Visiting Prison

A few weekends ago, both my Mother and I went to prison. We were 800 miles apart, but we probably saw some of the same heartbreaking scenes. Antiseptic beige hallways, acres of space where every leaf of grass and sympathy is ripped up and away.

I heard prison officials refer to the incarcerated men as “creatures” that “crawl” around the yard. I listened as they tried to scare us, telling us both that prisoners are “bad guys” and treated as well as they deserve to be. There were Shawshank Redemption jokes. It was horrible.

There were moments of wonder. A man who is spending life in prison gave us a tour of a new facility where inmates can practice woodworking, hydroponics, furniture repair. They also make piñatas, teddy bears, and quilts for children and people who are sick.

I saw men playing the most spirited game of handball I have ever witnessed. The prison guard who worked in a pair guiding us told me the inmates had agreed that the morning time was for handball and the afternoon for basketball, since there was only one court and no way for people to do both without interfering with each other’s games. She was the same person who compared African American inmates unfavorably with Latino (her term was “Hispanics”) and White inmates because they didn’t beat accused child molesters. “Child molesting doesn’t bother them, I guess,” she said.

The racism made it hard to breathe, hard to keep asking questions and not retreat from the experience. I kept asking questions, because I had a five hour drive to process and needed to get some information from a uniquely and temporarily-available source. I asked how change happened in the administration. One of the staff said it changed when leadership changed. The people who guided us said the median term in that prison for staff was over a decade, indicating norms once planted in the minds of staff may take decades to root out.

We stood in a classroom with desks that could not be ripped into weapons and with behavioral therapy signs on the walls. The signs had charts, walking inmates through how to handle anger. I would show you a picture of the signs, but we were told to leave our phones in the car, to wear no revealing or tight or loose clothing, bring no electronics, leave our keys in lock boxes.

In my classes on justice and policy, we talked about retributive vs rehabilitative justice. They had a third term there, essentially that they set up punishments and a few incentives to force prisoners to conform to their expectations. They said sometimes their methods could change a man’s mind, and sometimes the “system just tires them out.”

I have thought a lot about the men who go to jail because of the anti-human trafficking laws I worked to pass. There are people who need to be away from potential victims, from the economies and buyers that make victimization so easy. There are people who should never see the outside of a prison’s walls, no matter how beige or claustrophobic. But the vast majority of people who go to prison will come out, rejoin their communities, and need a way to survive. For the very few rapists who are convicted the average term is 14 years–that 22-year-old rapist will celebrate his 36th birthday a free man, with half-a-century of time left in his life that he has to live.

Carrying the burden of hatred for people who hurt others, fantasizing about punishing them, does not change that. Ensuring that 36-year-old man never rapes again because he has learned women are people, making sure he can get a job so he does not try to find ways to live by exploiting others, whether we do it for the moral or the fiscal reason, we need to do the work to ensure our prisons change that man. Not just “tire[] him out.”

On our tour, I could see how the system would tire people out, how it was used to control behavior. They used to have two of the units share an outdoor space, controlled only by the “call out system,” which is when they give orders for who is allowed to move at different moments. I asked one staff-member asked if the Norteños and Sureños were some of the stronger gangs, since they were some of the big ones back home. She said they were, and they had to put a wall of barbed wire down the middle of a shared yard because of a previous piece of violence involving 60 inmates of the two different gangs.

Both she and the other guide seemed to enjoy using gang slang, interspersed with professional prison guard slang. They talked about people “Calling shots” (meaning ordering violence) and “fight on sight” and “always green” (meaning standing orders from gang leaders for behavior towards other gangs). Their sentences could be a mix of these two vocabularies that are sometimes literally at war with themselves.

We were told the men in the prison were “murders, rapists, and robbers.” That phrase stuck with me, because it was the exact same one the Secretary of Corrections had used with us a few months ago. When we heard that phrase used, both times it was in the context of a question being asked about nonviolent offenders being locked up. Perhaps it was intended to undercut our sympathy for the men locked up.

After the prison tour, we met with the leader of a nonprofit that helps prisoners reintegrate into society. She said 1/3 of inmates are locked up for nonviolent property crime. So, not murders or rapists, but “robbers”.

As I learned during the legislative session, WA state has the highest rate of property crime in the United States. Some policy analysts think that is because there is nearly no supervision (i.e. probation) for people who commit nonviolent property crimes. The idea that 30% of released offenders reoffend should scare any fiscal conservative, not because he should fear for his stereo, but because it costs $40,000+ to house a prisoner. If that money could be spent on keeping that prisoner from reoffending, that would save a huge amount of pain and suffering, not the least of that person’s victims.

The emotions I experienced were complex. I was afraid a number of times, when prisoners significantly larger than me walked close by. I realized it wasn’t their size or the vague threat of the men in the prison being “murderers, rapists, and robbers” but that I had no idea what the etiquette was. I know how to walk the streets in Cairo and Pittsburgh, but in the open yard of a men’s minimum security camp, do I make eye-contact? Do I turn my back to men seated on a bench, even if their arms are the thickness of my thigh?

I opted not to smile, since I don’t usually smile at strangers, but make brief eye-contact and nod. That’s how I interact with homeless men on my walk home, so I thought it might be good enough. It made me realize that after all of that fear-mongering from the prison guards, they had neglected to give us basic information about how to behave, how to fit into the space so we didn’t cross a line we did not know was there. Security theater as a form of control, but less functional security for our group than I expected, given the way the staff spoke about the prisoners.

I hated the prison and I want to go back. If that is someplace our money and men are going to be locked up, I think it’s important to know more about it.

Update 6/19/15 2:10pm: My Mom asked me to clarify she was visiting a prison in California as a volunteer with a group from St Andrews Episcopal Church. If she writes about her experience on her blog, I’ll link to it here.

Inspirational Quote:

“Feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings.” ― Cheris Kramarae

5 Women to Watch in National Politics

I am a politically-involved young woman and I like to keep track of role-models who are women. There are men that I consider role-models, like Senator Cory Booker:

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Sen. Cory Booker was as amazing in person as he is on Twitter.

I like collecting women to look-up to, both because they are more likely to have had some of the same experiences I have and because I get joy from spreading the word: women are changing the world.

Each of the women profiled below currently holds, is seeking, or is supporting someone who is seeking, an office at the federal level. If you have a woman to add, please leave a comment with her name and why you think other readers should watch her rise and work for the people of our country.

Jessica Dickinson Goodman1) Kamala Harris, current Attorney General, California
Running for: U.S. Senate, 2016

I’m a bit biased here. I spent a few days in May at the California Democratic Party Convention and volunteered at AG Harris’s booth. I volunteered for her campaign because she brings the smart law enforcement experience (e.g. when she played hardball and got Californians billions more in subprime mortgage relief than they would have gotten otherwise) and a willingness to build coalitions.

Why she is a woman to watch: AG Harris is the current front-runner for the California U.S. Senate seat to replace retiring Senator Barbara Boxer.She would also be the first Indian-American woman in the U.S. Senate and the first African American Senator from California (her mother was born in India and her father in Jamaica). If elected, a possibility I am planning to work hard to achieve, she would bring a strong voice for survivors of trafficking and all Californians.

2) Catherine Cortez Masto, former Attorney General, Nevada
Running for: U.S. Senate, 2016

I first heard about AG Cortez Masto’s work when I was working at Polaris and our Policy Counsel was working to pass better anti-human trafficking laws in Nevada. She introduced an anti-trafficking bill, fought hard for it, and kept the pressure on in support of survivors.

Why she is a woman to watch: Nevada is a fascinating state preparing for political transition and AG Cortez Masto’s race is at the center of it. Moving from being represented by Sen. Harry Reid, who is one of the most powerful politicians in the U.S. as former Majority Leader in the Senate, to being represented by any Freshman Senator is going to be interesting. His seat is also one that could flip parties, thus changing the balance of the Senate. In addition to bringing strong law enforcement experience, she would also be one of, if not the, first Latina elected to the U.S. Senate.

3) Amanda Renteria, Political Director for the Clinton campaign

Aside from being a notoriously aggressive basketball player, Renteria was the first Latina Chief-of-Staff in the history of the U.S. Senate and is expected to play a pivotal role in the upcoming campaign. She is working to connect labor, Latino groups, and Capitol Hill Democrats to the campaign.

Why she is a woman to watch: She holds one of the most powerful roles in the campaign of the current leading contender for the Presidency, she ran a hard Congressional campaign last round against an incumbent, and she is making a point of not only reaching out to groups representing people who need immigration changes–but actually speaking to the people themselves.

4) Senator Patty Murray, current Senator from Washington state
Running for: U.S. Senate in 2016

I got to meet Senator Murray briefly as part of a Washington DC trip with the Institute for a Democratic Future and hear her speak about her priorities around K-12 education. Senator Murray does not spend a lot of time on Sunday talk-shows, which is why few people outside of her home state know her name, but she is one of the top-five most powerful Democrats in the Senate and the most powerful woman.

Why she is a woman to watch: Senator Murray has used her power to work on big issues that touch a lot of people–education, veterans issues, and the budget. If Democrats regain control of the Senate in 2016 she will be positioned to make serious strides in those areas, helping people in Washington state and across the country.

5) Ambassador Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations

Ambassador Power is the youngest person ever confirmed to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. I think I first saw her speak as part of a White House Google Hangout on human trafficking in my first few months working in Washington DC, but I may have also read and admired her views on protecting civilians in conflict in college. Her name and her courage have stuck with me ever since.

Why she is a woman to watch: Ambassador Power has been a driving force behind the United States using force to prevent atrocities. She has been one of the most important voices behind the concept of a duty to intervene–the idea that the rent we pay for being the most powerful country in the world is to act when the people with the least power are being gassed to death by their own governments. The next time our country must decide how to respond in the face of an atrocity, she will be on the front-lines.

These five women serve their countries on a national scale. Some were elected, some appointed, and some work to get others elected. Each has found an issue that rings out to her in the key in which she works best–mortgage lending, human trafficking, labor, veterans affairs, civilian protection. And each is worth watching this year.

Inspirational Quote:

“It is easier to live through someone else than to complete yourself. The freedom to lead and plan your own life is frightening if you have never faced it before. It is frightening when a woman finally realizes that there is no answer to the question ‘who am I’ except the voice inside herself.”  Betty Friedan

Visiting the Beach

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The tiny blue dot in the middle is Matthew, catching some sunlight.

6 months ago, I drove to this beach to decide between 2 job offers. A few weekends ago, I took Matthew with me.

I was not deciding between job offers–I’m still applying for new roles–but we try to get out of the city and breathe some free air at least once a month. This time, I wanted to show him this beach. If you grew up in California, Washington beaches are startling. They are flat. People drive their cars on them. They are black from the black basalt sand that runs down the Cascades to the coast. The approaching roads are tagged with tsunami evacuation signs.

We played some frisbee, I dipped my toes in the water, then we lay and caught what few rays of sun were breaking through the cloud-cover. We shared the beach with 4 horses, 10 cars, 2 dogs and both seagulls and 1 out-of-place raven.

It is easy in Washington state to live within the I-5 corridor and feel like I am traveling far. But whether I am in Bellevue or Bellingham, Olympia or Seattle, I’m still within a few dozen breaths of a 4 lane freeway. Driving away from the highway, driving out to the Port of Aberdeen and then further, was a chance to remember how many ways of living the Pacific Northwest can hold. There are towns that used to rely on the timber trade and have little more than history to hold them together now. There are towns feeling the growing influence of commercially-produced legal marijuana. There are more municipal ports and airports than anyone near I-5 could guess, all helping to underpin their rural economies.

I spent a long weekend learning about those local economies a month ago as part of the Institute for a Democratic Future. It was a region I had explored virtually in support of one of my fellow Fellows who is running to represent a similarly rural and ocean-touching area in southwest Washington in her local hospital district (I built her a website). Taking Matthew to that beach was a good reminder that there are many ways to live in 2015, many ways to build community and exist within it.

After the first time I went to that beach the job I ended up taking–as Legislative Session Aide for Representative Ross Hunter, the chair of the House Budget Committee–gave me a valuable window through which to understand these rural communities. I know where to find the budget line-item that pays for staff to oversee their beaches, and why fees to access those beaches have gone up. I have met some of the people who represent this community and communities like it. But the act of walking on the ground teaches me more about what it means to be in a community like this than any spreadsheet ever could.

Inspirational Quote:

“How do you find America?”
“Turn left at Greenland.” ― Ringo Starr

Making a Difference for Homeless LGBTQ Youth

I am so proud of Polaris for stepping up for homeless LGBTQ youth and survivors of trafficking with their Polaris Pride fundraising campaign.


The anti-trafficking community is strong because it draws people of all faiths and backgrounds, but sometimes that can lead to blind-spots. Until a few years ago, very few anti-trafficking organizations addressed the unique needs of LGBTQ youth. I was proud to help make Polaris one of the first to celebrate Pride online with these two little images, and now they are continuing that vital work with this fundraiser. They asked members of the community to set up fundraising pages, and I was happy to do so.

For folks who know how poorly LGBTQ youth can be treated in shelters, this is a chance to give to a group that will ensure they are treated right. Polaris is a secular nonprofit that provides direct services, runs the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, and has fought for better laws in all 50 states. I’m trying to raise $500–I’ve given $100 to get us started. If you can give, please consider $50 to support this underserved and deserving population.

Online fundraising for Jessica Dickinson Goodman fundraising for Open Doors for LGBTQ Homeless YouthYou can keep track of how the fundraiser is going with this widget on the right.

If anyone has any questions about Polaris or the ways in which homeless youth are more vulnerable to exploitation, I can answer them in the comments.

Inspirational Quote:

“Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.”–Jane Howard

Cross-Post from TechWomen Blog: Emerging Leaders in the Middle East and Africa Cards

A few months ago a group of TechWomen Alumnae came together with an idea: use a deck of cards to share some of the stories of the women who have participated in this incredible program. I have been inspired by women in this program from the beginning and was happy to donate my design and logistical skills to the cause. Here is what we came up with:


Photo Credit: Katy Dickinson.

Each alumna in the deck has given her permission to be included and we have received consistently positive feedback about the project from the women in it:

TechWomen Fellow Zimkhita Buwa. Photo Credit: Katy Dickinson.


TechWomen Fellow Nomso Faith Kena. Photo Credit: Katy Dickinson.


Nomso Faith Kana and Zimkhita Buwa’s cards. Photo Credit: Katy Dickinson.

Read the rest here.

Inspirational Quote:

“No distance of place or lapse of time can lessen the friendship of those who are thoroughly persuaded of each other’s worth.”–Robert Southey