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Archive for February 2012

Ritter Center expansion draws criticism

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A Friday article in my local paper (The Marin Independent Journal) about the Ritter Center caught my eye because I’ve done some photography there. Ritter does a great job of providing support for homeless and low-income people in Marin County, but it seems some of its neighbors aren’t so sure.

A citizens group is questioning the wisdom of allowing the Center to install a double-wide trailer on its overcrowded San Rafael campus. The trailer will be used to expand its medical, mental health and substance abuse programs to serve more diverse populations.  Critics say this would make an already difficult neighborhood environment intolerable.

Ritter Center, San Rafael, Califonria

The Ritter Center, San Rafael, California

The IJ article quotes the owner of an auto repair shop near Ritter: “All day long they deal drugs here on the street. When they see the police officers, they’re running to the Ritter Center.” He reportedly also said he’s tired of the raucous street gatherings of drunken clients after being physically assaulted and having to deal every day with feces and urine on his property.

I don’t know about feces and urine, but it’s true that groups of homeless people often hang out in the tiny public park at Ritter’s main entrance, and sometimes things are a mess. Some of this is unavoidable with any program serving a marginalized population with no place to call home, but it got me thinking about what might be done to address neighborhood concerns.

A move to a larger campus would better serve a diverse range of clients

Apparently there are plans to eventually move the program to a larger, more suitable location. A good idea. To me, the current campus is too small to accommodate all of its needs, especially if it intends to serve a more diverse population of women, children, families and the elderly. As things stand now, clients walking to the new clinic will have to negotiate their way through a sometimes raucous group of bystanders, the same group neighborhood critics are complaining about.  And on rainy days, the only outside covered area is reserved for smokers.

Larger waiting-room

The large waiting room in the proposed new double-wide trailer might improve the problem of loitering about the premises, but I question how much.

The folks who congregate at the Ritter Center are often not waiting for medical or other services, but just passing time.

The center has become a convenient place for homeless people to hang out and socialize. Unfortunately, some bring with them their drinking, smoking, and drug habits. And some of the homeless who frequent the Center suffer from untreated mental illnesses, at times fueling off-putting behaviors. It will take careful planning and supervision to make sure the Center is able to serve a wider spectrum on people, all people in need of help.  Although not everyone who spends time at Ritter is abusing the privilege, there is enough unacceptable behavior going on to discourage people in recovery or otherwise wanting a healthy and safe place to receive services.

So a larger site will help, but I think there are some things that can be done now that would help reduce neighborhood reservations about the Ritter Center.

Made the Center attractive to a more diverse clientele

Taking steps to make the campus more attractive to a wider range of  clients will not only help it serve more people in need, but will also reduce the number of bad actors that are at the root of neighborhood complaints.  What specifically do I have in mind?

Enforce a drug-free environment

The center should make it clear that drinking, smoking and using and selling drugs will not be tolerated on the Ritter Center grounds. All cigarette smoking areas should be eliminated. Making the Center a drug-free zone might temporarily increase these behaviors on the street, but would be mitigated by long term results. How to do this?

Hire security personnel

Security personnel on the promises would help assure the safety of staff and the well-being of everyone seeking services. A security person could monitor activities on campus, and also discourage unlawful or disruptive behaviors at the gate.

Install security cameras

Security cameras won’t entirely prevent bad behavior, but they will discourage it. Some might argue that this is an invasion of privacy, but this a moot point in today’s reality. There’s no longer an assumption of privacy in places where people gather, and here are cameras in almost every facility serving the homeless. The Ritter Center shouldn’t be an exception.

At least that’s my take on things.


Written by Ron Greene

February 27, 2012 at 12:28 pm

Posted in Photography

Occupy the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

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I spend Sunday afternoon at my old stomping grounds, San Quentin Prison, or to be more precise, on the main street of San Quentin Village. This residential street, with its beautiful views of the San Francisco bay, is unusual because it ends at the east gate of San Quentin Prison, and that’s where Occupy Oakland chose to hold to its first rally in support of prisoners. This was part of a nationwide action protesting against the US prison system.


Occupy San Quentin at East Gate

Occupy San Quentin at East Gate. Death Row inmates are housed in the cell blocks above the grassy knoll on the top left.


Since Occupy Oakland has gained a reputation for spawning violent demonstrations, with 400 members arrested recently, armed law enforcement officers were everywhere, some fulling visible, others in the wings.


Officers with weapons ready at East Gate of San Quentin

Officers with weapons ready at East Gate of San Quentin.


The speakers started off by asking the crowd of about 700 to remain peaceful, and they did for the three hour event. I heard someone say there would be no violence because they were sure guards would later take out their anger on prisoners. There may have been some anarchists in the crowd, but they made their presence known mostly by appearance and signs displayed.


Free all prisoners

Anarchist's vision of a better America.


A disproportionate percentage of blacks get the death sentence.

A disproportionate percentage of blacks get the death sentence.


Man in mask

Groups with varying agendas attended the rally.



For some, the event was a stage to show their colors and have fun.


The speaker I was most interested in was Barbara Becness, one of the event organizers. She was a close friend and advocate for Crips co-founder Stanley “Tookie” Williams, who was denied a pardon by governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and put to death in 2005. At the time, Becness acccused the governor of being “a cold blooded murderer.”  She continues her involvement in a number of social issues and heads the nonprofit North Richmond Neighborhood House in Oakland.

Barbara Becness addresses the protesters at Occupy San Quentin Prison


Death Row at San Quentin

I worked on death row before Tookie’s death, but never met him. In his own way he was a celebrity, and I made it a point not to be searching out famous inhabitants of San Quentin. I did read his book, respected his attempts at rehabilitation, and considered him a role model — even though most prison officials and correctional officers I spoke to insisted he was a fake.

My wife and I were part of a vigil that night in 2005, standing near the gate you see in these current photos, when the state of California killed Williams.

On the makeshift stage, Becness said that Occupy is calling for a number of prison reforms, including the abolition of the death penalty, solitary confinement, and California’s “three strikes” law.”

These three issues have been festering for years, and should be an embarrassment to every fair-minded Californian.


Death Penalty

The arguments against the death penalty are well known. For me it’s a simple moral issue. I don’t think the state should be in the business of killing people.

Three Strikes (passed in 1993 after Richard Allen Davis was convicted of the brutal murder of Polly Klass)

The three strikes law was sold to the public as a way of keeping vicious criminals permanently off the streets, but that’s not exactly how things have worked out.
It’s net is far too wide, and the prison system is overcrowded with inmates serving 25-to-life sentences after being convicted of relatively minor crimes. According to John Diaz in the San Francisco Chronicle, “More than half of the third ‘strikes’ that have triggered a 25-to-life sentence involve neither serious nor violent felonies. Even shoplifting can be escalated to a third-strike felony – bringing life imprisonment – for those with prior convictions of petty theft.”

Prison officials know this, but justify current three-strike policies by invoking the “broken window” argument. “It’s better to lock them up any way we can because we know otherwise they’ll be out there doing more serious crimes. We just haven’t caught them yet. Put them away while we have a chance and save the taxpayers a whole lot grief.”

I’ve worked with a number of three-strikers in the prison mental health system. Almost universally, they struck out while serving their drug addictions, self-medicating, trying to gain some relieve from their serious mental disorders.


Abolish Solitary Confinement

Abolish the SHU (Solitary Confinement)

There is no SHU at San Quentin, but it’s Adjustment Center comes close. It’s where the most dangerous or troublesome prisoners are housed in single cells behind steel doors. All new death sentence arrivals are housed here for a period of evaluation before being sent to the permanent housing on death row.


Solitary Confinement

The prison system argues that prisoners are seldom held in solitary confinement, and then only in extreme cases for the inmate’s own safety or the safety of others. One can argue whether Administrative Segregation units amount to solitary confinement, but it is clear to me that some inmates, especially those with severe mental illnesses, get worse in the the near total isolation of these lockdown cell blocks. The courts have mandated that all inmates be offered several hours on exercise yards every week, but this is not enough, and the sickest, most paranoid, often refuse.

Some of the worst injustices I’ve seen involve inmates who were placed in Administration Segregation for no fault of their own. For example, a gang dropout who might be killed if he were placed in the general population. Because of prison overcrowding, sometimes these inmates wait for many months before space is found on special protective yards. If they have a mental illness, this waiting in Ad Seg is a cruel price to pay for saying they no longer want to be part of a violent prison gang. They suffer as their mental condition deteriorates with each passing month.

Occupy supporters will have to see if joining forces with the prison reform movement turns out to be a good idea. Some might argue that it dilutes an already confusing message. If it reduces the suffering of the thousands of severely ill patients now warehoused in the California prison system, it will be worth the time spent sorting out the issues.

Would You Pay More for an iPad Made in America?

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I love my iPad, but admit feeling a bit guilty lately.

Apple has surged to $500 a share, and grown to be worth more than Microsoft and Google combined. There are rumors that Apple might soon spit its stock or start paying dividends. To top off this good news, Apple has just risen to first place in the Harris Poll ratings of corporate reputation. This all sounds great to stockholders like myself, but the colossus is also generating unflattering news.

Apple Store

A rainy day at the Apple store, Corte Madera, California

Some analysts are arguing that the high value of Apple stock is directly related to major human rights violations in China. This is disturbing to folks who claim more than a passing interest in social and economic justice.

The New York Times reports that Foxconn, Apple’s major overseas supplier, has systematically abused the 230,000 workers assembling Apple products in China. We’re talking about inhumanly long hours, miserable pay, overcrowded dorms, a spade of suicides, and exposure to various unsafe working conditions including toxic chemicals.

In fairness, Apple has now asked an outside monitoring group, the Fair Labor Association, to look into these allegations.
But how could Apple have allowed this to happen?  It’s hard to believe that Apple didn’t know of Foxconn’s workplace practices. They probably have intelligence gatherers worthy of Mossad operatives. Why didn’t Apple do something on its own before outside pressure mounted?

According to some former Apple executives, profits and efficiency trumped social responsibility. As you might expect, current executives deny this, claiming that significant steps have been taken to right any past wrongs. Critics argue that even if Apple wants to do better, it is currently held back by a calculation that the costs of strict reform would be prohibitive. Apple once manufactured most of its products in the US, but apparently now believes Foxconn and other offshore companies offer advantages in speed and flexibility unavailable in America.

iPad V: The Steve Jobs Commemorative Edition

For those of us who feel uncomfortable about Chinese workers being exploited so that we can buy Apple products at reasonable prices, I suggest Apple open an experimental US factory and begin selling “limited additions” of its products, starting with the iconic iPad, conspicuously marked “Made in America.” Yesterday, I asked my friends Wiebke Meineke and Uwe Wagner if they thought Americans would be willing to pay more for products made in America. Their answer was a resounding “No.” I hope they’re wrong.

A Cappuccino in Apple Territory, Cafe Borrone, Menlo Park, California

Cappucino in Apple Territory, Cafe Borrone, Menlo Park, California

Apple can afford to take the risk

These new iPads would be more expensive but would have special prestige, with a unique look that says “I support American workers and am willing to pay a little more to do so.”

If this iPad is designated the “Steve Jobs Commemorative Edition,” I believe this would more than justify the higher cost.

With its current positive reputation and enormous cash reserves, Apple is in a unique position to take this risk and spearhead a movement to bring jobs back to America. Apple might not be obligated to solve America’s problems, but it sure would be good if it took steps in the right direction.

My young wife turns 65!

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Rica turned 65 on Feb 5, and we celebrated by headed down to one of her favorite places on the central coast of California. Carmel-by-the Sea is about two hours south of San Francisco, and just minutes from Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.

Rica at Mission Ranch pasture

We have our routine, which always starts with Sunday brunch at the Mission Ranch Restaurant. There’s great food, all you can eat, and great views. We never tire of the deserts while watching Clint Eastwood’s sheep in the adjoining pasture.

Clint Eastwood's sheep


Sheep heaven

If I were a sheep, this is where I’d want to be.

Rica eating a strawberry.

Rica’s big on chocolate strawberries, but there’s plenty of other sweet temptations to choose from.

Desert plate

The town is very touristy, but still fun. It’s filled with trendy shops, exotic cars, and pampered dogs. Sit for a moment next to one and before you know it, its owner will be chatting you up like you’ve been a friend for years.

Exotic cars abound in Carmel

I guess this is either a BMW car or motorcycle. Exotics abound.

Poodle stands guard

There’s usually a poodle standing guard at the many Carmel art galleries.

New friends are everywhere in Carmel.

Sit down next to a dog and in a minute you have a new friend.

Carmel beach.

There are spectacular beaches to explore, and this being California, you never know what you’ll see.

Miission Ranch breakfast Monday morning.

We stayed overnight and had breakfast at Mission Ranch before heading off to Point Lobos, and then home.

Point Lobos, California

Written by Ron Greene

February 7, 2012 at 12:54 pm

Posted in Photography

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Robert Redford Was My Friend

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Robert Redford was my friend. Or maybe he wasn’t. Time has a way of shifting the narrative.

Robert Redford, New York, 1959

Robert Redford, New York, 1959

I met Redford in 1959 when he was a student at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I had come to New York earlier in the year hoping to become a fashion photographer. That ambition faded quickly when I realized I was more interested in the models than the clothes. Not quite ready to give up photography, I drifted into theater work.

I was living in my second floor photo studio in Hell’s Kitchen, just scraping by, when Redford phoned about head shots. I had never heard of him, few people had. He came by a few days later and we started what would be the first of several photo sessions.

I noticed immediately that he stood out from the other acting students who passed through my studio. He seemed more intense, more intelligent, and more introspective than most. I liked him immediately, I think because he was totally devoted to his career but not in the least pretentious. There wasn’t anything “theatrical” in his manner.

But what a natural before the camera! Over the years people have asked how I got Redford to pose as he did. The answer is that I did very little directing; I just pointed the camera and he did the rest. People have also asked about the cigarettes. He didn’t inhale.

Redford returned to the studio two or three of times over the next few weeks and I visited him and his wife Lola once or twice in their Upper East Side apartment. A friendship developed (at least in my mind), but was interrupted by a terrible family crisis. Lola and Robert’s month’s-old child, Scott, died of sudden infant death syndrome.

I wanted to call to see how they were doing, but felt awkward and just couldn’t get myself to pick up the phone. It seems dumb now, but that’s the way it was.

The Candidate

That would have been the end of the story except for Redford’s choice of a filming location in 1972. My friend, Dr. Mort Stein, called to say that Robert Redford was filming the Candidate in San Francisco, and there was a call out of extras. He thought it would be fun to be part of the political convention scenes, and might also have been interested in finding out if I really did know this famous actor. Maybe I could say hello again. I knew I wouldn’t bring up why we had lost contact, but maybe I could think of another excuse to approach him.

Then I remembered. I had a debt to collect.

Robert Redford, New York, 1059

I introduced myself during a break in the filming, secretly hoping he would embrace me as a long lost friend. He didn’t. In fact, he had no idea who I was. Had I exaggerated to myself the importance of our earlier relationship? Maybe so; wouldn’t many people like to think they had been friends with Robert Redford?

When it became clear that Redford had no idea of who I was, I was glad I had brought a copy of a photograph he had ordered before Scott died, but hadn’t paid for.  He recognized it, and immediately came up with seven dollars.

I’ve told this whole story so many times over the years that I’m not sure now about the truth.  Was there really a time when Redford considered me a friend?

I did visit his apartment and meet his wife, and I do know I photographed him because I have all the negatives.

But friendship? That might be an entirely different story.