Dear Katherine and Christoph,
Thank you very much for sending news of your mother’s passing. I am quite sorry for your loss. No matter how long she lived, or even if expected, it’s always hard to lose one’s mother. I just lost my own mother two months ago. She had Alzheimer’s for over 12 years and had spent the last six and a half years in a memory facility. And like Mary, she had many lucid moments up to the end.
I am sorry that I was not more in touch. This has been a very trying semester on me as I have had more students than ever in my history of teaching, and then of course, I spent two weeks in the middle of the semester away for my mother’s funeral. I never really caught up with my work and continue to grade papers (and soon will have exams). So I am sorry for this delayed notice.
Having said that, let me just say that I think you were so lucky to have been raised by this woman who was so giving throughout her life (thank you for the detailed obituary--I learned a lot that I did not know about her). As you know, her generosity with CPF was tremendous. I remember asking her how she got started with us, and she said that she had heard on the radio that you could volunteer to write letters to prisoners. She was 70 at the time. She said, “Well I didn’t know what I could really do for prisoners, but I did know that I could write a letter or two once a week.” Of course, as you know, that mushroomed into writing dozens per week and thousands per year. But beyond writing letters, she also taught us a lot at CPF. She taught us that one is never too old to care about others whom one will never meet. And to do so with such dedication was absolutely amazing. We used to have to get on her case to go home. “That’s enough now, Mary,” we’d say. “You can come back tomorrow.” She would stop, look up, sigh, and say in her soft voice, “Yes, I suppose I can.” She would sometimes leave the office in San Francisco (at 16th and Mission Streets) at midnight to take the last BART back to Berkeley! Her passion for her fellow human being was second to none. So she taught us by this example. And her financial generosity was also key, especially at times when we were really scraping the bottom of the barrel!
She was not only generous with the prisoners, but with us--the other CPF volunteers. She took the time to teach us how to do the work. She taught us how to write letters, what to say, what not to say, how to organize the prison interview trips, etc. In fact, the basic training for new CPF volunteers for a long time was simply this: sit next to Mary for a couple of weeks and watch what she does. All sorts of issues come up in the letters from prisoners: how to challenge gang validations, how to process their health or visiting complaints (known as 602s), how to file a civil law suit (a 1983), etc. It was a lot of jargon, but Mary taught us all (including me) one by one what the issues were and how best to help the prisoners. Perhaps it was sending a legal document, a self-help pamphlet, writing a letter to the warden or the head of the health clinic of the prison, etc. So not only did she show care and patience with the prisoners, she showed care and patience with us. She was one of the most inspiring and selfless people I have met in my life, and I am very grateful to have known her for the time that I did.
And you should know that without her help, I don't think we would have had the basis we did going into the 2011 and 2013 hunger strikes. She helped form CPF into the organization that played a key role in supporting the prisoners and mediating the hunger strikes. When the prisoners decided to strike for a change in gang validation policies and the use of long term solitary confinement, five different non-profit groups in the Bay Area formed a coalition called the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity (PHSS) Coalition. Yet, when we first met with the executives from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), they kept calling us CPF instead of PHSS. That's how strong CPF's reputation had become with people like your mother. I was deeply involved in the hunger strikes as I was both the president of CPF at the time, and on the prisoner's mediation team. CPF was also one of four entities that sued the state over solitary confinement conditions. The hunger strikes brought the awareness that helped the lawsuit gain traction. In the end, the prisoners won a settlement very much in their favor (Ashker vs. Governor of California). Today some 2,500 prisoners have been released from solitary confinement because of the suit. You must know that these outcomes are truly part of your mother's legacy. Those long years of her writing letters, teaching volunteers, and funding our work gave us the know how, the organizational capacity, and most importantly the credibility to help lead the charge in making these changes. But this is not just about correcting past wrongs--it's about preventing present ones. Today, hundreds of prisoners are no longer being sent to the torture of indeterminate, long term solitary confinement in the first place for questionable or minor infractions (evidence that was previously trumped up into a gang validation package). So her legacy is still at work. I truly believe that.
Of course, I knew Mary for only a short time while she was here, but that time was significant. I enjoyed reading in her obituary about her discussion groups at her house. I’m sure I would have enjoyed attending and participating in those conversations myself! I’m sorry that I never had the time to get to know that side of her--we were always so busy with our work.
Thank you for again for sharing the obituary and recent photo of her. I really do appreciate it. May she rest in peace.
With deepest sympathy and great gratitude,