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Monday, 28 March 2011

Funding the journey - first items on display

Just a way-marker to direct your attention to the Funding the Journey section of this blog. The first items listed for sale are actually being sold with profits going to cancer charities in the UK. With 1 in 3 people in the UK likely to develop cancer at some time in their lives, it is a disease without mercy or bias that touches many people.

My family has been decimated by cancer. Both my parents, and many other relatives and friends have been taken by the disease over the years. Most recently, my dearest friend Ciel died in January this year after several years of fighting breast cancer. It is in her memory that these crochet Charity brooches have been made and will be sold.

Please do take a look.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

So many people touched by the justice system in Texas

It is hard for those not living in Texas, or even America, to fully comprehend the way that law and justice is interwoven with daily life there. America is a big country, but it also has over 2 million people incarcerated. That doesn't include the huge numbers of people who are on parole, probation or some other supervisory programme. Are Americans really that bad as people? Are they less tollerant? My friends and family over there insist that they are neither of those things, yet their answer to much "wrong-doing" is to lock people up.

This can happen even when the individual is not guilty of the charges brought against them. American justice, and in particular Texan justice, is nothing like we are used to in the UK. Our belief here that if you have done nothing wrong then you will be OK in the end, would not last long when faced with the prospect of being arrested for something you did not do in Texas. For a portion of the Texan incarcerated population - large enough not to ignore - being wrongfully convicted and spending time in prison when you are innocent is a very real occurrence which can (and does) leave social, mental and physical scars long after any conviction is overturned. That's if it is overturned at all.

I am not someone who thinks all inmates are innocent lambs sent to the slaughter. Far from it - most inmates have committed the crime they are convicted of and should spend at least some time behind bars, my husband included. But it concerns me that more and more people are being found not guilty after their sentencing, sometimes years after, by new DNA testing (which could have been carried out sooner) or by witnesses recanting their testimony and a new investigation taking place. If Texas were not so keen to secure a conviction at any costs in most cases, perhaps these miscarriages of justice would happen less frequently.

There are numerous individuals and stories on the web that are still fighting to clear their names and claw back some semblance of the lives they had before their wrongful convictions. One such lady, Audrey, has her own blog here, which is well worth reading if you have some spare time.

Do not think it could never happen to you or your loved ones. In Texas, it can happen to anyone.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Health benefits of knitting

This is something that most knitters already know in their hearts, even without the benefit of medical research to back the assertion up. However, I stumbled upon an old BBC News report today which stated that researchers from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota studied almost 200 people aged between 70 and 89 who had mild memory problems to see if any benefits could be had from having a hobby. They also asked the participants how active they had been in their 50s and 60s in relation to their hobby.

It turns out that those who have a hobby such as knitting (although other hobbies like doing crosswords and other cognitive exercises are just as effective) have a reduced likelihood of memory loss as they age.

I belong to a knitting club where I work. Once a week we gather with our yarns, needles and lunches and engage in mutual appreciation of each other's latest projects. Personally, I know it helps me release some of the stress built up during that morning and means those I deal with in the afternoon are less likely to feel the sharp end of my tongue!

This week, we were evicted from our usual meeting room and so set up camp in a corner of the company restaurant. This made us way more visible, and one or two people wandered over to take a look at our craft. One guy I work with sat with us for half an hour or so and chatted while we knitted. At the end of his lunch break, he said how much calmer he felt, and how there was something very soothing just being around people who knit.

I've heard this said before. Knitting is not only therapeutic for the knitter, it also helps those in the same room or in the immediate vicinity. It would be interesting to monitor the heart rate or blood pressure of those who live with knitters against those who don't.

Now that knitting needles have been banned from air travel, I wonder if more people are having to resort to mild tranquilisers or a stiff drink, where previously they would have been able to lose themselves in stitches instead. People often look at knitting needles as objects that could do harm rather than items to be used for good. Knitting is rarely taught in schools today because of "health and safety" issues. I suspect it is more because the teachers can't knit themselves and don't want the responsibility of 30 kids with miniature javelins in their hands. That is a shame though, because knitting can help those with ADHD and other cognitive disabilities, as well as covering mathematics, reading, design and technology and even history if you pitch the lesson right.

There is nothing harmful in knitting. It is a cheap and easy way to occupy anyone for an hour or so each day. Give it a try and see if you feel less stressed afterwards.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Why do so many European women write to American inmates?

A common question, particularly posed by the media and European (not to mention American) men. What is it that drives, or some may say "lures" European women to begin friendships with inmates in the US? It is a complicated question, and obviously every individual is, well, individual. But there are some common reasons that I have seen time and again given by my fellow European "bleeding heart liberals", and I thought it would make an interesting reference point to list them here. So in no particular order, here are the most common top 5 reasons:

1. Cultural differences.
There are so many subtle and downright obvious differences between US and European culture, it would take a lifetime to identify them all. Having an interest in another country is usually thought of to be a good thing, and Europeans cannot avoid the Americanisms we see on the TV and film all the time. Knowing someone who can help explain the oddities and help make sense of slang terms or strange foods is a real advantage, particularly if you are thinking of visiting the States at some point.

2. The need to feel needed.
Not just limited to European women, this is a universal need in every human. Sure they could get a pet, or have a baby, but those things fill a different need to that of adult conversation. Those things are also expensive and require a lot more attention and interaction than an overseas penpal. With an inmate penpal, you can be needed on your terms if you choose to be. You can also give at your own comfort level. If that sounds harsh, then remember that inmates do the same - all humans do. Having a penpal gives you stimulation without the need to live up to physical expectations.

3. Because bad boys are more fun (at a distance).
I know it's a stereotype, but it is also true in many cases. There is something about the bad boy image, particularly the American style (cowboy, gangster, oil rigger, trucker - name your poison) that appeals to clean-living women. In these cases, the women can get the thrill of the ride without getting so close to get their fingers burned. It's not always Bonnie and Clyde, although some women have aided their pals in attempting to escape. Usually it is more like a crush on a film star, just one you get to communicate with.

4. Compassion.
European prison systems are run on the grounds of rehabilitation starting as soon as the inmate enters, rather than an after-thought, or starting a few months before the inmate is due to be released. The conditions are often much less comfortable than European inmates exist in. The culture is more confrontational and dangerous. There are plenty of TV shows and films that portray the worst of the American penal systems in technicolour, and it is not surprising that European women want to do something to improve the lot of the American inmate, just as they often want to improve the conditions that farm animals are kept in, or sponsor children in the Third World.

And then of course, you have the death penalty. Europeans consider themselves to be progressive, and the fact that the death penalty is illegal in all European countries is usually held up as an example of this modernity. Whether you agree with the death penalty or not, you have to accept that this is arguably the most common reason for Europeans to become involved in some way with American inmates. 

5. Curiosity.
So what did they do? What's it really like inside a prison? Is prison rape really that common? What's the food like? All of these questions and more can only really be answered by someone who is there, on the spot. For many people, the questions are not important enough to make them seek out the answers from a first-hand source. But for others, and not always those with a morbid curiosity of the most violent crimes, asking someone who knows is the most logical answer.

Just like slowing down as you pass a car crash on the other side of the road, or watching that horror film right to the end instead of just turning it off, sometimes humans can't look away.

You'll notice that there is no mention of low self-esteme, the fact that these women "can't get a man" in their own country, or that they are suffering from a psychotic anti-social disorder. These may well be legitimate reasons, but for most of the women I have encountered during our journey, I'd say women like that are not in the majority.

Most are like me really, and I'm not saying that to validate my choices or lifestyle. Like me, they hold down a job (or 2, or sometimes 3), are raising or have raised a family, and have plenty of other interests outside of crime and prisons. And many - probably most, if anyone ever did a scientific study into these things - do not end up in a full relationship with their penpals. They just write. Writing is something they can do between and around other activites, whether they use traditional paper and pen or by email to those inmates who can receive them. It gives them pleasure and often gives them the opportunity to experience the differences and similarities between Europe and America.

Frankly though, does it matter why European women choose to write to American inmates? It matters to the security agencies that they do, because in general it is seen as a security risk. But should it matter to their neighbours? Their children's teachers? The person who serves them in the supermarket each week? I don't think so.

There are far worse things they could be doing.