Ben and the blue heron – a story about jail, redemption, and a heron

“There’s this one thing a friend of the Dalai Lama said after being tortured and imprisoned: to solve his imprisonment, he had compassion for his torturers, not anger, but compassion. Replace anger with compassion and you get a happier person,” Ben

By Nancy Lea Speer


It is said that if a Great Blue Heron wades across your path you will be wise to look deep into what brings forth your wisdom. Heron shows you how to become self-reliant – how to become comfortable in uncertain situations…


On January 25, 2015, it was three years to the day since Ben was freed from over eleven months in solitary confinement at Santa Barbara County Jail. For an unknown period of time, Ben was confined in a Safety Cell the most dreaded assignment an inmate can receive. Inmates don’t call it the Safety Cell – they call it The Hole. In Ben’s case it was punishment for repeated attempts to kill himself.

Many of you reading this story participated in what it took to free Ben that day. I’m so happy to share this update; it’s long overdue! Mother’s intuition, my friend Mary Lynn, and one of the jail’s sergeants saved Ben’s life. The day the Sergeant escorted Mary into the jail to see Ben we knew we had to get him out of there and FAST!

After a year of intensive physical, emotional and spiritual recovery, for the last two years Ben has been employed, initially part-time and eventually full-time. He works for a non-profit funded to employ disabled citizens. Within the first few months of his job, Ben became a supervisor and, in mid-2014, Ben was awarded Employee of the Year for his heartfelt leadership of his team. I would not be as proud had Ben graduated from Harvard! Every one of those thirty-or-so individuals under his supervision is disabled and has their own unique set of challenges. Ben knows each of their strengths and limitations and is there to help them out when they need it. They work together to keep the Santa Barbara wharf clean.

This job has also graced Ben with a new friend. Early on in Ben’s employment a Great Blue Heron crosses Ben’s path. Each day this splendid creature awaits Ben’s arrival at one of the trash cans on the dock.



Leading up to Ben’s release from the jail, in very early January, 2012, a press conference was organized and many spoke on Ben’s behalf. As his mother, I was one of those speakers. At the time of the press conference, Ben is in dire straits. NOT even known to us at that time, Ben has lost somewhere near eighty pounds. His body is covered with gaping wounds. He has a staph infection. He has also attempted suicide numerous times, refuses food and water, has tied a tee shirt over his eyes, refuses visitors and will not talk.

That day I’m as anxious as I have ever been in my life. I feel like I’m physically falling apart. My body is trembling non-stop and I end up putting my right arm in a sling. I need to keep it still – my shoulder keeps clicking like it’s going to dislocate. It does this every other year, sometimes more often, sometimes less – only when I’m under intense stress. I also have diarrhea and nausea, am sweating something horrible, and my heart is beating so fast I fear I’m going to pass out. Yes, this is the worst anxiety of my life: the day of the Press Conference – the day we have to convince the County of Santa Barbara to get Ben the medical treatment he needs or he’s going to die in the jail.

The night before, sleep evades me. I don’t sleep much anyway, but no sleep at all is hard. Then, in the morning, real early in the morning, something powerful happens. I get an email that saves the day. For me the press conference is a call for redemption… A dear friend tells me the reason so many people are rallying around Ben is because all of Humanity detests injustice, especially social injustice. She also says, “Nancy, Ben is the canary in the coal mine who nearly dies before anyone notices the air in the mine is poison…” Then she equates what is going on to “… a circling of the wagons that’s affecting all of us in different ways and many of us the same.”

Here is an excerpt from my speech:

“Ben could be your son… I believe in the Golden Rule. It has become my creed: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you… I have made big mistakes in my life. It’s not for me to judge those who have so-injured my son. That is the terrain of their consciousness and their hearts.

“Another creed I live by is, there is no truly negative act or event, there are only lessons to be learned… As things stand now, everyone here is probably in agreement that mental disorders and the criminal justice system can present a deadly combination. This aspect of our broken systems has all but taken Ben’s young life.

“It’s unfair to ALL of us to continue to allow our mentally ill to be warehoused in our jails where the reasons for their odd and/or difficult behaviors go untreated and worsen. People who are sick need health care facilities where they can receive the medical attention and the care-centered counseling they need.

“YOU ARE ALL HERE BECAUSE ON SOME LEVEL YOU CARE. You care about my son and, if you can, you want to help him heal. You also care about healing what is broken in what now seems to be our system of injustice.

“We all know this does not have to be so.

“… If we join hands and work together, if we allow our hearts to speak, we WILL find ways to redeem what has been lost and move forward together to re-create systems of true judicial, healthful and compassionate correctional justice.

“I prayed as this day approached to be given guidance, to be given the words I needed to touch your hearts. This morning I woke to discover an email from the mom of Ben’s first love, Amelia. She had gone through old letters from Ben and found one to send me. As I read her note and some of what it contains to you I am actually able to share Ben’s voice, his own words that come straight from his heart:

Amelia writes:

“‘Please pass this on to Ben’s mom. I found a journal Ben sent me and some letters he included. This part of a letter he wrote when I was bored and feeling some despair really spoke to me. My hope for Ben is that he is able to get back to this mentality… ‘

Ben writes in 2007… ‘Oh, and to remedy your boredom, might I suggest reading? I think The Art of Compassion by the Dalai Lama is awesome. It teaches us to accept others – others who are mean, might I add. Gotta have compassion for people or you’ll never get by. There’s this one thing a friend of the Dalai Lama said after being tortured and imprisoned: to solve his imprisonment, he had compassion for his torturers, not anger, but compassion. Replace anger with compassion and you get a happier person.’

“Good sometimes eludes us but if we dig deep enough we usually find it. Ben is one of the good guys. Thank you for coming today. Your concern is much-appreciated and more powerful than any one of us probably knows…”


A few months ago Ben’s boss accompanies Ben on his rounds. As they approach the trash can where Heron waits for Ben, his boss is alarmed by the bird and its size (four and a half to five feet in height) – not to mention the seeming-savvy of the bird. Ben is accustomed to his friend’s presence and is surprised when his boss says, “What’s with the heron? Why doesn’t it move?”

Ben abruptly stops, looks at his friend and suggests in silence, fly over to that post until my boss leaves, okay? Then Ben nods toward the post, the bird cocks its head, lumbers up into the air and plops atop the designated post.

"Hummingbird and Heron" by Maile, Ben's cousin
“Hummingbird and Heron” by Maile, Ben’s cousin

When Ben’s boss departs, Heron immediately returns to his post by the trash can where the two of them share their morning ritual before Ben moves on with his day.

Heron has definitely helped Ben in his efforts to become self-reliant and more comfortable in uncertain situations. He has also been a true friend to Ben. My son, Ben, is so much more than a survivor. These days he’s my hero.


This story is taken from a chapter of a book Nancy Lea Speer is about to release. She hopes its title will be: The Va-J-J-House or maybe, Let it Shine…. To protect those involved, many names in the book have been changed and Nancy has authored the book under a pseudonym. The book chronicles much more than her hero Ben’s life and challenges. It’s also about tales of her own life and the life and challenges her niece has surmounted as a single mom with her four phenomenal children. It’s a book about relationships, transformation and forgiveness, only as tragic as it’s hilarious.

Another of Nancy’s stories, There’s got to be a Better Way, can be read on the Santa Barbara Independent website at:

2 replies on “Ben and the blue heron – a story about jail, redemption, and a heron”
  1. Nancy, Hi this is SB Mike. I am inspired by Ben and deeply touched by your kind story. Congratulations to him for the promotion and his character development. He has dealt with a large slice of life and those harrowing roads he once traveled. Love the avenues of healthy pursuit.
    BTW: My 20 year son Eric has learned some major perspectives recently and I hope he can get a butterfly to fly up to him.

    Fly on, Nancy!

  2. Message What a gorgeous read this was! The pictures of the heron really
    helped capture the beautiful metaphor that it is. This is such a human story, a bit of all of us in here. What a heroic team you both are. And we are all heroes when we journey as the Blue Heron symbolizes, trust the uncertainty.

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