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Keeping incarcerated people safe

Posted: 11 Feb 2018 07:56 AM PST

prison, gay news, Washington Blade

I spent two years in prison, often in unsafe, stifling conditions.

I am a formerly incarcerated Jewish lesbian. When I was 60, I was convicted of tax evasion and sent to the federal women's prison at Alderson in West Virginia. I spent two years behind bars, some of that time in solitary. I lost my freedom in prison; I didn't expect to lose my right to be safe.

Summers at Alderson were hot as hell. Two of the four sleeping units had no air conditioning. The 90-plus degree temperature outside felt like 100 degrees inside. I was unlucky to live in one of the units without air conditioning. It was stifling and I had trouble breathing.

As a formerly incarcerated person, I worry a great deal about the safety of people in prisons, jails and detention centers, specifically about what happens to them during weather-related events. For example: Hurricane Katrina. It struck New Orleans in 2005. The mayor of the city declared the first-ever mandatory evacuation of the city. But that evacuation to safety did not apply to people in prisons. They were left locked in cells filled with sewage-tainted water.

Then there was Hurricane Irene. It struck New York in 2011. Mayor Bloomberg ordered the evacuation of 400,000 residents and their pets to safety in 72 shelters. He did not order the evacuation of Rikers Jail complex, which housed 12,000 incarcerated people.

Hurricane Harvey struck Texas in late summer of 2017. When the storm was bearing down on the state, incarcerated people were made to fill sandbags to brace for the impact of the storm.  Three days later, only 6,000 of the 147,000 incarcerated people were evacuated. One incarcerated man's mother reported to the local newspaper that her son's first floor cell was knee high in water. Texas prison spokesman, Jason Clark, denied there was a problem.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott told Floridians to "evacuate or die." He moved 7,000 incarcerated people leaving 90,000 behind. To make matters worse, a Polk County Sheriff tweeted, "anyone seeking shelter who had an outstanding warrant or was a convicted sex offender would be sent to prison rather than a shelter."

We all heard lots of stories about the mishandling of the recovery from Hurricane Maria after it struck Puerto Rico. But, to this day, we do not know if electricity, water, and food are available at the 13 prisons on the island. Or for that matter, if anyone died in those prisons.

Like Hurricanes, tornados can be dangerous for incarcerated people. An EF-2 tornado struck Aliceville Prison in Alabama in 2016, causing considerable damage to the facility. The roof of one of the sleeping units blew off the building. Officials reported only slight damage to the administration building. Prison officials often provide false or no information about the impact of extreme weather incidents on prison facilities and those who live in them.

Our prisons, jails and detention centers are not prepared for extreme weather. Is this because incarcerated people are disproportionately black, brown, and LGBTQ? Perhaps this explains the lack of safety and under-reporting of weather-related dangers. Or are incarcerated people not considered human beings?

I believe the only way to make this population safe is to force prisons to provide emergency policies requiring evacuation during hurricanes, tornados, floods, fires and mudslides. Similarly, all institutions must properly ventilate sleeping units and dining halls so they are adequately cool in summer and warm in winter.

We know that prisons are highly profitable institutions and making incarcerated people safe is prohibitively expensive. Perhaps the way to keep incarcerated people safe is to release them.


Evie Litwok is director of Witness to Mass Incarceration.

New fire chief makes history in Cabin John Park

Posted: 11 Feb 2018 07:17 AM PST

Corinne Piccardi, gay news, Washington Blade

Corinne Piccardi and wife Monika are raising two kids, Nicole and Riley. (Photo by Ed Tenney)

When Corinne Piccardi, 47, a 19-year member of the Cabin John Park, Md., Volunteer Fire Department and a nationally certified firefighter and paramedic, was sworn in as the department's new fire chief on Jan. 22, the local news media highlighted that she had become the first female volunteer fire chief ever appointed in Montgomery County.

And in a development that some LGBT advocates might consider a positive sign, the media reports made no mention that Piccardi is also the first known lesbian fire chief in the county and possibly in the entire D.C. metropolitan area. Instead, they reported in a nonchalant and matter-of-fact way that she lives in Baltimore with her wife and two daughters.

Piccardi told the Washington Blade in an interview last week that she wasn't surprised that her sexual orientation and same-sex marriage, which has been known for years at the Cabin John Park Fire Station, wasn't considered a big deal at the time of her selection as chief.

"Montgomery County as a whole is very good about that," she said. "You know as an organization they're very open," she added referring to the county's volunteer and career fire departments. "They're very accepting. And if they give you the opportunity it's up to you to take it," she said.

In a press release announcing her appointment as chief, Michael Harting, president of the Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department's Board of Directors, called Piccardi "a visionary – a forward thinker."

Harting added that Piccardi "brings not only a wealth of background and experience to the chief's position but also respects the heritage and community values of the Cabin John, West Bethesda, and Potomac citizens we serve."

The press release says Piccardi will oversee "more than 100 active firefighters and emergency medical service, administrative and auxiliary volunteers."

Cabin John Park is an unincorporated area within Montgomery County located close to the Potomac River between West Bethesda and Potomac. The fire station provides firefighting and emergency medical services to all of those jurisdictions.

Piccardi succeeds James P. Seavey Sr., who has served as chief of the Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department for 26 years before retiring in December, when Piccardi was named acting chief.

During her swearing-in ceremony as chief, which was held at the fire station, Seavey pinned the official chief's badge on the full dress uniform Piccardi wore in an action that followed a longstanding tradition at the department. Standing nearby were Piccardi's wife, Monika, and the couple's daughters Nicole, 18, and Riley, 8.

Minutes later, Piccardi said Monika Piccardi, Nicole, and Riley placed an official chief's collar pin on her uniform.

"So my family was up front and center with the transition of this leadership and the formalizing of it and they were part of the ceremony to appoint me as the chief in Cabin John," she told the Blade.

Piccardi said her role as volunteer chief, like all volunteer firefighters, is a part-time unpaid position. She said she makes her living as a full-time career firefighter-paramedic for the Manchester Fire Department in Carroll County, Md. She also works part-time for the Upperco Volunteer Fire Department in Baltimore County.

It was her role as a volunteer firefighter in Cabin John Park, which began in 1999, that led her to change careers from that of a school teacher to a professional firefighter, she said. A native of Australia, Piccardi said she came to the U.S. as an exchange student in the late 1980s at the University of Texas before deciding to move permanently to the U.S. in the 1990s after graduating from the University of Sydney with a degree in education.

Upon moving to the D.C. area she began teaching at private schools in Potomac and Bethesda before teaching health and physical education for 12 years at Bethesda's Washington Episcopal School. She became a U.S. citizen in 2013.

"And then I left there to be a full-time mom for a couple of years," she said, noting that she continued in her role as a volunteer firefighter that she began while working as a teacher.

"And when I decided to go back to work I decided to put my fire qualifications to work and got a job in Carroll County with the Manchester Volunteer Fire Department," she said. "I'm a paid paramedic and firefighter up there."

Piccardi said she's been open about her sexual orientation at work in the various fire departments, especially in Cabin John Park, since she became involved in a relationship with her wife Monika long before the two could legally marry.

"We lived together. We had a commitment ceremony in western Maryland," she said. "We had members of the fire department there. That was in 2006 long before gay marriage was legal," Piccardi explained, pointing out that she and Monika considered that ceremony to be equivalent to a marriage. "So yes, she married me and she married the fire department as well."

She said the two married legally in 2013 in an informal ceremony at their home.

Piccardi also points out that she and her wife and kids have participated in the Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department's longstanding tradition using a fire truck to deliver Christmas gifts to underprivileged children. Family members of firefighters traditionally have participated in this activity.

"So we take Santa Claus around on top of a fire engine during the month of December to the neighborhoods to collect toys for a local children's home that's in our area," she said. "And we deliver those toys on Christmas Eve. And my family has always been involved with that," said Piccardi, noting that this past Christmas a photo was taken of her wife and two daughters participating in the toy delivery endeavor.

"I'll be honest," Piccardi continued. "I don't go out waving a rainbow flag every time I go somewhere. But it's part of my life. I don't hide it. I never have. Cabin John has known about it from the moment she came into my life," Piccardi said in referring to her wife.

Asked if she had advice for LGBT people who might be considering becoming a firefighter, Piccardi, among other things, said she would tell them not to be discouraged if they encounter expressions of bias.

"I've had a number of people tell me I'm not going to succeed, I'm going to fail," she said. "But they were only one or two people along the road within the organization. Ignore it and take advantage of the opportunity."

Added Piccardi, "I would say if the opportunity presents itself, take it because the service is changing. They are more and more recognizing diversity of all shapes and sizes is needed for fresh ideas. And it's a great service. It's a public service. You are helping people. And you have the opportunity to make an impact. So don't let one or two people stop you from doing what you want to do."

Alas, poor Jim Graham (and Michael Urie). I knew them.

Posted: 10 Feb 2018 08:52 AM PST

Michael Urie, gay news, Washington Blade

Michael Urie in ‘Hamlet.’ (Photo by Tony Powell; courtesy STC)

First off, if you haven't seen Michael Urie in Hamlet, what are you waiting for? Urie, in the titular role, provides something new and dynamic. Yes, you are probably wondering, how can Shakespeare's longest play, a play well over 400 years old, be anything close to new? Taking the usual role of the down-in-the-mouth son pushed out of his birthright, Urie inserts a little velvet rage and makes Hamlet the gay son we always knew he could be.

Isn't Hamlet a little bit gay anyway? Moody, always plotting, dynamic costume changes and a big, screaming fight at the end. Reminds me of a lot of my gay dodgeball friends. But, as I watched Urie's Hamlet get tossed Yorick's skull from out of a freshly dug grave somewhere in Act V, the ideas of a gay life, legacy, and what exactly of us is left behind were fairly palpable.

Hamlet was Wednesday. My friend Russ surprised me with tickets. I surprised him Saturday by dragging him to former D.C. City Council member Jim Graham's estate sale in Bethesda. He died last year and Graham had always intrigued me. He was a staple in Washington life, often spotted driving around in that convertible Volkswagen bug of his. We had only met once, bowtie and all, years ago when I first moved to the city, some junk store on 14th Street that's now lamentably a small-plates wine bar or something. That was 12 years ago or so. I'm pretty sure the back room of that junk store had a dirt floor.

Graham had a hard political fall. But all that aside, he earned all the laurels he could ever need through his work at Whitman-Walker. At the preview before the auction, you could see Jim in all his glory, via his things, laid bare for everyone to see. And I do love a good auction — the excitement, the atmosphere, the picking up and fondling of objects and the possibility of then taking those objects home. Was Jim a hoarder? Maybe. What's the real difference between a hoarder and a collector? A nicer apartment? Jim's taste ran from the beautiful, to the curious, the comical, to the downright odd. The oddest piece being the collection of skulls. The room was full of gay men, many I recognized, looking over Jim's gay life, now laid out on tables, in boxes, tagged with numbers. Gay men have a certain affinity for their possessions. Our homes are more likely to be near-curated. And like a well-matched accessory, these items almost become an extension of us, telling a little story of our gay life. Sans children, do our possessions and collections mean something different? With Jim, he cared enough about these items to take them home and care for them. Each I'm assuming had a story. And now in the home of another gay man, their story continues. Essentially, these curious items now have another 40 years of gay life added to them.

I went home with a large, metal Greek god-type garden statue that I still have no idea what to do with. I have no garden. No one else was bidding on it and I guess I felt sorry for it.

Dito sat front row in a large black mink coat. He went home with an array of items. As did my friend Pepin. I helped him carry out boxes of treasures. My friend Jocko went home with a collection of vintage costume jewelry, including an old Safeway name tag simply reading "Alice." Anyone who knows Jocko knows these items found the right home. You have to wonder, who was Alice? And who was Jim Graham? Can anyone say they knew him? Perhaps. But so many gay men now have a little piece of him. And knowing what I knew of him, he would have loved that.

Hamlet runs through March 4. The second installment of Jim Graham's estate, including that Volkswagen, will be auctioned off March 10.

Jim Graham, D.C. Council, District of Columbia, Ward One, gay news, Washington Blade

Jim Graham (Washington Blade file photo by Jeff Surprenant)