countrymen. It was a loss that would cost Van twelve excruciating years in "reeducation", a term meant as atonement for his opposition to a communist regime, for fighting on the wrong side.

Van was born and raised in Nha Trang, a coastal city about 200 miles northeast of what is now Ho Chi Minh City. He entered his service in 1972, a year before the never-implemented cease fire agreement was signed by the US, the Vietcong, North and South Vietnam in Paris. He served until 1975 when the south surrendered to the communist north. Van fought in the South Vietnam army, or Binh Linh as he called it, alongside UN forces made up of Korean and Filipino soldiers. Ultimately, when the south surrendered, those fighting were rounded up in a measure to enforce the new government. When his unit was captured along with the multinational forces, the other nations' soldiers were executed. He was then moved to Dong Gang, a brutal prison where he would experience the worst atrocities offered to a human being. By the time he arrived in his new hell, he was just 24 years old.

Dong Gang was a 45 minute drive from Nha Trang and he could feel the ghosts of his home. More devastatingly, he watched his peers, his friends, become those ghosts. The images of his confinement there are difficult for him to articulate. Not because of his language proficiency, but he stops to reflect in retelling me the story. It's as if his soul has a razor just beneath its surface and he doesn't want to touch it. He recalled several accounts of the abuse and death he witnessed. Images he says he feels angry about, the trauma cracking through the stoicism of his face as he tells me what he experienced. In one instance, he was forced to watch 27 friends, fellow soldiers, die in one day from disease. He described in great detail how they bled from their ears, noses and rectums all while starving. Disease was just as brutal to the prisoners as the North Vietnamese guards. They were offered only one type of medicine for their ailments, one called Sien tam lien, one many Vietnamese will recognize because it was prescribed for everything from a cold, to heart disease, to cancer. But he said when they had it, they felt lucky.

Van had to witness hundreds of executions. As he recalled them, he remained matter of fact, composed. For him, in the moment of it, fearing it was a way of life and the source of death. Some of those executed included those who were trying to escape. Van describes how prisoners ran in an attempt to free themselves and were relentlessly gunned down. Some were executed for failing to work harder in the rice fields, sometimes for just stretching after countless hours of being bent over to pick rice. A boot to the back of the knees was their first warning before being shot in the back of the skull. An AK-47 was effective at regulating the other workers. Still, others were executed just to show the masses that no one was safe, so do your part and always obey, or suffer the consequence.

When it came to his daily routine, he and his fellow prisoners worked shifts from six in the morning to six at night, everyday. Along the way, they got a fifteen minute break around noon and an opportunity to eat one small potato, the size of a plum. How hard you worked dictated how much you were allowed to eat for the month. For the hardest workers, they were allowed 18 kilograms of rice per month, or roughly 40 pounds. The second hardest workers received 9 kilos and the bottom rung received only 6 kilos, although no one received the actual amount awarded because even the cooks who prepared the rice were hungry and would steal it. Often, the top producers would get only half of what they should have. Famine was a constant struggle in his prison.

The living conditions he described were atrocious as well. They slept 225 inmates in a single open bay. There were no beds, so they slept in line on the dirty floor, often shackled to one another. The building they were in had one additional room set at the end of it to use the toilet. They were awakened every day by their oppressive guards. Van described one morning, in 1979, when he was getting up to go to the rice fields and the person who slept next to him, a friend whom he had been with since his capture, didn't get up with him. Concerned for his safety, he shook him and his friend felt cold and stiff. When Van rolled him over, his dear friend had been dead long enough that the maggots fell from under his eyelids. It was another bit of proof of his stark and dangerous reality and another friend who died senselessly. He had to fight his surroundings to stay alive. Worse yet, he had to fight himself to hide the humanity within. He couldn't grieve, he couldn't mourn, so he simply moved with those still standing to the fields to pick rice. He said he held himself back in the moment, but gave me just a little emotion in my interview with him about this memory. It's difficult to hear this man's story without feeling what he was presenting to me, his emotion so rigidly packaged for the purpose of self preservation. He's carried this baggage nearly as long as I've been alive, though he would add to it in time, as he would tell me.

I had asked him what happened to his family while he was serving this time in prison in Vietnam. His family is extremely important to him and he beams when we talked about them. He explained that his family, six sisters, four brothers, his father and mother, had escaped to the Philippines where they stayed for a month and then found asylum in the United States along with many other refugees of the Vietnam conflict. He described his goal was to join them in the US, but struggled with how to get there. After he spent his last year of prison in Vietnam, in a softer place known as A-40, Van was released and he immediately fled to the Philippines around 1987. He then had to wait an additional five years before he could join his family.

When he finally arrived in America in the early 1990's, he started to establish himself. He found a job as a painter, but because of his limited English and lack of professional license, he couldn't get into a labor union or progress to more than $18 an hour. His industry counterparts were making $35 an hour doing the same work, after the same time invested in their careers. As an immigrant, it's often difficult to realize the fullest potential of the American Dream when you encounter certain barriers. But, Van is a humble soul and enjoyed the freedom to work without tyranny. I asked what could have possibly lead him to be in an American prison, so he told me.

He was a heavy drinker and spent time among the local Seattle bars. He had the traumas that haunt many old soldiers, and he handled them the way many soldiers still do... he self medicated. One night in 2007, he was drinking with a friend and an argument ensued. His friend drew a knife and tried to rob him in the heat of it. Van's response came through the barrel of a loaded gun. He shot his friend dead. A shot that would take his meager success and send him back to prison again. Another act to add to a lifetime of traumas and baggage.

Fearing the idea of incarceration with what he had previously experienced, Van went on the run and he stayed on the run for nearly two months. His story had been top billing on local news stations for over two weeks. He finally gave up and was arrested. Two of the victim's children came forward at his trial to ask the court to give Van mercy and the lowest possible sentence for the charge. Van received 15 years for 2nd Degree Murder. Had he not feared and ran, he could have had it mitigated to five years for manslaughter. More over, he expressed frustration that it happened to a friend, though he has trouble defining the exact feelings of it. It seemed to make him uncomfortable when I pressed him on it. To me, those are the edges of what those traumas look like. In his travels, other people hurt his friends, so it was difficult to him to know he was capable of doing the same.

With humility, he speaks about how lucky American prisoners have it. One morning a few years ago, he showed me a pouch of peanut butter and a piece of fruit and explained how many people in Vietnamese prisons wished for things like that. It's so simple for us, and such a treasure for him. During his incarceration, he's been blessed with the support of his family and his sisters look out for his best interests as a routine. Van is scheduled for release in July of 2022, back to the loving arms of these precious people that he's been separated from for so much of his life. His mother is still alive and waiting for him to come home. He has a daughter who still resides in Vietnam and he always speaks of her like a proud father. He says she's doing well. When I thanked him for allowing me to document his story, he ever so kindly smiled, gave me his hand and said, "Andy, any time!" I guess it's fair, my name's not Andy and his isn't Uncle... His name is Van...

by Rory Andes

Email at Jpay.com using Rory Andes 367649

Or by Mail:
Rory Andes 367649
MCC-TRU
PO Box 888
Monroe, WA 98272



Monday, March 29, 2021

Integrity by Ruth Utnage

We all have different 'selves'. A shy self, a jealous self, a loving self, so many selves. I, myself, strive to integrate all my 'selves' with one another.

The integration of my 'selves'...that is integrity.

To help support or share in my release, please visit my gofundme created by some unusually wonderful folx in the community at:

https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-ruth-utnages-reentry-after-prison

Thanks.

With Love
Ruth 



Sunday, March 28, 2021

Zoom Certification... by Rory Andes

Even though I am incarcerated, I see the pain that comes from having to connect to others through Zoom video software. The pain isn't from the software itself, but those who are completely unqualified to use it. During this legislative session for Washington state, many of us civically minded inmates view countless hours of testimony live from Olympia. Because of the pandemic (and I'm sure for convenience as well) most of the participants video in. Most times, it's fine and well delivered video coverage of their testimony. Sometimes, it's extremely painful. Sometimes, it's beyond painful...

For example, if you insist on using a green screen, don't wear matching colors. The talking, disembodied head is scary. Also, the background is often ridiculous... the greens of someone else's mansion as a background makes you look like a pretentious prick. You know what? Just avoid outdoor settings completely. If the state lawmakers won't take the homeless seriously and that IS their living room, then politicians shouldn't have an outdoor setting either and be taken seriously. How about that library background, huh? Who's library is that? Or the sheriff who has a log cabin background superimposed, complete with gun racks and mounted heads... lean far right much? Yeah, you seem fair and impartial. Or the people who ditch the fake background entirely and settle for their own space... good! It's a start! But please clean your house. I can't take you seriously either. Or the guy or girl who took a class of AV in high school twenty years ago who get "artsy" with camera angles... just stop it... Use the right lighting because you look like a silhouette...

Before we chew through HOURS of testimony over Zoom, please take a "basics" class online (because I'm sure they exist) and set the stage for a serious discussion. The chaos of the unqualified Zoom participant is super distracting to a message and it reminds me of some advice I found about job interviews... If the interview went well and you walk them out to their car and the car looks like a mess inside, so might their approach be to your company. The devil is in the details, so get your Zoom right...

by Rory Andes

Watching a mess is distracting.

Email at Jpay.com using Rory Andes 367649

Or by Mail:
Rory Andes 367649
MCC-TRU
PO Box 888
Monroe, WA 98272



Saturday, March 27, 2021

Rejuvenated By Nuclear Love by Marshall Byers

My living quarters, aka the shoebox, storage unit, and my personal favorite, the mini suite, is literally bulging with nuclear love in the form of words expressed on notes by beautiful people. Here are their words to me.

My brother, thanks for being the example for so many, including me. With who you are and all you do, life is a better place. Regardless of the road that led you to this point, in prison at 42, the road leading you out is one people have waited their whole lives for. I appreciate being on this stretch with you as you travel to greatness. Just make sure the world continues to know the miracle of your journey. And thank you for the amazing friendship. -- Rory

I truly value you as a friend and brother, my life is better for having known you. I love ya bro, ---James

Hi Marshall! Your vibes are truly infectious and because of that, I love being around you. You're a good friend. ---Christopher

Marshall, you mean something to this world, to us, to me. You've done so much by being a genuine you and like all things genuine, I will never regret being your friend. Thanks for being my friend. Here's to that TEDx Goal ----Ruth

Happiness is a choice, not a result. Nothing outside of you will make you happy. You choose to be happy, feel grateful and then share that with the world. This is how I describe you! Love you ----Aunt Sal

Look around you, and feel proud of what you've accomplished. Look within you, and you will discover that you have everything it takes to make your dreams come true. Marshall, way to go my friend! Can't wait to hear about it! Sincerely, Nancy (Quilting Volunteer)

Dear Marshall, you made me the happiest person on earth! I received your note today and it has turned me upside down with happiness!! P.S. putting your note in a frame to keep near me always! Love you to the moon and back "Mom" V. Ensminger

We can't wait for you to come home son, you are such an inspiration. We have so many dishes for you to wash, gutters to clean, lawns to mow and leaves to rake. We took great care of you while you did your time, well guess what! We are old fuddy duddy's, now it's your turn to take care of us kiddo. Love, Mom and Paul

Marshall-Heck-Yeah-Byers, I know I said that I am so very proud of you but I want to say it again--I'm so very proud of you! It was so great to hear from all your teachers and friends how much of an inspiration you are. Keep it up and you know the sky is the limit and beyond. Only 4 months and you'll be released and no more bars! Super excited for that day to come. Love you so much. ----Jennifer

My contribution is not on Marshall's emails but I tell him every chance I get that his attitude and the way he sees life is awe inspiring. I hope to be more like him everyday. He is sunshine, he is amazing, he is love, and I wish him all the best when he gets out to give me my long awaited, well deserved hug. I love you Marshall.     Valerie



Friday, March 26, 2021

A Little Advice To All Trans Women, Especially Those With...Histories by Ruth Utnage

There is a book by Glennon Doyle called:

Untamed: stop pleasing and start living

It was sent to me by a book club friend (thank you gurl, you're a goddess!) and it is seriously hitting my soul.

I've read a lot of books during my incarceration, I mean a bunch, and some have impacted me so profoundly that it changed my entire course of life and set me on a path that I am still following. But Glennon Doyle is speaking right to my soul in a language that its been longing to hear. No, a language it's been longing to feel.

Girls, this is a must read. This book should be government sponsored and mandatory reading...

To help support or share in my release, please visit my gofundme created by some unusually wonderful folx in the community at:

https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-ruth-utnages-reentry-after-prison

Thanks.

With Love
Ruth