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Thursday, 29 December 2011


Sometimes I make things for people and I really don't want to let them go once they are finished. This is one of those times, but I have to let this little chap go to his intended home because he is for a friend who is celebrating her 40th "30th" birthday in a couple of weeks. She wanted to go to Borneo and spend some time with the orangutans, but medical issues over the past year have meant that she can't go now. So I'm bringing the orangutan to her instead:

He's about 12 inches (body), made from acrylic Robin DK yarn and Patons Whisper yarn, my own pattern (that I probably could repeat but I didn't write it down as I went because I want him to be a one-off). He's currently sitting near to the computer and I can't help but smile every time I look at him, so hopefully he will have the same effect on my friend too.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Complicated family ties

Ours is not a normal family (define "normal" anyway), and we're not even a normal blended family as people like to refer to these days. We're really just a group of people, slowly expanding and tied together (losely for the most part, but some tightly and strongly) by blood and desire. We've got adoptions, second (and third) marriages, kids, step kids, grand kids, new partners, old partners and plenty of skeletons and ghosts as well.

Sometimes it's hard to deal with. No, most of the time it is hard. But sometimes there are bright sparkly bits as well that make you feel like you are doing this for some purpose other than your own needs.

My ex-step-daughter-in-law-to-be (get your head round that one!) will very soon be having a baby girl. I am blessed that she keeps in touch with me - it would be so easy and convenient for her to not to, given the tenuous nature of our connection. So today I have finished a cot blanket for her and the baby in the purple and white colour combination she requested:

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Winter Solstice

Today is the shortest day, but it has felt very long indeed. In fact, half past 2 this afternoon seemed to last about 3 hours. Such is the way when you work in a department where every other team does a fraction of the work that yours does.

I had a present to open tonight. As you may know, I don't celebrate Christmas but I do observe the solstices. Today a friend at work came bouncing up to me waving a wrapped gift in my face and said "I know you don't do Christmas, and this isn't something that means you have to get me anything in return, but you know when you see something and you just know who would really love that thing? Well I saw this and knew it was for you!"

This particular friend has had a rough year with her health having being diagnosed as epileptic, and her father currently has cancer. She is though, one of the most sociable people I know and we go out for lunch every 6 weeks or so for a good gossip. She is celebrating a birthday next month that she has decided will be her 30th (*cough*) and I am desperately looking for some rust-coloured mohair yarn to make her an orangutang with but that's another blog post!

Butterflies are very symbolic, and they are something I strongly associate with both my mum and my friend Ciel. I have just opened the gift to find a writing set inside a cover that has butterflies all over it.

I believe that the Gods talk to us in ways they think we will understand. I believe many people go through life ignoring the Gods simply because they don't listen. Both my mum and Ciel promised that if there was any way for them to communicate after they died, they would find it and I would know.

Today, I know. Message received loud and clear.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

If you tolerate this, your children will be next....

So here we are, in another season of excess and commercialism, where the rest of the western world seems to spend a mad month spending money they don't have buying presents for people they don't really like, eating enough food to keep a small African country out of famine for a decade and drinking as much strange alcohol as they can (the likes of which they wouldn't touch during the rest of the year - take Advocaat/egg nogg for example, why on earth would you?!).

I don't celebrate Christmas, I focus on the Winter Solstice instead. When I tell people that I don't do Christmas, the usual response is to think that I sit at home being miserable on Dec 25th doing nothing at all. Not so. We do our celebrating on the shortest night (or over the weekend closest to it) and you may be surprised to hear that it is remarkably similar to other people's Christmas celebrations. Just less commercial and hypocritical.

This year, today in fact, our Prime Minister David Cameron has been bemoaning the lack of morals in British society, and has gone further than recent PMs in declaring that the country needs to get back to Christian values. I'm still hoping that we can do a political exchange with America and that Cameron and Mr Obama can spend a year (or more) running each other's countries - they would be so much more at home!

Britain is a Christian state, make no mistake about that. Our Queen (thanks to Henry VIII) is head of the Church of England, and there is no pretence of separation between church and state here at all. But as a country that has accepted immigrants of all shapes, colours and faiths over the years (sometimes a little more unwillingly than others), we are not a nation of Christian people. We are a truely multi-faith country, which includes those of no faith, and those whose faiths are not written down or widely practiced. Does that make them less moral? I would argue absolutely not.

Christians don't have the monopoly on morals. Indeed, there are many people in the world who claim Christianity and yet hand out some of the most abhorrant punishments to wrong-doers. They claim to be against abortion, but in the same breath cheer when someone is put to death by the state. They claim to do good works for charity, but display more greed than the moneylenders outside the temple. Talk about having your cake and eating it too.

David Cameron's words would not be quite as worrying if he had not previously in the week stated that there would be measures taken to "help" the most anti-social and disruptive families in Britain. Nothing wrong with a bit of focused encouragement, but what happens when the families labelled as in need of "help" decide they don't want to aspire to middle-class Christian yummy-mummy cupcake baking with children who can't cross the road by themselves? What happens if these families "in need" become more and more from non-Christian homes? We already have parents moving house and pretending to go to church so that their kids can get into what the parent's perceive to be a "better" school. Better for whom though?

One of the best things about being British is that we are all different people living on a tiny little island, and for the most part we all get along. We don't have to all be the same, we're not milk that needs homogenising to stop the thicker bits floating to the top after a while (that happens with our politics regardless of what we do). Yes, anyone who wants to and has the academic capability should have a chance of a University education, but University-level education doesn't suit everyone. Yes we need lawyers, bankers, politicians and teachers, but we also need plumbers, zoo keepers, hairdressers and bar staff too.

What David Cameron seems to have missed is this: no one in Britian is better than anyone else, we are all good at being ourselves, and some people just get paid more for being themselves than others do. Instead of telling the majority of the country that we have no morals because we're not Christian, David Cameron would be better off recognising that he is the only one of him that we'll ever need, and somewhere in the Bible it mentions being there for the sick, needy, imprisoned etc and not bullying them by taking away their homes, jobs, children, money and self-respect.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Meet Phoebe, just a simple rag doll kinda girl

Though I love making the more detailed dolls, I had a hankering to make something - for want of a better word - vintage style. Just a simple rag doll but knitted, something I could use up some more of the hand-spun yellow fibre on that I acquired in Ciel's yarn box.

So, I now present Phoebe, who is for sale in my Etsy shop if you think she would like to come and live with you.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Resolana's November 2011 Newsletter

Just a link really, so that you can read more about all the fabulous work this charity is doing with the women in Dallas County Jail, Tx:

Newsletter pdf

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Knitting like a maniac

As well as working of course and doing a big spring clean of my home after my daughter and her boyfriend moved into their own place, I have been so busy over the past couple of weeks with small knitting projects.

It's that time of year when friends of ours celebrate Yule as well as Christmas, and traditionally between friends we swap small handmade gifts. I took delivery a couple of weeks ago of a large box of assorted yarns as a gift from a friend, and what a treasure trove it has been! So far, I have completed:

* a tri-colour beanie hat
* a set of tree ornaments
* a bamboo yarn scarf
* an amigurami unicorn (a Secret Santa gift for someone at work)
* a pair of boys mittens in gorgeous hand-spun yarn
* a little girl's beanie hat with crochet flower trim

The yarn talks. This may sound odd to those who don't do fibre crafts, but each ball or skein of yarn knows what it wants to be and who it wants to go to. Most are single balls, and some less than whole, but all were chosen originally by my friend Ciel and now I can feel her selecting and suggesting again as I pick through the box.

Next on the list is a plain pair of socks for myself, before I launch into a another doll and a baby blanket as our grandson is going to become a big brother in a couple of months time.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Meet Lorraine the Weather Girl, my new hand-knitted doll

The latest addition to my Etsy shop; if you are interested in purchasing Lorraine or any of her cousins, they are suitable for varying ages, all are unique and you can commission a specific personality if you don't see any that appeal to you.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Reminder - the Sunset Commissions needs YOUR views on TDCJ!

I could write a really involved and long post about this, but the fabulous and informed Grits For Breakfast blog has already done the job. Go there, grab the surveys for individuals outside of TDCJ and also the one for current inmates, fill them in and return them to have your voice heard!

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Almost at another anniversary

In just over 3 weeks, we will have been married for 5 years. In those 5 years I have spent 84 hours in my husband's company. We have spoken just 3 times by phone in those 5 years because TDCJ inmates are not permitted to make overseas calls (unlike the vast majority of other state and federal inmates in the USA, and most jail inmates as well) despite the fact that he is elligible to use the phone system and we are more than willing to pay for it - or even pay a small premium. I can't tell you why TDCJ inmates are not permitted to call overseas, because no one will tell me why. I have asked politicians, TDCJ staff, the TDCJ Ombudsman's Office, and no one will give me a straight answer.

I can't count the letters, but I have boxes from him and I know I have sent at least 3 times as many. Don't read too much into that; I send more because there is no limit on the number of stamps I can have in my possession, and I am not limited to visiting the post office every 2 weeks (when they may not have any stamps at all), plus I can use the correct denomination of stamps on my letters to him whereas he has to always pay more than he needs because his unit refuses to stock the international rate postage stamps. There is no rhyme or reason to this, my pal on Death Row in Texas is able to get international stamps from her commisarry. TDCJ inmates are not permitted to receive stamps purchased by any other means.

So what can we exchange by way of gifts to mark this momentous occasion? The simple answer is, not much. I can only send books, magazines and stationary packages from approved vendors (not direct from myself or any other individual), and the writing paper must be plain white. No care packages yet for TDCJ inmates although this is in the pipleine and should be available next spring if the reports are to be believed.

I usually try to write a story based around the things associated with the anniversary. This year that means wood, silverware, daisies and turquiose. I will probably try and find a couple of anniversary cards with daisies on, or with turquoise lettering. I may see if I can do some research on silver mining, maybe there is a good book on Amazon that he will find interesting (I am blessed that he is interested in most things!).

For myself, I will continue the tradition of eating Chinese, either with friends or with my daughter and her boyfriend. And I am also going to see some live music in our town a couple of days before our anniversary too. Seth Lakeman will be playing his fiddle and I shall be there singing along.

Don't be sad for us because we can't be together this year. Be happy that we were able to get married at all and now have another date each year to tick off that brings us close to our future and the cabin by the lake.


Wednesday, 2 November 2011

#Movember - grow a Mo for charity!

In 2010, The Movember UK Mo Bros and Mo Sistas raised a huge £11.7 million to help fund programmes dedicated to treating, researching and supporting those with testicular and prostate cancers.

Last year, a couple of guys I know grew Mos and I first noticed the #Movember hashtag on Twitter.

This year, I'm getting involved too (although NOT by growing my own Mo I hasten to add!).

I currently know 4 guys growing Mos for Movember, and would very much appreciate it if you could drop by their MoSpace pages and donate what you can afford - or simply just pass on their details to your friends, family, co-workers etc to raise awareness and hopefully some cash too. My MoBros are:

Team Hairy Partridges http://uk.movember.com/mospace/2150030 (my co-workers Max and James)

Team Box http://uk.movember.com/mospace/1381112/ (my friend Suzi's husband and his mates)

And my friend Thorsten who is doing the Mo solo! http://uk.movember.com/mospace/1465332/

I'm also going to make some knitted finger Mos (similar to these: Freckles Family blog ) to sell to the ladies at work, with the money donated to the Hairy Partridges above.

Edit: Here are the finger Mos I made:

So come on, any loose change in your PayPal account can find a useful home with Movember. Ready, steady, Mo!

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Sunset Commission due to review TDCJ - you can have your say!

Once every 12 years, the Sunset Commission review TDCJ and TYC. The Sunset Advisory Commission was created by the Texas Legislature in 1977 to systematically review all of the state agencies and give recommendations to eliminate waste and inefficiencies. This year the spotlight is on the Texas Department for Criminal Justice and the Texas Youth Commission.

Anyone involved with TDCJ and TYC in any capacity can contact the Sunset Commission with their thoughts, ideas, stories and suggestions for improvement - indeed, that is what the Sunset process is all about. It gives the public a rare opportunity to voice their concerns to an organisation specifically set up to take notice of them.

How to get involved
The Sunset Commission has prepared a questionnaire that you can fill in and return. You can also write, email or phone the Sunset Commission with your information.

For more details and addresses etc, check out the official flyer by clicking HERE You may want to print out some copies and circulate them at your church, workplace, local store or anywhere else that lots of people pass through.

Many people are ashamed of having a loved one in prison. You may not know about their circumstances because they do not want to go public about it. This should NOT be a reason for them to miss out on taking part in the review process. The more visible the flyers are, the greater chance that positive recommendations that aid inmates and their families in Texas will be the result.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Guest blogging again

If you've seen the Good Girl / Bad Girl dolls I'm currently auctioning for charity, then you will know that I support Resolana - a charity based in Dallas TX that works with women inmates in Dallas County Jail. The Director of Resolana, Bette Buschow, agreed to do an interview with me for another blog that I contribute to.

If you'd like to read the interview, click HERE

And if you'd like to see the dolls for auction, click HERE

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Knitting in Prison - New Zealand

Another rehabilitation-led programme that matches prison inmates with the benefits of knitting.

In New Zealand, the Prisoner's Aid and Rehabilitation Society works across the country to help inmates and their families through the stressed of incarceration. At the prison in New Plymouth, inmates have been knitting for the past 9 months, under the direction of PARS director Barbara Sarjeant. As with other such groups, the inmates have been making beanie hats and other items, and these are donated to a local women's refuge.

See full article at Taranaki Daily News

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The Promise of a Visit

As well as Hubby being in prison, I write to a couple of other inmates in other parts of the USA as well. One theme unites them all: visits, or the lack of.

When I see Hubby, I usually have some idea of when I might be back there. I don't really like leaving without being able to tell him when he can start to expect me back again - even when in our case it could be as far off as a year's time. I visit regularly, and he always tells me that if a hurricane is headed their way I am not to leave here etc etc.

My pals have varying experiences with visits. Jon in Pennsylvania usually has a visit from his neice (who used to go with Jon's sister until she died earlier this year) once or twice a year, and from a couple of people who write to him and live nearby in between. He knows when his neice will be visiting, but the other friend's visits are unexpected and possibly more enjoyable because of that.

My pal in Oregon rarely gets visits, but is constantly promised them from her family. The letter I received from her this week was written over the course of about a week; she starts by saying her daughter may be bringing the kids to see her and her sister may be visiting next month. Then later, the day of the promised visit arrives and she is waiting to see if she gets the call to the visitation room. And finally, no visit from the daughter, and her sister can't make it next month now either.

Hubby has experienced the promise of visits undelivered too over the years so far. Frequently he will be told that this family member will come and see him or that old friend will be dropping by. Every Father's Day weekend, he hopes to see his sons. Once or twice they have been, but there is nothing regular in their frequency. He says he does not expect them to visit - how could he expect anything from them - but he hopes. And that hope is what my pal in Oregon clings to, but for how much longer she will be able to I do not know.

She says she won't believe her family now until they actually show up. But how can you do that? How can you stop yourself from hoping, wanting something that you see others get, yet is totally out of your control to achieve?

I suppose some would say that it is payback for the times that Hubby didn't turn up when he was supposed to see the kids. There are plenty of people that that would apply to, but not to my pal in Oregon. And then I wonder what exactly is it that stops people from visiting an incarcerated family member. I can think of several things
  • The feeling that the visitor has also done something wrong, even when we haven't
  • The attitudes of some of the correctional staff
  • The indiginity of being pat searched by someone in a more intrusive and less polite way than would happen at an airport
  • The cost of getting to the prison (they are rarely in urban areas or served by public transport)
  • Difficulty in getting time off work on visitation days
But really I think that no one in their right mind would ever want to be inside a prison, even as a visitor, and it is very easy to find a hundred and one other reasons not to go.

I just wish people would be a little more honest, and not make promises so lightly that they break easily. Better to say you wont be there, than to leave someone hanging on waiting.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

New Doll Therapy: Bess the ballerina

Bess is now finished and for sale at my Etsy shop http://www.etsy.com/listing/83622183/hand-knitted-doll-bess-the-ballerina

You wont find another Bess anywhere, the pattern is my own design and I will not make another in the same style. So this is your chance to own a one-off piece of traditional folk craft.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Bess of the Bolshoi

This little girl has really been making me smile during my time off work this week. She's not quite finished, as I am going to make her a lacy frill for the tutu, a kit bag, ballet pumps with ribbons, a wrap-around cardigan and a water bottle, but she is ready for her debut.....

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Medical benefits of doll therapy

It would seem that I am not the only one who feels doll therapy is a worth while form of treatment for mental conditions. A report from a medical centre in Pennsylvania earlier this year indicates that patients with dementia and other mental health problems seem to be calmer and more responsive when given dolls to hold.

Medicinenet.com article here

Engineers in Japan have also been investigating the benefits of dolls when given to elderly or mentally ill people. The Babyloid weighs roughly the same as a human baby and can move its arms, yet it is a robot and has a non-human face. Again, patients are said to be able to improve their emotional responses after holding the Babyloid.

It has been a long-established practice to give children who have suffered trauma dolls to interact with during therapy and investigation sessions. But when given to dementia sufferers, the outcome is often a reduction in aggression and distress which can lead to reducing the amount of psychotropic drugs that are administered to the individuals. Not only is that good for the patient, it is also a hugely cost-effective form of treatment.

Dont forget to check out my charity dolls auction page!

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Nothing to Declare (Strange emotions)

Just a quick post as I'm exhausted and need to get a few hours sleep before my daughter gets home from work.

I'm back from my weekend trip to see my husband in TDCJ. That makes it sound like I travelled maybe a couple of hundred miles, but actually it's a round trip of about 10,000 miles which includes 6 hours on 2 buses, 18 hours on 2 planes, and lots of driving around Texas.

Our visit was as good as it always is. By that I mean the time me and Ray spend together is always good, filled with lots of laughter and discussion and intimate looks (because we can't have anything else). But the longer we do this, the more we are both aware of how we need to deal with it all - regardless of how we both deal with anything else in our lives, including people we know and often people who don't know us particularly well.

We usually spend a bit of time each visit talking about our combined strategy for getting through the next chunk of months until the next time we see each other. Marking time by visits breaks up the whole amount into more manageable pieces. We seem to also be building our own defenses too now; we both talk a lot about how others we know (and who don't always approve of or understand our life as it is) are becomming less influential or important to us, and how we need to do what is right for us so that we stay strong for each other.

What we face are several scenarios that will ultimately dictate how we can maintain our marriage:
  • That he will stay in TDCJ until he is 84 (ie, until he completes his entire sentence)
  • That he will stay in TDCJ until at least 2024, and then be paroled
  • That he will be paroled, but that I may not be permitted to reside in the USA
  • That I will move to the USA but not to Texas, and that he will not be permitted to reside outside of Texas
  • That I will be able to live in another part of the USA and that he will be able to arrange a transfer, either while still incarcerated or when paroled, to live with me
Him coming to the UK to live is so far out of the equation, especially if the UK retains a Conservative government, although he may or may not be able to visit.

Normally, I have a few tears when the plane takes off from Houston. This time though, it wasn't until I had collected my suitcase and was walking through the "Nothing to Declare" exit that I suddenly felt I was going to break down completely. The overwhelming feeling that I am not strong enough to do this - and why the hel should it be so damned difficult - washed over me and I wanted to turn round and grab hold of a customs officer and shout "I DO have something to declare: I want to bring my husband home!"

But of course it doesn't work like that. And there is nothing "normal" about any of this. Normal people don't have to take so much into consideration when they fall in love or get married. I do love him though, and right now I'm too tired and emotional to deal with the politics.

Sleep now. Fight later.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Good Girl / Bad Girl silent auction for Resolana

The silent auction runs from midnight 1 October 2011 until midday 31 October 2011 (GMT).

All the details are here http://lookingforthecabinbythelake.blogspot.com/p/good-girl-bad-girl-silent-auction-for.html or just look to your right > at the page links.

And as a taster, here are Amanda and Mandy:

Starting bid is $30 / £20 - winning bidder gets BOTH dolls!

Almost on the road again - another visit to TDCJ

I'll be heading out to Texas again tomorrow morning for another weekend of being driven across a state I have no love for, to see a man for 2 lots of 4 hours who is so much more than his crime, or an inmate, or recidivism waiting to happen, or just another statistic.

I'll be flying across and ocean and a large part of a continent. He'll be walking around 200 meters.

I'll be dressing to placate the TDCJ policy but still look as nice as I can. He'll be trying to get a clean shirt without stains and will be avoiding breakfast so that the guards don't put a thick black marker-pen line on the front of his shirt.

I'll be the one buying the food. He'll be the one eating it.

I'll be the one walking out of the gate at the end of our visit.

Most of the time, I am stoical about this. I knew what I was getting into when we were married, I'm under no illusions that Texas will drop its hostility to inmates and their friends and families and its desire to extract every ounce of flesh it can. But having done 7 years now, and seeing my husband's progress from a battling addict to a calm and reflective older man (who is still trying to help his younger addict brother beat the demons that plague them both, and who is desperately wanted home by their mother) I see less and less justification for him to have to stay there for another 13+ years. My European mentality is at complete odds with his keepers' Texan one.

It's not that we are in any way down-playing the gravity of his actions. It is simply that in his case, and so many others, the length of his sentence serves little purpose. Or at least, the length of time that he has to serve before he can see parole. He will be no less "dangerous" in 13 years time than he is right now, today; he's no more dangerous than you or I. Yet he will be far less productive in 13 years time because he will then be in his mid 60s.

He will also be, despite all our efforts, institutionalised. I see it now in small ways when I'm with him. His hesitation and sometimes inability to make a decision on what to eat or drink. His involuntary habit of looking down rather than at the person talking to him. By the time he leaves prison, he will have not done up a zipper or button for 20 years. Can you even imagine that? How can anyone be "rehabilitated" when all decision-making beyond whether to eat or not has been removed for so long?

It would be better for everyone if - as part of the sentence - inmates spent less time in isolation and more time in the community, still under supervision but actively involved in work or volunteer programmes. But Texans have a peculiar mentality that means they would prefer to have these inmates hidden from view for ever, regardless of whatever crime they had committed, although Texans never come out and say who is supposed to pay for the warehousing of inmates. Even if you keep them in the sub-poverty conditions that many Texans would like, there is still the cost of security supervision, building maintenance, clothing etc.

The more I think about things like this, the more obvious it becomes that I cannot live in Texas. Nowhere is so diametrically opposed to my own views. So our only other recourse is to investigate the possibility of an inter-state transfer, something that few people know exist and fewer Texan inmates ever get to use. But if that is a way, then we will try it.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Doll therapy

I've never been into Barbie or Cindy dolls, or really any plastic dolls at all. But rag dolls are different.

I found myself slipping into depression-like behaviour a couple of weeks ago. I was withdrawing, slowing down, tired all the time yet unable to sleep well, and not wanting to talk to anyone on more than a superficial level. I recognise these signs because I've lived with them for most of my life with my dad and myself, and I don't want to become the person depression makes me. It takes a lot of disciplin not to slip further into it, not something I have in buckets really, but this time I decided to try and focus on a project and see if that would be enough to see me through.

So, meet Dawn.....

Though I've been lacking in enthusiasm for many things lately, the Good Girl/Bad Girl dolls made by Resolana and the women in Dallas County jail kept itching at my brain. I want to make a couple to auction off and raise a bit of cash for the charity, but before I can do that I needed to make a prototype, just to get the dimensions and styling right. Dawn is the result, and in making Dawn I have more ideas for other girls and boys now too. I'll introduce them as they emerge.

End note: Resolana are also having a music festival in Dallas Texas on September 24th 2011 - ticket details here!

Monday, 29 August 2011

A finished off

Been working on this on and off for a few months. At my friend's memorial service in May, one of the ladies there gave some of us a skein of handspun yarn, all shades of purple, for us to make something in memory of Ciel. It couldn't really have been anything other than butterfly-related, but having decided on a thing to make, it has been a real trial of love and patience (something Ciel taught me while she was living and obviously intends to carry on with!).

While out on Saturday in Gloucester, I found some nice beads in a Sue Ryder chairty shop that I have re-used to finish off the mobile. The photos don't do the yarn any justice at all, but I'm happy with it all.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

August photo-a-day (1-14)

A couple of times a year I do a "photo-a-day" for my incarcerated penpals, so that they can see the things I see around where I live and other places I visit. Below are days 1-14 of this month:

 Cheltenham is celebrating 100 years of horse racing at the town race track this year, and there are several public art horses around the town between August and October.

 Left: The view from my desk at work.
                                 Right: Something I have yet to do; learn to drive.

                                     Right: I call this "£54.18"

Left: Sometimes, it's not where you live, it's what you do with it...

 Right: And sometimes, you have to be very careful with what you're doing!

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

TDCJ inmate medical tax - update info

I know, 2 posts in a single day, but some things are important to talk about.

I previously blogged about the new law in Texas that allows TDCJ to charge inmates a fee (or TAX, seeing as inmate families are the ones who generally put the money into the inmate trust fund accounts) of $100 every year, for medical care. This fee is to be taken directly from the inmate's trust fund as soon as the inmate initiates a medical call. If the inmate does not have $100 in their account, TDCJ will take 50% of every deposit into the inmate's account until the $100 has been paid for that year.

TDCJ have posted notices in units across the state to inform inmates of the change. You can read the poster information HERE in English and if you prefer Spanish or want to download and print for someone who does, then the Spanish version is here.

I'd be interested to hear how others are planning to make the payments - in a single sum or by allowing TDCJ to take half of any deposit made? Does your inmate intend to make more visits to medical now that they will have to pay so much more?

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Riots, social responsibility and public duty

It's been a bad few nights here in the UK.

Last week, a young black man was shot dead by police in London, after apparently pointing a gun at officers but not firing it himself. While the investigations around Mark Duggan's death continue, there was a peaceful protest about his killing last week which turned violent as the evening wore on. Since then, violent rioters have been on the streets of several London boroughs, and copycat riots have been instigated in Manchester, Birmingham, Salford and several other smaller cities.

These other outbursts have nothing to do with Mark Duggan's death. The young people involved in them are intent only on causing as much damage to property as possible and in looting anything electrical that they can easily carry away. They are not making a point, they are simply stealing and destroying property.

Some of the businesses in London that have been destroyed by fire over the weekend had survived two World Wars. They came through the Blitz, and yet the actions of a few yobs have done what Hitler couldn't.

But the same spirit that Londoners showed during the Blitz is alive and kicking. Local residents started clean up operations, using social media to encourage others with the hashtag #riotcleanup. This is what Britain is really about, not the young violent anti-social criminals with hoods drawn over their faces and petrol bombs in their hands.

One thing that stuck out for me in the news coverage last night, was a piece about posters and leaflets that have started to appear in London and elsewhere, intimidating people into not informing the police if they recognise anyone in the CCTV footage of the riots. This is a fundamental difference I think between those in the US, and society here in the UK (and I suspect much of Europe).

In the US, it's called "snitching" and is frowned upon by many. Americans appear to feel that they should not help the police to do their jobs - which may stem from the way that the police operate in the US, and how policemen and women are also the prosecutors in criminal cases.

In the UK, the police do not prosecute, they maintain order and collect evidence. Prosecutions are handled by the Crown Prosecution Service, which acts as a safety valve for society by insisting on a minimum level of evidence to be provided by police before a prosecution is taken any further.

Many people think that us Brits have little national identity and are almost embarrassed to take pride in our country. We get behind out sportsmen and women, even though we loose more than we win, but that's usually about as far as it goes. But there has been a heartening show of defiance and anger at what the rioting youths have done over the past few nights, and the reclaiming of the streets by clean up teams is important not only for those directly involved, but also for the rest of the country to see.

Now the newspapers are also encouraging people to inform the police with names and other information of anyone caught on the CCTV footage taking part in the riots. It is our public duty to help the police in this matter, because these rioters have attacked every one of us that works, pays our bills, pays insurance and buys goods in the high streets across Britian. They have attacked our sense of safety in our own homes, and everyone knows an Englishman's home is his castle.

Their actions will cause insurance premiums to increase. Their actions will cause goods to rise in price. Thier actions have taken people's homes and businesses, not just a few mobile phones and flat screen TVs.

I was brought up with a very simple set of rules by my parents, and one of them was "if it doesn't belong to you, then you don't touch it without permission". We have absolutely no right to take anything that is not ours. I have been the victim of theft more than once, and my blood boils when I think about what I would do to the criminals if I ever found out who they were. How dare they take something that not only does not belong to them, but things that I have had to work damned hard to pay for or achieve! My pagan ancestors would have removed at least a finger for each incident of theft, and to be honest, I'm not against that kind of swift and visible punishment myself.

But the majority of Brits aren't like that. So what do we do with these kids who think they can take what's not theirs and run away laughing? My suggestion is simple. Make them rebuild what they have destroyed. Put them in orange jumpsuits, and make them work all their spare time on reparing windows, rebuilding homes and business premises and cleaning up the glass and burnt offerings that now cover the streets, and let everyone in the community see who they are. Don't hide them away in Young Offender institutions, or give them fines that they will never pay (or will pay with the proceeds of more crime). Take their time, make them use it constructively, and give them skills at the same time that may help them earn their way out of the relative poverty they feel they are condemned to right now.

But to do that, we need to identify who they are.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Renewable energy - the elephant in the prison?

If I were a capitalist, I would be on the lookout for things that would make or save money with a low to negative running cost and incentives for start-up. Republicans, so I'm told, don't like taxing the populous (except when they are inmates and their families, or others of low social economic status) and generally don't like spending on anything that doesn't directly benefit the economy. Democrats, conversely, like to spend as much as it takes and often significantly more, with an eye on the long-term benefits.

So to solve at least some of the growing financial problems in the USA, and with a focus on expensive criminal justice and incarceration, you'd think what was needed was something that saved money that was already leaking out of the system, and could also perhaps help the local and general economies, plus maybe provide some training for inmates in real skills they could use when released? Reading the media coverage recently, particularly in Texas, you'd also think that was an impossible dream.

Name me something that is free in Texas.

Yes, I know that is kinda difficult, seeing as most things in Texas are felonies or misdemeanours including 11 oyster-related crimes and the new crime of lying about the size of a fish caught during a competition. But go on, give it a try. What is practically unavoidable in Texas for more than 8 months a year, is free, and shows little sign of running out like the oil in the Gulf of Mexico?

A clue? OK, it's very big, bright yellow, sits in the sky, and currently is causing major problems of heat-related illness and death across much of the southern and middle American states.

You got it - the SUN!

Most prisons in Texas have no air conditioning at all besides a few areas like the visitation rooms and medical wings. This week, temperatures have reached a staggering 135 degrees F in some prison housing units in Texas. Reports have started to emerge of inmates suffering severe heat stroke and possible heat-related deaths. No one should be surprised at this. Keeping anyone or anything in a concrete or metal box, often with glass on one side where the sun shines through all day, but not having windows that open or an air conditioning system in place and only limited access to cool water for longer than a few hours is going to result in health issues. You can't keep an animal in those conditions and expect to evade the law. You certainly can't keep a child in a car on a sunny day without someone reporting you to the police - and nor should you.

So why is it exactly that the lawmakers in Texas think it is OK to keep humans in those conditions? I'm not just talking about inmates here, I'm referring to the guards, medical and support staff who also have to endure between 8 and 12 hours a day in that heat, often in heavy uniforms.

The response has historically been that while schools and nursing homes still exist without AC, prisons wont get it either. It's too expensive, they say. Our grandfathers managed without it, they say. It would be coddling inmates, they say.

It is odd that Texans have that particular mentality that stops them from seeing the wood for the trees, or in this case, the sun from the shine. Maybe it's genetics, maybe it's fear, maybe it's just plain stupidity. It doesn't really matter what it is, the fact remains that once again, Texas is falling behind the rest of the world when it comes to solving a growing energy cost crisis.

From the Philippines, where prisons are investing in biogas installations to help reduce fuel costs, to the UK where several of HM Prisons have installed solar panels and other heat collection devices in an attempt to reduce fossil fuel use and energy costs, governments are making serious efforts to harness renewable resources to reduce public spending.

Some US states have also taken up the challenge to make the sun and wind work for them. Maryland, Colorado, Indiana, California and Nevada all have prisons that now make use of renewable resources. The set-up costs have been mitigated by grants from central government and sometimes with help from the companies providing the equipment too. Even Oregon, famous for its rainy days, has invested in solar water heaters for one of its prisons. But I have to say, it took some investigation to find these projects. Departments of Correction in the US appear to be embarrassed about publicly talking about their green strategies to save money.

Perhaps that is why Texas has been slow on the uptake (again). Constricted by the Bible belt, a lot of people do not believe that global warming is actually happening. Hurricanes and tornadoes are still messages from God, sending destruction on communities that are embedded in sin and just don't pray hard enough. But religion and renewable energy projects do not have to be mutually exclusive. You don't have to believe in global warming to feel the cool air created by an AC unit powered by the sun.

If you don't want to look at the sun (which obviously, you shouldn't do without protection), then how about all that hot air in Texas? According to the American Wind Energy Association, Texas is home to the top 5 energy producing wind farms in the US, and has 7 of the top 10. These can currently power over 2.7 million homes. Texas has the luxury of a lot of wide open space where few people live. The opposition to wind farms in Europe is usually their proximity to communities, but Texas doesn't have that issue. There is literally thousands of miles of Texas that could house wind farms. The AWEA says that

"According to a resource assessment from the National Renewable Energy Lab, Texas’ wind resource could provide 19 times the state’s current electricity needs."

All that free energy just blowing around the state right now and not paying for its right to be there! And TDCJ owns a lot of land.

Citizens of Texas, isn't it about time you asked your politicians why they are ignoring this free source of power? The next time you have a power outage, just remember that with a solar panel or two on your property, YOU have control.

As for the prisons (and schools and nursing homes, and public buildings such as libraries, hospitals and even the Capitol Complex in Austin), that's an awful lot of roof space going to waste. Texas has approximately 160,000 units of free labour with which to clear ground ready for solar or wind installations, and the same number of potentially trained technicians to help maintain the renewable energy installations once they are running. So not only is the energy free, so is the physical labour costs to install it.

The case for using renewable energy as a preference over any other kind is growing. But not in Texas. There, oil is still king. And that, dear readers, is probably the biggest single reason why Texas will eventually self-combust. Lack of influence by eco-companies against the might of the oil companies means they can't gain access to the politicians. And it is likely that even if the eco-companies could get the ear of one or two legislators, the reach of the oil companies is so vast and so ingrained in Texas politics, no one will rock the boat.

Air conditioning in Texas prisons will more than likely only happen if the Federal government intervenes, or if a successful law suit is brought by a large organisation such as Amnesty or the ACLU. The truth of the matter is that even if the prisons were in a structural condition that could support air conditioning powered by renewable energy, those legislators who make the decisions are simply not interested in losing the patronage of their friends in oil.

The only hope for change that I can see at the moment on this issue is to lobby the private prison companies. States appear to believe that shifting the responsibility from State to contracted beds will solve their corrections budget overspend. Private companies build modern prisons, which could easily be equipped with renewable energy installations from the beginning.

Maybe the capitalists will win this particular battle after all.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Spreading the word

I've been doing some guest blogging this week for our friends at the Improve TX Citizens Coalition blog. The Improve TX blog covers issues related to TDCJ, and currently has a couple of petitions that you can sign. One is asking for TDCJ inmates to be permitted to make overseas calls on the new inmate phone system (a subject close to our hearts), another is to limit the current 40% kickback that Securus receives as part of its deal to provide the TDCJ inmate phone system, and the third petition is to allow inmates to receive wedding bands if they marry after they enter TDCJ, and to allow weddings to be carried out on TDCJ property. Currently inmates can only retain a wedding band if they have it at intake, and all inmate weddings must be conducted as proxy weddings.

Check out my guest post here.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

When is a duvet cover not a duvet cover?

When it's a bath mat!

My daughter had a duvet cover that has seen better days. The ribbon embroidery had started to come undone, there were bleach spots (no idea how they got there) and the fabric was worn in places. Since we try to recycle and reuse as much as possible, I decided to make a bath mat from the fabric instead of throwing the cover away.

I first removed the buttons. These go into my button tin. Every grandma should have a button tin. Kids can spend hours on a rainy afternoon sorting through old buttons, putting them into shape, size and colour groups and patterns.

Next I cut the duvet cover into very long lengths of fabric. Most people will tell you to make slits at 1 inch intervals along one edge of fabric and rip the pieces so that you get even-width lengths. You then have to sew the lengths together to make "yarn". This was going to be a very simple bath mat, so I decided just to cut on a gradual spiral, roughly 1 inch wide, until I got to the top of the duvet cover. Then I cut along the top edge so that I had 1 continuous length of fabric to work with. As the side seams would naturally unravel because I had cut through the stitching, I just tied knots in the fabric to secure the seam pieces.

Next I took the biggest crochet hook I own (9 mm I think) and made a magic loop. I made 8 single chain stitches, and then worked in the round, increasing regularly by working 2 stitches into one hole until I ran out of yarn. The inner rounds are single chain, and the outer rounds are trebles.


The finished bath mat is approximately 24 inches in diameter.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

More benefits of knitting (and other arts)

Some may think that prisons and knitting make strange bedfellows when it comes to interests or associations. I've posted before about the volunteer group in Maryland called Knitting Behind Bars who run knitting sessions inside men's prisons in the state. A couple of days ago I became aware of another group who use knitting along with other arts and crafts, to offer groups of female inmates in Texas a way of expressing themselves safely and learning social and life skills to help them stay out of jail in the future.

Resolana are the group, a not-for-profit organisation who work mainly in Dallas County Jail and Dawson State Jail in Texas. Take a look at their programmes and also at the gallery of art work by some of the women that Resolana have helped. I particularly love the Good Girl, Bad Girl dolls!

Saturday, 9 July 2011

All around the world

A post for the sake of it really, but I wanted to say thank you and hello to everyone who reads this blog around the world. According to the stats Google provide, I have readers in Estonia, Romania, Germany, Thailand, Australia and Canada, as well as the more expected British and American visitors. So welcome to you all and don't forget to leave your thoughts on any of the topics I cover here!