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Three months after release from prison, McMillan working toward better life
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ST. PAUL — The ride home felt quiet as they adjusted to their new reality.

McKenzie McMillan picked up her husband on Sept. 25. She breathed a massive sigh of relief when he appeared, holding only a box containing his possessions from the previous half-decade.

Ryan McMilan was healthy and no longer incarcerated at Federal Correctional Institution, Oxford, a medium security male prison in central Wisconsin.

He served about 16 months of a felon in possession of a firearm sentence at FCI Oxford, the last six months of which entailed harrowing uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic.

After not spending extended time together for years, husband and wife had about four hours to drive to the Twin Cities and enjoy one another’s presence, but it was not entirely a celebratory mood. Ryan eventually felt euphoric, but at first McKenzie said he seemed to be “in shock that he was really free.”

The McMillans didn’t know when they would be fully reunited. As part of Ryan’s early release from Oxford, he had to initially live at a halfway house for up to six months, despite the availability of residing at home in St. Paul with McKenzie and their daughter Nevaeh. For McKenzie, it was extremely difficult to drop Ryan off at his temporary lodging and “throw him to the wolves again.”

Despite the uncertainty, the couple was connected for Ryan’s first few hours of life outside prison in more than five years. He was committed to readjusting to society, and she had supreme confidence he could.

After about a month at the halfway house, Ryan was permitted by the Federal Bureau of Prisons to return home. He is on home confinement until March, meaning he wears an ankle monitor and has travel limitations. After home confinement, Ryan will be on probation for three years.

His days are now occupied by family, school and work, a deliberately busy schedule.

“It gives me purpose, makes me feel like an adult,” said Ryan, who turned 31 in July. “Everything is going great. I’m in a good space.”

Despite the joyous feeling, challenges remain for Ryan and people like him working to reintegrate into society. He has a home and support system, but that is not true for everyone leaving prison.

‘Not just about me’

This wasn’t Ryan McMillan’s first time behind bars. He has been incarcerated a few times, including as a result of a 2008 felony conviction for selling narcotics.

Ryan said he previously had his priorities out of order and was absorbed with activities that led to negative consequences. He acknowledged his mistakes and is determined to do the necessary work to move forward with a stable family life.

“Whatever’s required of me, that’s what I’m going to do,” Ryan said.

While incarcerated, Ryan said he reached a point where he was “tired of being captive in my own mind and my own self” and wanted to improve his situation.

He wasted no time. On the drive back from Oxford, Ryan called potential employers and inquired about job openings. A few weeks later he was hired for full-time work on the second shift at a distribution center. He also attends school full time at Metropolitan State University, studying business administration.

Most days, Ryan wakes up and does schoolwork or assists Nevaeh, who attends elementary school from home. That is followed by classes and a workout. He then drives to work, gets home from his shift after 2 a.m., sleeps for a few hours and is back at it.

The days are full, and Ryan appreciates school and work providing purpose and allowing him to lessen the burden shouldered by McKenzie during his imprisonment.

“That motivates me to keep going, even when it’s hard,” he said. “I know it’s not just about me.”

McKenzie, who also has a full slate of work and graduate school courses, said his return represents an enormous weight lifted. Instead of her spending every free moment working on his release, they can share a meal. Instead of all expenses coming from her paycheck, both of them earn income.

The couple enjoys watching movies when time allows, and McKenzie is updating Ryan on recent pop culture. But their mere presence together, regardless of activity, is enough. McKenize said they “could be sitting in the living room doing absolutely nothing” and she would be happy.

“Our house feels extremely small all of a sudden,” McKenzie said. “It’s what I’ve been waiting for for a long time.”

Free time is spent almost entirely at home because of the pandemic, but a few weekend excursions have occurred, including an arcade visit with Nevaeh and Ryan’s three sons from a previous relationship. McKenzie said Ryan is “a big kid at heart,” and she has enjoyed seeing the lighter, paternal side of his personality in recent months.

Small adjustments have occurred, like Ryan learning new technology, but his transition has largely been seamless. He had trouble sleeping upon his return, a lingering effect of prison. That has improved, in part because of his exhausting schedule.

Continuing the fight

Ryan stays motivated and disciplined with the aid of a close circle of family and friends. One person he recently connected with was Eau Claire County Supervisor Kim Cronk, who supported both of the McMillans in the past year. Cronk was introduced to them through a mutual acquaintance, and she advocated for Ryan’s early release and lent an ear to McKenzie during Ryan’s incarceration.

On Ryan’s release day, the couple FaceTimed Cronk on the drive from Oxford to Minnesota. Even though Cronk and the McMillans haven’t met in person because of the pandemic, they stay connected through texting and calls, and the McMillans plan to host Cronk for a homemade meal when it is safe.

McKenzie and Ryan said he has successfully reentered society in recent months despite the criminal justice system, not because of it.

“Things fell into place, and I don’t think that’s because the system functioned how it needed to,” McKenzie said. “I don’t think they should get credit for that … They just put up so many barriers.”

One example of tight restrictions involved the drive to the halfway house on Ryan’s release date. The McMillans said they were given four hours maximum to make the trek, which usually lasts about three hours and 45 minutes, leaving little margin for error.

That month in the halfway house tested the McMillans, but they ultimately were unified. They stayed connected with their motto of “patience and persistence” when he was incarcerated, and Ryan said that meant everything to him and sustained him in the halfway house.

For someone like Ryan who is returning to society, he and McKenzie said better assistance with technology, employment and housing could help lead to a better reentry process.

They also said personal connections provided crucial help for Ryan after prison.

“If an individual does not have family or friends for support, there needs to be a way to set individuals up with a support system, not simply in the form of resources but in the form of people,” McKenzie wrote in an email. “It takes a village.”

Cronk also said reentry should be individualized around what a person needs and added that a sense of belonging is crucial.

“We need to humanize one another and find ways to have true accountability, repair, and healing,” Cronk wrote in an email. “When we disconnect people, families and communities, the ripple effects can and often become generational harm.”

McKenzie, a licensed graduate social worker, is working on a master’s degree in public and nonprofit administration at Metropolitan State University. She is not directly involved with the justice system right now but plans to be soon. Her experience with Ryan has clarified the potential damages of incarceration, so she wants to improve those circumstances.

“The fight is definitely not over,” McKenzie said.

Cronk agreed and said many people aren’t aware “how big of a reach the talons of the system have on people’s lives.”

Pandemic and prisons

That is more true than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic, when incarcerated people are much more likely to contract and die from COVID-19 in custody than the general public.

Cronk believes more people should be granted early release from incarceration because it could improve their personal lives and make prisons safer from a public health perspective.

“There are many, many more people who need to come home,” Cronk wrote. “This has been the case for a long, long time, but during a pandemic it is imperative that so many more people are able to come home. We have so many people with talent, creativity, solutions, skills, leadership and love who can help us so much more out here.”

Ryan has taken part in a few leadership activities. He has spoken to adolescents and said he likes sharing his story and showing that, with enough support and mental fortitude, transformation is possible.

“I just want to help humanity as a whole,” Ryan said.

Ryan also keeps in touch with people he met at FCI Oxford, since he knows how lonely and difficult imprisonment can be, particularly during the pandemic.

When the pandemic hit in March, Ryan mainly felt afraid, especially for the older people he knew like his mother and grandmother. One of the first things he did upon his release was visit his mother, who lives in the Twin Cities and is “like my best friend,” Ryan said.

When they embraced for the first time in years, Ryan said he felt her pain and stress evaporate. Reuniting with his mother was “like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” Ryan said. “It made my heart smile.”

It is tough not seeing most friends and family in person because of the coronavirus, but Ryan views it as another challenge to patiently and persistently work through.

“It’s taken a toll, but you get through it,” Ryan said. “I just take the good with the bad and try to stay safe.”

After fear and uncertainty for Ryan and his loved ones during the final six months of his imprisonment, most days now involve more good than bad, but the struggle continues.

Siege of U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump mob forces hard questions

WASHINGTON — One day later, the violent siege of the U.S. Capitol by President Donald Trump’s supporters forced painful new questions across government.

In the immediate aftermath, the attack on the world’s iconic dome of democracy, shocking imagery flashed around the globe, reinforced lawmakers’ resolve to stay up all night to finish counting the Electoral College vote confirming Democrat Joe Biden won the presidential election.

But the rampage that left a country on edge prompted lawmakers to launch a congressional review of the U.S. Capitol Police’s failure to stop the the breach and is forcing a broader reckoning over Trump’s tenure in office and what comes next for a tattered and torn nation.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said any remaining day with the president in power could be “a horror show for America.”

Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer called for invoking the 25th Amendment to the Constitution to force Trump from office before Biden is inaugurated on Jan. 20.

At least one Republican lawmaker joined them. The procedure allows for the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet to declare the president unfit for office. The vice president then becomes acting president.

Pelosi said if the president’s Cabinet does not swiftly invoke the 25th Amendment, the House may proceed to impeach Trump.

Meanwhile, other Republicans who echoed Trump’s false claims of a fraudulent election, including rising stars and some party leaders, faced angry, unsettled peers — but also those cheering them on.

With tensions high, the Capitol shuttered and lawmakers not scheduled to return until the inauguration, an uneasy feeling of stalemate settled over a main seat of national power as Trump remained holed up at the White House.

The social media giant Facebook banned the president from its platform and Instagram for the duration of Trump’s final days in office, if not indefinitely, citing his intent to stoke unrest. Twitter had silenced him the day before.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said “the shocking events of the last 24 hours” make it clear Trump “intends to use his remaining time in office to undermine the peaceful and lawful transition of power.”

The head of the U.S. Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund faced pressure from Schumer, Pelosi and others in Congress to resign. The sergeants at arms of the House and Senate that oversee the police and security at the complex are also expected to be removed.

Sund defended his department’s response to the storming of the Capitol, saying that officers had “acted valiantly when faced with thousands of individuals involved in violent riotous actions.”

In his first public comment on the mayhem, Sund said in a statement that rioters “actively attacked” Capitol police and other law enforcement officers with metal pipes, discharged chemical irritants and “took up other weapons against our officers.”

It was “unlike any I have ever experienced in my 30 years in law enforcement here in Washington, D.C.,” said Sund, a former city police officer.

But Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser quickly called the police response “a failure.”

Lawmakers from both parties pledged to investigate law enforcement’s actions and questioned whether a lack of preparedness allowed a mob to occupy and vandalize the building.

Black lawmakers, in particular, noted the way the mostly white Trump supporters were treated as they laid siege to the Capitol.

Urged on by Trump during a rally near the White House earlier in the day Wednesday to head to Capitol Hill, protesters swiftly broke through police barriers, smashed windows and paraded through the halls, sending lawmakers into hiding.

The protesters ransacked the place, taking over the House and Senate chambers and waving Trump, American and Confederate flags. Outside, they scaled the walls and balconies in their breach of the building.

Newly elected Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., said if “we, as Black people did the same things that happened .... the reaction would have been different, we would have been laid out on the ground, there would have been, there would have been shootings, there would have been people in jail.”

One protester, a white woman, was shot to death by Capitol Police, and there were dozens of arrests. Three other people died after “medical emergencies” related to the breach.

Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., a former police chief, said it was “painfully obvious” that Capitol police “were not prepared” for what took place.

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who is the chairman of a subcommittee that oversees the Capitol police budget, announced the new review and suggested there would be leadership changes on the force.

“I think it’s pretty clear that there’s going to be a number of people who are going to be without employment very, very soon because this is an embarrassment,” he said.

Before dawn Thursday, Congress confirmed Biden as the presidential election winner, lawmakers resolved to return from shelter to show the country, and the world, of the nation’s enduring commitment to uphold the will of the voters and the peaceful transfer of power.

Vice President Mike Pence, presiding over the joint session, announced the tally for Biden, 306-232.

Trump, who had repeatedly refused to concede the election, said in a statement immediately after the vote that there will be an “orderly transition” on Inauguration Day.

Several lawmakers suggested that Trump be prosecuted for a crime, impeached for a second time or even removed under the Constitution’s 25th Amendment, which seemed unlikely two weeks from when his term expires. The House impeached Trump in 2019 and the Senate acquitted him in 2020.

Schumer said Trump must be removed from office and not stay president “one day” longer.”

While Democrats led the charge to invoke the 25th Amendment, similar conversations among Republicans within the administration had made their way to Capitol Hill.

Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, publicly called on Trump’s Cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment and remove the president from office.

“The president caused this,” Kinzinger said in a video posted to Twitter. “The president is unwell.”

The Republicans who led the effort to challenge the Electoral College tally for Biden exposed the extent of the divisions within the party, and the nation, after four years of Trump’s presidency.

Those two GOP senators, Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri, faced angry peers in the Senate.

Cruz in a statement defended his objection to the election results as “the right thing to do” as he tried unsuccessfully to have Congress launch an investigation.

In the House, Republican leaders Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California and Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, joined in the effort to overturn Biden’s win by objecting to the Electoral College results.

Despite Trump’s repeated claims of voter fraud, election officials and his own former attorney general have said there were no problems on a scale that would change the outcome. All the states have certified their results as fair and accurate, by Republican and Democratic officials alike.

Speed the plow
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The trouble with being proficient at something, or even being perceived as proficient, is that people will inevitably come seeking your talents. My father-in-law, Jim, for example, is so handy he can solve most any household problem. Plumbing, electricity, carpentry, you name it. When something goes sideways around our house, I am most definitely not the person who is likely to come to the rescue. That person would be Jim. Some people might feel deficient, or even guilty for having so few skills as a homeowner. I never have. If I was more handy, my wife would expect more of me and I’d have less time to daydream, read, write, wander, garden, smoke cigars and stare at our chickens. As is, I just call Jim with our problems and he seems happy enough to solve them.

Another bonus is that he has never sent me a bill.

Which brings me to my snowplow, the result of several winters’ worth of bills.

We used to rely on my friend Dave to plow our long driveway. I met Dave because he was part of the construction crew who built our house, and when, years ago, I inquired if he knew anyone who could plow us out, he was eager enough, and his rate wasn’t exorbitant. But the last few winters rightly wore on Dave, and two years ago he informed me that he could no longer be our plowman. I was bummed; I like Dave and consider him a friend.

With Dave out of the equation we went looking for a new plowman. My neighbor across the road had a long-standing relationship with a plow-guy and he added us to his list of clientele, though, at a significantly higher rate than Dave. After scratching a few sizeable checks, I thought to myself, Alright Butler, this doesn’t make sense. So, I bought a plow.

Am I a proficient plowman? No. I’m a beginner, a novice. An apprentice with no master. A guy who writes novels and has a long beat-up driveway. I’m a plowman the way many of you are landscapers. Does owning a walk-behind lawnmower mean that you’re a landscaper, or ready to operate your own lawn-service business? No.

And yet, this winter, two of my neighbors approached me about plowing their driveways. Was I happy to do so? Absolutely. It’s really as easy as dropping the plow on my driveway, pulling out on the road, and turning into another driveway 25 yards away. One of these neighbors has asked that if and only if a blizzard occurs, I plow their small driveway — no problem. If I was a better man, I might have volunteered my services, but in truth, I was a little nervous about my lack of experience. What if I damaged their driveways? Backed into their garage? Ran over a garden gnome?

The fact is, I like plowing. Plowing is almost the opposite of writing novels. There is instant, immediate, tangible gratification and results. One moment, a driveway is buried in snow. Moments later, a path is cleared and made safe. Writing books takes years and even if you’ve written a good book, there is no guarantee of getting it published, or getting a paycheck for your efforts. My wife, for example, can’t really see the time and toil I put into a rough draft of a book. Whether I’m checking a Packers score on espn.com or pouring my soul into a book, it looks the same. And if I’m being honest, most of the time when I’m sitting in front of my laptop, I am in fact frittering away time doing something utterly unproductive. Whereas, when I clear the driveway ... Writing a book is really an act somewhere between prayer and perhaps buying a lottery ticket. It’s a passion with an unknowable result. Plowing snow is real, tangible work.

So, I’ve got myself a little plow route. Two, sometimes three properties. During the winter of 2013/14 or 2017/18 when Dave was working around the clock to clear driveways and parking lots, he probably would have beat me over the head with a shovel for claiming that my puny three-stop route constituted “work,” and he would have been right to do so. But, it is what it is. I never claimed to be a professional and sure as heck didn’t go seeking any clients. They gently asked me for my help.

“Help” looks like this: I allow the truck (a 2003 GMC Sierra 1500) about 15 minutes to warm up. Last time I plowed, I had to scrape ice off the windshield using a Chuck Berry CD case. When the cab is good and toasty, I crawl in with a cup of coffee. I like tuning the FM radio dial. I sing along with Whitesnake, Van Halen, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard; 1980s Hair-Rock seems to be my preferred plowing soundtrack. Then, I go about clearing asphalt. I take my time. I do good work, I think. Sometimes, I light a cheap cigar. And, because it isn’t really my job, my time and wages are irrelevant. This can’t even be described as a “side hustle.”

I’m just, somehow, a guy who owns a plow, moving snow around before he goes back inside to stare at the computer and wait for words to come.