With well deserved apologies to Mitch Albom who wrote one of the most absorbing books of the year, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, the Mid-Winter American Correctional Association meeting in January was a reminder that we either underestimate or ignore the influences of everyday people upon the profession of corrections. For the record, New Orleans may be heaven, or the less desirable alternative, depending upon one’s financial, spatial, political, or spiritual proclivity, but I thought ACA selected the venue well and the participants seemed pleased.
Just after returning, I received my 20-year pin from ACA and, with few exceptions, have attended two conferences per year for at least two decades. Perhaps the process of becoming more reflective (as opposed to older) inspires us to linger a bit longer in conversations, to listen with a more open mind, to hear more than the spoken words. Whatever the reason, five people (all but one I have known for years) left me with a view of the future that, in sum, shows healthy trends for corrections.
As providence would have it, all five are women. But, one would truly have Van Winkle’s syndrome if one did not notice a very large and growing participation at ACA conventions by women. With no particular order, allow me to introduce:
More than 20 years ago, this courageous woman entered my life with the velocity of a South Florida hurricane by essentially taking over a class I was teaching at the National Academy of Corrections. Since my regrouping (or rehabilitation), we have been dear friends as she has repeatedly stood for correcting the whole person through her work in the public and private sectors. Literally from New Mexico to New South Wales to the new Republic of South Africa, Sharon has been a beacon of hope for positive change. Sharon continues to demonstrate courage, tenacity, and commitment as she wins her struggle against cancer. The trend: the human spirit has the capacity to challenge the status quo, to overcome adversity, and to inspire when supported by a village.
Although pain is still apparent in the eyes of this truly beautiful woman, Rachel was in New Orleans smiling, greeting, and admirably filling the void left by the death last year of her giant of a husband, Ellis. Rachel had long made contributions to corrections before the Commissioner entered her life like an Arizona windstorm. Now, through the sorrow of her (and our) loss, she contemplates her future with a genuine quest to continue the selfless investment the MacDougalls made in corrections over many years and locations. The thought of making the journey alone has to be daunting, but Rachel epitomizes a quiet confidence that reassures us who should be doing the assuring. The trend: continuity of care is the essence of corrections and that is achieved by people, not programs.
Rare is the person who does so much so often for so many, yet studiously wants to avoid recognition-behavior that is at the least remarkable, but more appropriately, saintly. Anyone who has ever attended an ACA convention has been touched by the invisible hand of Marge in some helpful way. One of the reasons that sightings of Marge are rare is that she is poetry in motion. My annual miles logged in the gyms of the world pale in comparison to what she does in a few days at a convention. Jim Gondles always offers kind and deeply sincere thanks to Marge at the banquets, but she is usually too engaged in solving problems before they fester to accept the praise of her peers. The trend: the ACA will continue to sponsor civil discourse and promote exemplary practices in corrections as long as individual efforts are selflessly made for the good of the village.
In a shared taxi ride to the airport on the concluding day, I was reacquainted with Charlotte. Like the MacDougalls, the Nesbitts have made significant contributions to correcting broken lives through decades of pioneering in new fields. Charlotte, like Rachel, now faces the challenges without the encouraging presence of a supportive partner, not just in the profession of correcting, but also in the daily pulse of life. Yet she has an enthusiasm for her work as if Wednesday was her first day on the job. This, after more than a quarter century of making this day more effective than the one before. Had the ride been twice as long, I would have been at least twice as inspired to see opportunities from the perspective of those who are recipients of Charlotte’s innovative efforts, especially youthful offenders. The trend: our youth, even with the distractions of misplaced priorities, remain our hope for the future. Minimizing our efforts to refocus priorities is not an option.
The Wife of General Geoffrey Miller
For a few moments at breakfast, I had the opportunity to meet Mrs. Miller in abstentia through an engaging conversation with the General. The demands of corrections are onerous enough without the overlay of war. But as she has done in so many of the General’s assignments throughout a career that embroidered his collar with stars, Mrs. Miller supports and supplements his current role as Commander of the JTF-Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility. Without hesitation, the General acknowledged the importance of her role and the daily sacrifices that so many spouses make for life-partners to continue their efforts to preserve and to protect. He was quick to make the transference to spouses whose partners every day face the hidden dangers that unfortunately characterize the institutions of correcting. We can never say thank you enough. The trend: the field of corrections will forever rely upon people who deserve to feel appreciated and rewarded for their commitment. The recruitment and retention of those willing to sacrifice for the good of all requires more creative ways of saying thank you to spouses and partners.
Depending upon your concept of Heaven, you could say that every day presents an unexpected opportunity to raise awareness through the people we engage. Perhaps it was the food, the venue, the weather, the program, the speakers, the beads, the company (my wife was close by), but this ACA felt particularly good. A note of congratulations to the host state of Louisiana, and to the ACA staff for setting a new standard. If this wasn’t Heaven, the music was precipitously misleading. On to Chicago where other angels reside! See you there.
Stephen A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC in Columbia, S.C. He can be contacted by e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org. Additional information is on the company’s Web site, www.cartergoblelee.com .