Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Cherished Memories

I cherish this -- my childhood memories of Christmas at Grandma's. Every December 24th, my parents, two younger brothers, and I would travel the two hundred or so miles in the sometimes bitter cold to Grandma and Grandpa's to celebrate Christmas with my mom's side of the family. We would always get there in the evening in anticipation of sharing (well, mostly getting) gifts and spending time with cousins seldom seen throughout the year.

Once everyone was settled in, we would begin with a home-cooked feast of turkey, ham, and all the side dishes. Glasses of egg nog and slices of pecan pie would fill any spot in our tummies left by the main course. Afterward, we would gather in the living room, each grabbing a chair, couch, or spot on the floor. I liked the antique couch with the red fabric that had the distinct homely scent that I would always associate with Grandma. It was a pleasant scent (not an old person smell that might bring a grimace). Beside the couch was the old coffee table that doubled as a record player. You could lift the top and see the record player and the compartment that was used to hide the toys. Inside were Star Wars figures and a set of kids' boxing gloves. Smiles and gifts were exchanged in a flurry of ribbon and wrapping paper flying through the air. The anticipation of which He-Man figure or Lego set was more than I could bear. No matter what I got, I was never disappointed.

Afterward, with the clock approaching midnight, we would all say our goodbyes and talk in anticipation of the family reunion in the summer. We would load up our blue Dodge Caravan and settle in for the two-hour journey home. Upon arrival, we would all face the dread of the cold house and try to endure it while the solitary heater warmed up the house. It didn't take too awfully long for the freezing bed to transform into a place of comfort where I could snuggle and hope for sleep in anticipation of Christmas morning. The faster I went to sleep, the quicker I would wake the next day and find out what Santa left underneath the decorated Christmas tree. But that is a take for another time.

I cherish these memories because they are all that's left. Grandpa has since passed away from a stomach aneurysm. He died peacefully in his sleep. The cousins are grown with kids of their own and have instituted their own traditions creating their own memories. Mom and Dad watch their nieces and nephews with hidden sadness because they have no grandchildren of their own. I cherish the memories of Christmas Eve at grandma's so that I don't forget the life that was before.

by Joshua

Monday, December 15, 2014

Becoming a Man

I arrived on Death Row at night, November 14, 1997. I wasn’t worried about my survival, nor was I afraid, though I didn’t know what type of environment I was entering. One of my cousins who’d been locked up since the late 1970’s schooled his nephew and me on Sunday visits. He told us that because of the way we were getting down in the streets, sooner or later one or both of us were bound to come to prison. We were advised that as soon as someone tried to come at us in prison we should make a very convincing example out of them.

So while I was being transported to the prison for my very first bid, that’s what I had on my mind. I reasoned that I was going to be surrounded by nothing but convicted murderers with death sentences, so I set my mind that as soon as anyone disrespected me they were going to be punished severely, according to the level of the offense. I refused to be handled in any way. I was determined to return home to my mother in the same form that I left her.

The Row was locked down for lights out when I arrived. I was assigned to a bunk of 1-F Block – Westside. The first two men that I met were Lil’ Chris and Bro. Frank. I developed an immediate relation with these two men because of our commonality to Charlotte. Because Lil’ Chris was from Gaston County, he was basically my homeboy. Bro. Frank told me that he used to live there, too. They embraced me like a young brother though I really didn’t trust them just yet. But my instincts didn’t detect any reason to fear them.

The third man I met with Keith. He introduced himself to me from behind his cell door by dropping his food trap and informing me that he had the canteen if I needed anything. I quickly developed dislike and distrust of him because he was trying to hustle me while I hadn’t been on the Row for an hour, much less on that block for less than fifteen minutes. I was from the streets, so I recognized game when I saw it — most of the time, anyway.

I made mention that I had to perform Salah (prayer). Lil’ Chris asked me if I was a Muslim. I told him yes. He asked me what kind, and I told him that I was a Shiite Muslim. He pointed to a brother lying on the top bunk behind mine, saying that he was a Shiite Muslim, too. This was the fourth man I met on the Row. He held up his head a little and his right index finger in greeting and said, “Assalamo Alaykum.” (“May peace be upon you.”) I heartily returned his greeting with, “Wa alaykumus-Salam.” (“And may peace be upon you.”) This brothers’ name was Bro. Dawood, may Allah have mercy upon him.

Lil’ Chris also told me that in cell 16 there was another Shia brother named Fareed; I’d have to wait until the morning to meet him. (He became my best friend that morning by the Grace of Allah. I was directed that I could perform my Salah in the block bathroom, so I proceeded that way.)

This was my first night on Death Row. I’d been cheated of my freedom with lies and sentenced to die. But on my mind, despite my anger, was to worship my Lord. No matter what, I must worship Allah and turn to Him alone. I didn’t care much about everything else. I already knew that this was all a test, a trial from Allah.

What! Do people imagine that they will be left off on their saying: ‘We believe!’ and they will not be tried? And indeed we did try those before them, so Allah certainly knoweth those who are true, and certainly knoweth He the liars. - Holy Quran Surah 29 v. 2-3

I had complete faith in Allah. I just had to use this time to perfect myself for His Cause. I wanted to get out of prison so that I could do the good which I’d left undone, but I’d learned something about myself: I can’t change anyone nor anything until I first change myself. So I gave myself to self-reformation.

I learned to practice something very valuable from my Brother Fareed: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything; but if you stand for just anything, you’ll fall for nothing.”

I wasn’t on The Row for three days when I was engaged in a conflict with a Christian brother in the hallway outside of the kitchen. I had arrived here during a time when there were Christian-Muslim tensions, so I fell right into it. I got 10 days on lock-up for fighting. After all was said and done, we eventually reconciled. We realized that surviving prison was our common goal so there’s no need to bite at each other’s throats. We would rather be part of the solution than continue to contribute to our shared suffering.

In the summer of 1998, our chance to stand united presented itself. Once again, the locale was the kitchen. This day they served fried chicken, and when fried chicken is on the menu almost everyone goes to chow. When there’s a kitchen full of inmates wearing the same color clothes and similar shoes, things are bound to get blurred for the meager staff. They can’t see it all. So a chicken tray was boosted — someone doubled back and got another tray. Since the tray lines’ garage-like door was down to about six inches, the staff behind the line could only see pant-legs and shoes. This caused confusion.

I was fifth to last in the line. Behind me were four Christian brothers. After I’d received my tray and moved ahead, the guy behind me, Lee, moved to get his tray. He was immediately accused of coming through the line again. This was a total mistake, because he’d been behind me the entire time. He argued his case with the kitchen staff and an inmate that was serving. Most of us stood bearing witness to what had happened and waited to see how this situation would resolve itself. The kitchen staff became angry, decided to shut the line down, effectively denying Lee and the other three men behind him their food trays.

Lee stood up for himself. As they were shutting down the garage-like blind on the serving line, Lee reached through, grabbing the chicken pan. What ensued was a tug of war, Lee versus the kitchen staff and the server inmate. This short, stocky weightlifter held his own with just on arm! The commotion invited the Sarge and lieutenant from the hall outside the kitchen to come in and sort this out. We’d found our opportunity to stand together.

Since I was a direct witness to this man’s innocence, there was no way that I could stand by without saying or doing something. The other men were being denied their right to eat, too. It did not matter that Lee and the other three men were Christians and I’m Muslim. It was a simple matter of right opposed to wrong. Many of the Muslims and some of the Christians in the kitchen came to these men’s aid. This in turn led to my first time on Unit One (Segregation) for inciting a riot with Bro. Fareed and Bro. Jibreel. They let Lee off after a few days of lock-up, but the three of us had to do at least 18 months.

O ye who believe! Be always upright for Allah, bearing witness with justice, and let not hatred of a people incited you not to act equitably, Act ye equitably that is nearer to piety, Fear ye Allah; Verily Allah is fully aware of what ye do. – Holy Quran Surah 5 v. 8

My direct appeal was denied in 2001. That dashed my expectations of going home in the two years, at least. Disappointment washed over me. But as quickly as it arrived, it disappeared. It was not my time. I wasn’t ready. I still had things to work on within myself and much more to learn.

In the time that I’d been on The Row my paternal grandfather died, my only brother was murdered, and my favorite aunt died from complications of AIDS. It seemed as if I was losing more than my freedom. My family was beginning to fall to the grave, and I couldn’t be there to help the survivors.

Naturally, anger and resentment entered my heart and mind against everyone who caused or aided in my incarceration. Still I didn’t curse Allah. I continued to worship and strive to better myself. I submitted to the facts that Allah has control over everything and that my grandfather, brother and aunt didn’t belong to me, they belong to Him.

I spent my second time on Unit One (Segregation) from 2001-2004 because another prisoner violated me by laying around with his private parts exposed. After I had a civil conversation with him about covering himself and respecting other people, the third time it happened I referred back to the advice of my cousin who told me what to do when someone disrespects me – I punished him.

For the second time, I was blessed with the opportunity to spend some time with one of my best friends and Brothers, my Brother Alim. We came to The Row round about the same time, but we didn’t get to know each other until my first go around on Unit One. Although under unfortunate circumstances, this turned out to be a blessing to be able to learn some more knowledge and wisdom from him.

The first lesson that I learned from him is from the Holy Quran, that we should compete with one another in goodness and righteousness. This was a serious contest that not only brought us both closer to Allah, but closer to each other. The second great lesson that I gleaned from Brother Alim is the art of organization. If I wanted to help my people as I desired, I had to harness the ability to think through every pro and con of a situation in order to get the best result. The third lesson that I learned from him is to be very careful about my friends and associates. I had to swallow the hard pill that some of those whom I’d held close to me from the free world and the prison were not my compatriots. We didn’t share the same views and values, not did we have the same passion for reformation. If I sincerely had aspirations for success, many of my past and present friends had to go.

And say thou: “O my Lord! Increase me in knowledge.” – Holy Quran Surah 22 v. 114

Is he who was dead, then We raised him to life and made for him a light by which he walketh among the people, like unto him whose similitude is that of one in utter darkness whence he cannot come forth? Thus hath been made fair seeming for the disbelievers what they did. – Holy Quran Surah 6 v. 122

Disappointment reared its head again when my MAR (Motion for Appropriate Relief) was denied in State Superior Court in 2008. I just knew that I was going to get a new trial that would have led to my release from prison.

During this time, I met Bro. Mumin, who wasn’t a Muslim yet when I got off segregation, but shortly afterward came home to Islam. My brother Fareed told me that I needed to save him from being miseducated in Islam, so this is how I began to be close to him. We were an odd pair because of our different races, but we discovered that we had a lot of common interests. Islam brought us closer.

This Brother has a very analytical mind which he employs to assist him in study. This is what I learned from him — how to be analytical. Although I am a little older than he, we became compliments of each other. Sometimes, when there are two people that are very much alike, they are bound to be butt heads. And this occurred from time to time. Though we would get frustrated with one another for whatever the reason, always Islamic, we’d immediately amend and continue on without skipping a beat. So from this man I really developed a virtue that is essential to success in this life as well as the next - that is, patience, especially with my beloved Brothers. Sometimes we won’t agree on everything, but as long as we agree on the main things – the Fundamentals of Islam – then we’ll always be united.

This period was the longest that I’d spent on Death Row general population. I’d served most of my time up until then on segregation. During this period, I had to live around the other men more, so I had to deal with the multiple personalities, unbalanced emotions, and moderate-to-severe mental health issues. Already angry about my situation, having to learn to live with these different men, some of whom I really didn’t like, was difficult at first. But gradually I learned to use my wisdom and this new gift of patience in order to navigate the conflicts that arose. This practice elevated me to another pinnacle in my life. I began to find my inner peace and also learned to forgive and overlook the faults and shortcomings of other men. Allah humbled me, for the most part.

This experience was a blissful adventure. I am a very proud man. I can be very arrogant at times, looking down upon those whom I consider beneath me. Being proud in the sense that I won’t allow someone to mistreat me or trample upon my rights is never a negative. So I learned to nurture this quality. But as for my arrogance — my feelings of contempt for those whom I consider lesser than me — that had to go. I had to crucify this negative characteristic, especially after I realized that this type of pride and arrogance is characteristic of Satan. It was this type of pride that caused Satan to disobey Allah’s Command and to become a disbeliever after he’d worshipped Allah for 6000 years in the company of the angels.

And indeed We did create you, then We did fashion you, then said We unto the angels, ‘Prostrate yourselves unto Adam,’ so they all did prostrate themselves except Iblees, he was not of the prostrating ones. Said He (Allah): ‘What preventeth thee that thou didst not prostrate when I did command thee?’ Said he (Satan), ‘I am better than him, me hast thou created of fire while thou didst create him (Adam) of clay.’ Said He (Allah): ‘Get thee down hence for it doeth not befit thee to behave proudly therein. Get thee out, verily thou art of the despised ones.’ – Holy Quran Surah 7 v. 11-13

Allah had already told me that Satan is my avowed enemy, so why would I want to exemplify my enemy, Satan? He stated that he was better than Adam (May Peace Be Upon Him), Adam is me and I am Adam – Man. So I would be Satan to believe that I am better than my fellow man, except where piety or God-fearing is concerned. I had to eliminate this pride from myself, and I have graciously embraced this continuous struggle. Now I’m feeling better about myself, free even.

I may never get my freedom. This prison may be my lot. But I have to keep living life, no matter the circumstances. I could have lost or abandoned faith, throwing away my Quran, prayer rug and kufi. I could have said I’m done with this way of life called Islam. I didn’t though, and I’m not. I have been blessed to persevere, even though things may not go my way. Perhaps Allah has something better for me that I don’t or can’t see, or He is protecting me from something that is harmful to me. Nevertheless, I still have to live my life in Islam (Submission to the Will of Allah). Everything else is vain.

Now I’m finally becoming a real man. I now know that my ultimate objective in this life is to live and die as a righteous man, whenever and wherever that may be.

by Elrico Fowler

Monday, December 8, 2014

Mercy on my Soul

It took the jury a little over four hours to determine my fate.

I sat in silence at the defendant’s hardwood table while twelve strangers filed into the courtroom to take their seats as my designated peers. I searched their faces for some clue of what they had decided, but their expressions were stoic.

Sitting with his fingers comfortably entwined on his desk, his brow creased with austerity, the judge issued his command in a voice seasoned with authority.

“Will the foreman please rise?”

Juror #8 stood with a sense of duty, summoned by an acknowledged superior. He was an older white man, perhaps in his early 60’s. Tall, with a casual polish, wearing a light-colored polo and tan slacks. He had the appearance of a man who might spend his spare time playing golf — a man I envisioned brushing shoulders with the social elite. Certainly no peer of mine, though an obvious choice for foreman. His presence seemed to demand deference.

He reminded me, in an odd sort of way, of Leslie Neilson, the bumbling and totally clueless detective who personified the satirical image of civic duty in the comedy classic, Naked Gun. I smirked within myself at the irony of what this charade evoked: a mocking comedy of justice where even the actors resemble the characters of a spoof.

“Has the jury reached a decision?” the judge asked the foreman.

“Yes, Your Honor, we have,” Leslie Neilson responded.

“Will the bailiff please convey the sealed decision to the clerk?”

The bailiff walked gracefully over to the foreman, received the decision and handed it to the clerk. My eyes were transfixed upon this scene as the clerk, remaining seated, accepted it with her right hand and passed it along to the judge with her left.

His Honor was a plump man of about fifty years, with rosy cheeks and a head absent of hair on the top. He carefully and deliberately opened the sealed decision and looked at its recommendation. Glancing at me with the same look of severity and condescension he had worn throughout my trial, he pushed the bridge of his reading glasses up the slope of his nose and returned his gaze to the decision before him. Lifting his pen, he began to write as the entire courtroom, including its audience of seven spectators, waited in anticipation for the outcome.

I glanced at the spectators. In the last row of the courtroom sat the Warden of Caledonia Prison Farm. He wore a smug look on his youthful, chubby face. He had the look of a white man who knew how to wield power. He could’ve easily passed for a plantation owner or a Southern politician with his good ole boy demeanor and sly and mischievous eyes.

Next to him sat his deputy, a taller, slimmer black man with a bit of a stoop in his posture. He had a bland, sullen face that looked to be worn down by years of servitude and posturing. His eyes carried heavy bags that spilled down onto his cheeks - eyes that hinted that they were filled with secrets that his sad and downward-turned lips would never utter.

Right behind me, in the second row, sat my mother and my sister, the only people in the world who cared enough about me to show up on this day when strangers would determine my fate. My mother, with her dignified head of gray hair and blue eyes that smiled while concealing a lifetime of pain, held tight to the hand of my sister.

Keisha and I had the same face. I could look into her eyes and see myself reflected in the best light. She was the only person in the world who saw me as a role model - someone she looked up to and took pride in calling her brother. Despite the accusations, despite my misdeeds, I was forever her hero, her protector, her guide.

Behind the prosecutor sat the aggrieved family of the victim. A grandmother and a mother who had both lost a man they called “Son.” The grandmother was graceful. Her light brown face still contained a youthful glow as she sat with dignity despite her grief. Her eyes, visible behind the large-framed glasses that covered almost a third of her face, had a quiet kindness to them. Her face showed mercy, compassion, and empathy for her daughter’s pain.

Her daughter, though an obvious younger version of the grandmother, had none of the kindness or mercy in her eyes. Instead, her eyes were like daggers of hatred that I could not bear to meet, lest they pierce my soul and further torment the guilt-ridden heart of my conscience.

Two rows behind them sat a reporter, who I was able to identify by his scribbling pen and miniature notepad. From his perspective across the room, he wrote the official story.

As I focused my attention on the judge, I felt my heart rising slowly up the insides of my chest. It reached the top of my throat and lodged itself there, holding me breathless as the judge finished whatever he had been writing and handed the jury’s recommendation back to the clerk.

Composing himself, he sat up erectly from the perch of his throne and with both arms fanned out the sides of his robe. He pulled it tightly around his shoulders as if it were the cape of some superhero who was about to impose justice on the evil villain.

“The jury, having found the defendant, Michael Jerome Braxton, guilty of murder in the first degree, sentences him to death,” the judge began.

His words continued on, but my heart sank from my throat down to the pit of my stomach as everything except my thoughts receded into the shadows around me. Words and sounds became nothing but background chatter in a movie that I now seemed to be watching from outside of myself.

I looked around at this drama unfolding and felt my soul hovering above me as if it were fleeing to seek refuge from the tsunami of emotion waiting to burst forth inside of me.

Amidst the chatter I heard a request for each member of the jury to stand individually and affirm their verdict. I watched in a clouded daze as the figures of men and women see-sawed up and down in succession to acknowledge their fateful decision.

Then, suddenly, there was a pause.

A black woman, perhaps in her thirties with a brown complexion and medium build, appeared overwhelmed by the burden of the occasion. She choked back heavy sobs and continued to sit after her name was called. Every eye in the courtroom was now on her.

I looked at her face and could see the difficulty etched in her features due to the battle waging inside of her. My heart raised barely a micron from its pit with a glimpse of hope. The juror sitting to her right, another black woman of similar age, gave her a tender stroke on the back, consoling her and perhaps empathizing with the difficulty of the task. Then the woman looked at me and a body-racking lament erupted from her throat. Gripping the arm of the chair, she struggled to pull herself to her feet and utter a weak “yes” before falling back to her seat and sobbing.

I almost wanted to console her myself, seeing the pain she had to endure to stand behind a decision that she ultimately believed right. It touched my heart that even though this woman had sentenced me to death, she recognized my humanity. It caused her great pain to participate in my execution.

For a moment I was lost in my thoughts, still numb to the reality of what was actually happening to me. Separated from the part of me that had feeling, everything became white noise again.

I could hear the drone of the caped crusader’s rote-voice from a distance in my mind. Words and phrases were being uttered about being handed over to the custody of the warden of Central Prison to be held until my death was carried out. I heard a date of February 8, 1998 being announced for execution. But in some weird way, none of this was happening to me. I was just another spectator observing the proceedings along with everyone else.

Until suddenly, I heard my name being called.

“Michael Jerome Braxton!” The sound roared like it was being shouted down from the expanse of heaven. It was like a jolt, and my soul collided violently with my body. Once again I was sitting at the defendant’s table.

I looked up to see the eyes of the judge peering down at me over the rim of his glasses. His gavel, like a mighty weapon held firmly in his right hand, seemed ready to smite the wicked. On his face was a look of frightening condemnation as he spoke the words that sent tremors through my bones and made my soul faint — words indicating that my judgment was no longer a concern of this world, for now I was to face the judgment of the Divine.

With a thundering boom of his gavel, his voice reverberated with a tone of finality: “MAY GOD HAVE MERCY ON YOUR SOUL!”

I looked back at my family. My sister’s face was a mask of torment. Never in my life had I seen a face so anguished and distraught. She wept until her cries became a wailing hiccup and her body convulsed in her seat.

My mother reached out to me, her hand pleading for one last touch of the son she had birthed into this world. But as the guards surrounded me, her beautiful eyes became puddles of the saddest pain. She mouthed the words “I love you” as they took me away.

by Michael Braxton

Friday, December 5, 2014

"You are men, and I am your God."

Then the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy and say to those shepherds, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock. Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them. They were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and they became food for every beast of the field and were scattered. My flock wandered through all the mountains and on every high hill; My flock was scattered over all the surface of the earth, and there was no one to search or seek for them.”’”

Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: “As I live,” declares the Lord God, “surely because My flock has become a prey, My flock has even become food for all the beasts of the field for lack of a shepherd, and My shepherds did not search for My flock, but rather the shepherds fed themselves and did not feed My flock; therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: ‘Thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will demand My sheep from them and make them cease from feeding sheep. So the shepherds will not feed themselves anymore, but I will deliver My flock from their mouth, so that they will not be food for them.”’”

For thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them to their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams, and in all the inhabited places of the land. I will feed them in a good pasture, and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. There they will lie down on good grazing ground and feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest,” declares the Lord God. “I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick; but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with judgment.

“As for you, My flock, thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I will judge between one sheep and another, between the rams and the male goats. Is it too slight a thing for you that you should feed in the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pastures? Or that you should drink of the clear waters, that you must foul the rest with your feet? As for My flock, they must eat what you tread down with your feet and drink what you foul with your feet!’”

Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them, “Behold, I, even I, will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with side and with shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns until you have scattered them abroad, therefore, I will deliver My flock, and they will no longer be a prey; and I will judge between one sheep and another.

"Then I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David, and he will feed them; he will feed them himself and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and My servant David will be prince among them; I the Lord have spoken.

“I will make a covenant of peace with them and eliminate harmful beasts from the land so that they may live securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods. I will make them and the places around My hill a blessing. And I will cause showers to come down in their season; they will be showers of blessing. Also the tree of the field will yield its fruit and the earth will yield its increase, and they will be secure on their land. Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I have broken the bars of their yoke and have delivered them from the hand of those who enslaved them. They will no longer be a prey to the nations, and the beasts of the earth will not devour them; but they will live securely, and no one will make them afraid. I will establish for them a renowned planting place, and they will not again be victims of famine in the land, and they will not endure the insults of the nations anymore. Then they will know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are My people,” declares the Lord God. “As for you, My sheep, the sheep of My pasture, you are men, and I am your God,” declares the Lord God.

Ezekiel 34

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

My Experience of Solitary Confinement

Recently the PBS program "Frontline" aired an updated documentary about the overuse of solitary confinement in the United States prison system. You can watch the documentary here.

Having recently spent about two weeks locked in exactly the same kind of cage, and pondering a system in which even a moderate dissenting voice arguing for reconciliation instead of exile and slavery is not tolerated by a fearful, totalitarian regime, I watched the program with the definite sense that we as prisoners today are engaged in a struggle for our very humanity.

I did nothing violent or threatening to anyone, certainly nothing to justify being treated as dangerous. My infraction, rather, was perceived as a threat to the system itself, and so I was held in solitary confinement for almost two weeks and then banished to another penitentiary, away from the community I wrote about in a previous post.

In my two weeks in solitary confinement, I learned that a stripped-down, burned-out concrete box with a steel door and a toilet without toilet paper are all that are required to bring me to the point of kicking the door and screaming to get attention in desperate frustration. This type of outburst is a behavior I had witnessed before from the other side of the door as a minimum security inmate. I was comforted by the thought that I could never be brought that low. The brute fact is that had I not acted out this way, the man in the cell next to me and I would have remained soiled with our own feces. I had to throw a fit to receive toilet paper. Aside from shoving food through the double-locking pie flaps that eliminate human contact, the guards ignored our cells, as if they were empty. And I might have used my hand or shirt and held on to my dignity out of sheer stubbornness, but the man in the cell next to me was my best friend of 14 years, and I knew he would not act out that way. It was my fault he was there, and I could not bear the thought of him being reduced to having no toilet paper.

I tried every manner of normal, polite behavior, confident that the officers would respond in kind to someone making the effort to remain civilized in the midst of that hammering cacophony. But what I learned instead was that polite, normal requests almost never receive a response. Only those willing to act out in the most vile, inhuman, animalistic ways could even get the slightest attention from the staff for the things they needed or wanted.

Confined in that kennel, listening to the supernaturally loud noise of all the other animals competing for what they could only receive from the officer milling around and ignoring them outside in the dayroom, the bare facts of the situation reduced my humanity to a simple choice: kick and scream like an animal, or do without the necessities of civilized life. Either way felt like a a most bitter defeat.

I struggled over such choices the entire time I sat in that hole. Every moment I imagined all the people who know and love me - my family, friends, the good people that attend church services with me, both free and inmate, my spiritual mentors, my professors and allies in the community - and what they would think or feel if they could see me in this situation, squatting like an animal, held captive by my own body's functions in a concrete box that still bore marks on the walls where a previous inhabitant literally tried to destroy his confines with anything at hand. He went so far as to tear the metal out of the walls, set the place on fire, and covered the walls and ceiling with feces.

The literal function of these cages is to ignore and degrade the humanity of those placed within them. The authorities who claim solitary confinement is necessary, authorities that are even now preparing to christen the first "supermax" unit in Tennessee at Riverbend, these authorities contend that the cages are required for prisoners who display a lack of humanity, who are a danger to others and to the system itself. I, however, found that the use of the cage very quickly and effectively functioned to diminish my humanity.


The threat of this power now looms over me even as I write these words. I began writing for this blog with certain goals in mind, as set forth in the original post "Who We Are and What We Want." I affirm now my absolute dedication to the ideals expressed there. Recently my entire world has suffered apocalypse, but I will not return in anger. I know that some people celebrated a job well done when they destroyed my life and gutted a whole community, a community which is still under senseless attack. Some people have lived in the one-sided cartoon world of cops and robbers for a long time now. But I remain dedicated to the principles of reconciliation and live with hope for a better day precisely because, other than the humanity which they may one day take by force, hope and the bonds of love which cannot be broken by a tragically ignorant system defending itself are all I have left.

by Moses

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The History of Racism Behind Ferguson

Here is an article by a former prosecutor explaining how Ferguson is not so much about the conflict between Officer Wilson and Mike Brown, as it is about deep-seeded racism that has plagued our hearts and our institutions of "justice" throughout the entirety of American history.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Keeping Up Appearances

I stood at attention outside my cell door this morning at 9:15 for inspection. The pod was nearly full of inmates with nowhere else to go. Fe men have jobs or are enrolled in classes anymore, especially in this unit where administration is quietly and unofficially concentrating gang members and those with class A and B write-ups. The unemployment rate is around 85%, so almost 100 men stood outside their cells on the lower and upper tiers as the unit manager and the CCO entered the pod and began the ceremony by addressing the men.

"Good morning," the unit manager said. Nobody answered.

"Good morning!" he repeated, and somebody said something unintelligible off to my right, which sufficed to let us move on. Unit manager B____ is a levelheaded veteran of the Department. He has the correct mixture of firmness combined with enough confidence to let things go that don't matter, which is required to handle this type of unit effectively, a set of traits now too rare among staff. Anyone who stands too firmly on ceremony and cannot take a few jibes without getting ruffled in this high-pressure environment quickly and inevitable escalates tensions and loses control.

"We're okay. Not good, just okay," he says. "I haven't been over here in a couple of days."

These daily cell inspections have been intensified this week since the prison itself is being inspected by outside personnel, a yearly event that makes appearances even more critical to the staff. The appearance of order, cleanliness, and security will be presented this week at any cost. To ensure our cells appear especially uniform and correct is one of many visual priorities, the only kind of priorities that appear to matter.

We know and they know and they know that we know it's all a temporary show, and it's the same now as it is every year. The language they use is, "Y'all know we have to do this, so let's get some cooperation and try to make it as painless as possible." And with the inmates' cooperation, several hundred spit-shine jobs take place the week before the inspection. Then the inspectors show up, walk around, and check things off a list. Afterward everyone relaxes a few days, and then operations return to the daily cell inspections mandated by Haslam's campaign promise in 2010, to make it hard on us.

At the first opportunity I got when the staff wasn't looking, I ducked into my cell and removed some cleaning rags hanging beneath my sink - not allowed. The unit manager was being strict today. Otherwise I felt confident we would pass, so I stepped back outside after peeking first and stood at attention by the door again. I had been up since 7:00 a.m. and had spent half and hour cleaning and prepping the cell after m cellmate had gone to work. Daily routine. And as soon as the inspection was complete, I would reassemble our cell the way we actually lived. Daily routine.

While waiting for my turn to be inspected, I overheard with some interest a debate over how to get away with the whiskey-cooking operation in a cell. Simply burning incense wouldn't cover the smell of a batch prepping, one guy argued, sending the message flying across the pod while everyone remained standing at attention. Some cleaning fluids were sprayed and finally the offending door was closed in the hope it would be skipped. We all waited to see if it was passed by . . . and it was. Shalom.

I stood waiting a while. People were restless and bored and started to murmur. "Now if we're talking, we're not in compliance!" the unit manager said. "Nuh nuh nuh nuh-nuh, nuh nuh nuh nuh-nuh," some inmate mocked. The unit manager cocked his eye and continued to the next cell. It was quieter.

"Good morning," he said to me in front of my cell when he went in. "Good morning," I replied while I suppressed the basic human instinct to resist having one's only personal space casually violated, judged, and raked over, after just the promise of it happening in the future had been enough that morning to cause me to rearrange every single possession I own in a way not intuitive or convenient. Then I also suppressed the question which naturally arose in my mind as a man who has served sixteen years already and faces the need to live permanently somewhere on this earth, whether my basic human dignity will endure the Chinese water torture effect of such daily assaults for the rest of my long life, or whether I and everyone else will simply go mad long before then.

Two minutes later the unit manager emerged with a rolled piece of maroon upholstery fabric in his hand, about six inches wife and twenty-four long, which my cellmate uses to cover the cell window when he uses the toilet.

"See this?" He holds it out to me, and I nod." "Not good. It's not good to have colored pieces of cloth like this in your cell!"

At that moment, an elaborate response played out in my head, and I suppose I may be the worst kind of coward for writing about it now instead of just saying it out loud. This is how it went in my head:

"But Mr. B____, how can a piece of upholstery cloth be good or bad? Is God looking down upon us right now and declaring 'BAD!' The human race struggled for millennia to produce the technology to manufacture such embroidered cloth, but now there are a trillion shreds of such material in our landfills. Nobody cares. And you've been around longer than me, so you remember just as I do only fifteen years ago all over the state men in our prisons had bits of carpet on their floors, cushions on their toilets, bed clothing from Wal-Mart, and even wall hangings to warm the walls. Nobody cared. Why would they? They were still the poorest, most pathetic people you knew, barely scratching out an existence on the planet, merely trying to take some pride in their hovels. And the thought of holding up a bit of cloth and calling it 'bad' would have seemed ridiculous to men such as you and me. What has happened to us? Why this obsession with the way things look instead of the way they really are? Why not inspect the inmates themselves instead of their uniforms? How about that guy with the cuts all over his face? What happened to him while the inspectors weren't watching?"

Instead, I said nothing and looked at him and looked at the piece of cloth and nodded. I know it does not good to protest to the person who has a job to do. After all, he is also following orders. "Look, I hear what you're saying," he would say, "but you know I'm just doing my job. I've got people watching me and they expect me to get it done or they'll find somebody else who will. I got mouths to feed. So let's make this as painless as possible, okay?"

As painless as possible. But for whom?

In the movie Saving Private Ryan, there's a scene in which a German soldier kills one of the American heroes by driving a knife slowly into his chest. "Shhh," the German urges as the American's strength fades and the blade slowly sinks deeper. "Shhh. Shhh."

by Moses

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A New Paradigm

In prison I often look around myself and wonder why our citizens accept this state of affairs. Mass incarceration is a tricky puzzle and an expensive problem in our State. Like other states, we have packed men and women into prisons as quickly as we could afford to build them without much thought for what the prisoners would do inside these expensive containers. Gone are the days when every prisoner was expected to have a job or take a class. There aren't enough opportunities to go around. No doubt the Tennessee Department of Correction would portray it otherwise, but in the unit in which I live, unemployment hovers around 80%. Drug abuse, gambling, gang activity, and violence are the order of the day. Our governor and the TDOC commissioner would rather folks not know this, but to be fair, this situation has been building a long time. Having watched it evolve firsthand, I can actually sympathize with the challenge they face. The system is fast-approaching a breaking point similar to the crises faced elsewhere in our nation. This is particularly due to a shift in focus on incarceration.

The concept of rehabilitation is an outdated artifact left over from another era. I don't know why this fact hasn't further penetrated the popular consciousness. Experts and textbooks acknowledge that we no longer concern ourselves with what prisoners actually do in prison. The focus for some time has been simply to increase the capacity of beds in much the same way a burgeoning corporation may increase its market share. We have abandoned all attempts to help an inmate improve, despite the fact that the vast majority will be released back into our communities.

Rehabilitation as an operational goal of incarceration began with the first large prisons in Pennsylvania and New York. It is debatable whether prisons have ever rehabilitated, thus the constant appeals for reform from prisoners and advocates that have understood from the beginning that these institutions do more harm than good. In the name of rehabilitation, countless men and women have suffered unsafe forced labor and the psychological damage of solitary confinement.

As long as people believe prisons are helpful to prisoners and necessary to protect society, the place of prisons in our world is safe. However, as soon as we start researching, pulling back the veil, so to speak, or if we or a family member spend time locked up, a different picture emerges. We begin to see just how damaging prisons are not just to inmates, but to the soul of our entire society, and we cry out for reform.

The changes that have come to the American system of punishment have not altered the landscape in any meaningful way. We can see this by noting that the critiques offered against prisons in the early 1800's closely resemble the protests of modern reformers. As Foucault notes in Discipline and Punish, "It is time to look deeper than ever before into this puzzle and to demand more fundamental changes than have yet been seriously considered.

From the inside, it seems clear that the obscene number of people incarcerated for increasingly long sentences in Tennessee bears no relation to an increased threat of crime. Rather, our unprecedented prison population represents a conscious choice to crusade against people who suffer from complex but identifiable conditions that are inevitably associated with crime, such as poverty, lack of education, lack of opportunities for work that pays a living wage, and self-medication.

Politicians have misrepresented to us that crime could be legislated away without looking deeper into the root causes of crime. We have been content to treat symptoms without diagnosing the underlying disease. All the while, we shovel millions of dollars into the money pit that is the criminal justice system/prison-industrial complex. So many resources are wasted in vain pursuits. Is this really the only response to crime we can come up with? Are we so obsessed with the myth of individualism that we cannot be made to care for other members of our community? Are we content to throw people away as though they were nothing? Are you content to let people like me rot in a state-sponsored human garbage dump?

Every person I have ever met on the inside or outside has a story, a family, caregivers, lovers. What the legislators make view as human garbage is of infinite value to someone, somewhere. Yet the law will not see the positive or the potential for good within a lawbreaker. It can only treat that person according to his or her worst deed. The criminal justice system is a weapon forged against the elements of society that we do not understand because we have had neither the courage nor the love to look at them.

We fearfully cry, "But look what they've done! Look at their guilt! We must be protected from them!" We act as though every one of the 2.3 million people that are locked up in America made a well-reasoned, conscious choice to commit a crime. Without diminishing personal responsibility, we should also acknowledge that the vast majority of these people would not have willingly chosen a life centered around crime or violence, all things being equal. People who are strangled by poverty or addiction are not autonomous in the same way as middle-class, educated people are. Yet we have been content to transplant whole neighborhoods of poor, young, minority men into prisons. These young men were caught up in the cradle-to-prison pipeline, and their fathers and uncles and cousins are waiting to welcome them to their final destination.

What hope of rehabilitation is there for the young man who did not know his father, and due to a learning disability and a failing school system, never learned to read? What hope of rehabilitation is there when his childhood was one extended nightmare of violence, abuse, and neglect? What hope is there when his only chance at belonging to a family came from a street gang? Laws that are passed by upper-middle-class white people cannot account for these narratives.

In the end, prisoners and their families must come to understand that together, they can organize and form a political body to advance their interests, proclaim their narrative, and make their collective voice heard by a society that has for too long been at best apathetic and ignorant, and at worst sadistic and hateful. No longer can we afford to toss people away by the millions merely based on the legal concept of "guilt," while other members of society are in fact guilty of greater sins. Our response to guilt should not be more destructive than the original harm done. No longer can we settle for treating crime as a disease when it is in reality only a symptom of deeper social ills that we have left untreated for generations. Taxpayers must hold our governor, the TDOC commissioner, and our legislators to a higher standard and not let them get away with funneling millions of dollars to corporate interests while spewing cheap, "tough-on-crime" rhetoric.

We do not merely need reform. We need a new criminal justice paradigm. It is time to dream and act.

Monday, November 3, 2014

We Need to Talk About an Injustice

Bryan Stevenson needs less than 22 minutes to educate us about the problems in the American criminal justice system (racism, disproportionate treatment of the poor, sentencing children to die in prison, wrongful convictions, the death penalty) and to inspire us to care for one another, to respect our common humanity, to acknowledge that what affects the least of us affects us all, and to recover our identity by caring for the people on the margins of our society.

Click here to watch the video. Then share it.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Pope Francis Weighs In On Criminal Justice Issues

Pope Francis has called fort the abolition of the death penalty, as well as life sentences, saying "[a] life sentence is a death sentence which is concealed." The Pope went on to say that it is "impossible to imagine" that states are incapable of developing more humane alternatives that respect human dignity. The Pope explained that sentences of death and life imprisonment are based on violence and revenge, which are irreconcilable to church teaching. He likened these harsh sentences to torture. He also expressed concern over pre-trial detention, pursuant to which people who are presumed innocent and possibly have not even been charged with a crime are nevertheless subject to penal conditions. The Pope added that we cannot simply punish our way out of all our problems.

To read the full article, click here.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Process

If we're actors in life's play, who's doing the casting?
Maybe it's a bad joke, but who's doing the laughing?
Me if you're asking. Ignorance is bliss and I'm lacking education
Now add poverty to my pot of sensory deprivation
Guess I'm in the Joy/Bad Luck Club, sans elation
The "process" is a process that ends in probation
Or parole hopefully if you're incarcerated, felonism awaiting us
'Free' world living segregated like a prison bus
The unjust and the righteous they look just like us
Made in His image, I guess he's vain just like us
Cancer and a conscience are expensive, so pay your tax
It'll cost you your life and a refund can't pay it back
Now, run and tell that to Congress or whoever will listen
Tell them we're disenfranchised and lack that pot to piss in
We need pot for recreation and recreation for fat kids
You know the process is impeded when rich white kids do bids
You could lose your lid just pondering the "What have-you's"
Manipulate the statistics until the numbers grab you
Or until some homeless guys stabs you
Then, you're like "Me, too! I'm the victim!"
Send a hobo through the wringer and I bet it'll
fix him

by Vox

Thursday, October 23, 2014


The spirit came upon me strong, so I speak about it
Even though I woke up weak about it
So, I meditate out of it by going inside 'self'
Who else is going to help? I'm hopeless, feeling crazy
So I'm screaming JESUS, SAVE ME!
But nobody's yelling back, so I got a pack
Now, I'm selling crack to pay my tithes
Looking for truth within the lies
Looking to the skies for answers, but the stars ain't speaking
My third eye is blinking, so my mind keeps seeking
Finding Nothing certain
While they tell me to pay no attention to the man behind
the curtain
Yeah, the system is workin' and God's great economy is hurtin'
As depletion intensifies our demise is lurkin'
Unless we collectively WAKE UP!
Open your eyes and SPEAK UP and SPEAK OUT!
Against conglomerates and corporations that sell us these
nightmarish dreams
Against entities that employ us unwittingly to participate
in their dastardly schemes
We've been turned into a team of TAKERS
Numerous generations of fakers
We don't know who WE be
Siri and the TV give WE our identity
So instead of me being me,
I googled "How Can I Get Free?"

by Vox

Monday, October 20, 2014

A Barrier to Progress

Following orders. That is what the wardens, captains, unit managers, corporals, and counselors are all doing. They are following the orders given to them by Tennessee Department of Correction Assistant Commissioner Tony Parker. Parker serves directly under Department Commissioner Derek Schofield. Schofield put Parker in charge of implementing oppressive strategies that impact inmates and staff alike. Together, the two men have attempted to completely overhaul the prison system in Tennessee and the ways it has functioned over the years. The problem underlying the Schofield/Parker approach is the unsupported assumption that the old way of doing things is wrong, and their new way is correct. Given this assumption, the duo has implemented counter-intuitive, ineffective policies at institutions across the state, which despite their futility, are becoming the norm. For example, Schofield and Parker have destabilized prisoners by severely restricting their privileges and movement, (movement meaning day-to-day venturing outside of housing units in order to participate in life-giving activities, classes, program, and ministries that orient inmates toward mental and emotional stability, connecting with outside society, and internal positive change). Their passion is to create an atmosphere of punishment of the bodies and souls of inmates.

In order for these oppressive strategies to succeed, Tony Parker has to have subordinates who will play their roles and unquestioningly obey his orders. When he was put in his position, he forced his arcane agenda upon susceptible subordinates and threatened their jobs and careers if they did not tow the line. Many TDOC employees from guards to wardens refused and either quit or retired.

Schofield and Parker created enforcers, which they termed the "Strike Force Unit." The unit was created to keep an eye on inmates and staff alike, and it ensures that Parker is perceived as more than merely the Assistant Commissioner. He wants to be viewed as a totalitarian. He and his minions have wielded influence long enough that they have become the role they play within the prison system. Inmates have always played a role. But under the Schofield/Parker regime, we are viewed by the administration and guards as sub-human, deserving harsh punishment no matter how much time we have done, no matter how long we have gone without a disciplinary write-up, no matter how many positive changes we have made in our lives, no matter how significant the transformation we have experienced.

Although TDOC once encouraged cooperation between prison staff and inmates, Parker now encourages a wide gulf between the two groups. The vast divide allows for much antagonism, unfairness, inequality, and discrimination to take place. Inmates are left feeling victimized by the staff, who personify the oppressive guidelines and procedures, and staff can either abide by the policies or risk their jobs by resisting.

Social psychologist Stanley Milgram developed an electric-shock experiment that mirrors the dynamic between role-playing prison officials and guards and the inmates. As in the experiment, prison staff who go along with Schofield/Parker policies are essentially prodding inmates, even when they have done nothing wrong. They occupy the role of punisher, and they unquestioningly administer the punishment because they have been told to do so, and they have come to believe that this is the right thing to do. They have buckled under the pressure that Parker has put on them, a pressure he no doubt believes is in the best interest of the people of Tennessee.

As a matter of fact, the only result is terrible damage to the psyche of all inmates. While TDOC tells the public that it is contributing to a decrease in recidivism, they are actually impeding inmates' attempts at rehabilitation. Schofield and Parker are interfering with the ability of inmates to heal their souls and minds and move toward wholeness. Parker and his subordinates believe that inmates are unworthy of such healing. Before Schofield and Parker, many inmates like me fought for years to make positive changes, to improve as people, and experience transformation. But these men have created obstacles to such progress, which punishes inmates many times over, leaving them to wonder why even try?

by David

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Christians and the Death Penalty

"[T]he kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, 'Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.' And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, 'Pay back what you owe.' So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, 'Have patience with me and I will repay you.' But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. Then summoning him, his lord said to him, 'You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?' And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart." (Matt. 18:23-35).

If we take Jesus' parable seriously, we should receive the lesson that if we have been shown grace and forgiveness of our wrongs, we should not turn around and insist on retribution and punishment of the wrongs of others. Yet many confessing Christians who claim to believe that their sins have been forgiven by God in His infinite mercy, tend to be some of the most vengeful, violent, punitive people on earth when it comes to dealing with the sins of others. What sense does this make?

To put a finer point on it, if I believe that I was properly subject to the death penalty for breaking God's laws, and that I was spared only by the grace of God through the sacrifice of Jesus, how can I possibly support the death penalty? How can I, as a redeemed sinner, support an institution that cuts against the concept of redemption? If I have been spared, what right to I have to support another person being condemned?

However, Tennessee, a state in which you cannot throw a rock without hitting a church building, stubbornly clings to the death penalty. It seems that quite a few self-professed Christian politicians and citizens have not given much consideration to the implications of some of the most basic tenets of their faith. According to the Man himself, a condemned person who has been showed mercy is in a poor position to insist on harsh punishment for another condemned person. If the story Christians claim to believe has any relevance in today's world, it is to the death penalty debate. God himself was executed for the sake of all people. Henceforth, no one need pay for their sins with their life because the debt has been forgiven. It is time for our practice to harmonize with our beliefs.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Tennessee Supreme Court Delays Execution

The Tennessee Supreme Court has delayed the execution of Billy Ray Irick, which was originally scheduled for October 7, 2014. As this order makes clear, however, it is nothing more than a delay. We must continue to pressure our elected officials to put a stop to state-sanctioned murder altogether. Check out Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty to learn how you can get involved.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Stop Killing People to Show That Killing People is Wrong

In just two weeks, Tennessee is scheduled to resume executions. It's not something we have to do. Many states virtually all of the other countries in the civilized world have moved forward and left this vengeful practice behind. The death penalty has no place in a society that claims to value human rights, the inherent worth of each individual, and the power of redemption. Click here to watch a video explaining why the time is right to stop State-sanctioned murder.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Ugly Feet

If we say, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news," then these are some damned ugly, stinky feet. A report issued on Tuesday by the Bureau of Justice Statistics demonstrates that Tennessee's prison population is larger than it has ever been. Click here to read more.

We should bear in mind that each one of the 28,521 people being warehoused by the principality that is the State of Tennessee has a name, a birth date, and a mother. Each one has a favorite color and food. Each one is a miracle that bears the very image of the divine. Each one has a story that deserves to be heard. Each one has dreams of what his or her life could have been. Many of them have spouses and children who miss them.

Some, not all, but some, have acted violently towards others. Some have stolen property. Many have used substances that the State says they can not use. Each one of them, just like every other Tennessean and human to ever live, is more than their worst mistake. None of these people should be simply warehoused and forgotten. None of them are beyond the scope of God's lovingkindness, compassion, forgiveness, and redemption. If we believe our holy scriptures, God is especially concerned with these 28,521 of his children and expects us to be equally concerned.

Will you glance at the article, shake your head, and go about your day? Or will you take another small step?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Rituals of "Thingafication:" The Ongoing Practice of Dehumanization

". . . and the more the oppressors control the oppressed, the more they change them into apparently inanimate things."
- Paulo Freire

"Strip down to your skin, raise your arms above your head, open your mouth and stick out your tongue, lift your nutsack, bend over and spread your butt cheeks, squat, cough, stand up straight and lift the bottom of our feet." I slowly comply with the orders dictated by a correctional officer. I'm standing in an eight-feet-wide by fifteen-feet-long brick block encasement after visiting with my mother. The lighting is dim, and the paint on the walls is off-white. Only inches away from me are others submitting to the same orders. Contempt and frustration combine to form an emotional cocktail coursing through my veins while I tolerate repulsively jubilant side-talk of sports, jokes, and laughter from officers and devolved humans who have become "inmate things of the State" and who appear to be unfazed by this humiliating deviation from normal human interaction.

Lingering in the air of the poorly ventilated space is a musky odor that blends with the echoes of bare feet smacking against rows of square tiles on the smooth floor. Holding my breath for what feels like a slow-motion picture, I endure this divorce from humanity, a ritual of "thingafication," a concrete manifestation of the absract concept of dehumanization.

I hurry in a daze to cover my shame as I reach for my grey boxer-brief underwear, my socks, my glasses, symbolically reassembling traces of my formerly civilized life. Hunched over and occasionally glancing up to see through double-glass square windows, I peep to see if anyone on the other side is watching while the young white officer thoroughly examines the last two garments of my third-class citizenship. I reach for the state-issued blues, the denim uniform of an inmate in the Department of Corrections. Slipping through one leg at a time, I cover the lower half of my body with faded denim jeans glazed with long acrylic white strips on each leg bearing the misnomer, "TN DEPT OF CORRECTION." Next I slip into my overpriced peanut-butter-toned Timberland boots and duck into a baby-blue, prison-issued shirt with "TDOC" inscribed in dark blue letters on the back. Just beneath the seam of the collar of the shirt, printed in black ink is my TDOC identification number, which was assigned to me when I was first processed in 1989. Dressed with a pass for movement and an inmate ID card in my hand, I move toward the exit door gazing straight past the commotion of others repeating this same ritual in what is known as the shake-down room. I step outside onto the sidewalk of the prison compound encircled by razor-wire fences. Inhaling deeply, I regain my equilibrium as the fresh air tingles through my nostrils and revives my body and my being.

Variations of the ritual I have described take place in every juvenile detention center, every jail, every prison, and even mental health asylums all across the United States of America. This ritual serves as a reminder that I am some "thing" other than a United States citizen or civilized human being. I am a hybrid of sorts, not wholly human nor wholly other, something in between. My initial experience of this ritual occurred when I was a sixteen-year-old child. I was booked, fingerprinted, fully examined, tested for sexually transmitted diseases, questioned, and placed into an orange jumpsuit. It never occurred to me that something was happening to me during this process or ritual. I did not understand that the removal of each article of my clothing was a symbolic stripping away of my humanity in order to bleed me to civil death. On the surface, having the inside of my mouth probed, my genitals cupped, and the rest of my body viscerally probed and examined before I was ushered into a cell with a desk and a bunk seemed to be nothing more than a routine procedure. Twenty-eight years later, however, a close reading of Terror and Triumph, by Anthony B. Pinn informed me that what I refer to as a ritual of thingafication coincides with his historical account of slavery and the process by which a slave's quality was confirmed. "[A]n overseer [inspected and handled] the naked blacks from head to foot, squeezing their joints and muscles, twisting their arms and legs and examining their teeth, eyes, and chest, and pinching their breasts and groins without mercy." (PP. 30-31). While I stop short of equating the experiences of chattel slaves with inmates experiencing post-Thirteenth Amendment slavery as part of America's addiction to mass incarceration, I do recognize the similar processes or rituals by which humans are converted into things be decree of law. My intention is to introduce readers to a largely unknown reality that transmutes U.S. citizens into sub-human entities through legal definitions.

Colin Dayan clearly articulates how legal rituals make and unmake persons in her important book, The Law is a White Dog. She explores how the law constructs our identities and uses a type of magic to make spirits or ghosts come to life. "Specters are very much a part of the legal domain. Human materials are remade and persons are undone in the sanctity of the courtroom. Whether slaves, dead bodies, criminals, ghosts, detainees, or any one of the many spectral entities held in limbo in the no-man's lands sustained by state power, they all remain subject to undue influences and occult revelations of law's rituals." (p. 12). What is often framed in terms of security and penological interest is in reality an ongoing terror of dehumanization.

Another example of ritualistic dehumanization at the prison where I am confined is when correctional officers enter the unit dressed in military outfits indistinguishable from U.S. soldiers carrying military-style weapons and K-9 dogs. Prisoners are forced to disrobe in front of their cellmates while correctional officers bark orders consistent with the opening paragraphs of this essay. Prisoners are then escorted to a body-search machine dressed in a t-shirt, underwear, and shower shoes with their hands and arms behind their backs while a correctional officer grips their biceps as though they were under arrest. Then they are seated on a concrete floor in five rows of eight, facing the wall while correctional officers and their dogs comb through their personal property. An officer grips an assault-style weapon and paces back and forth with the weapon pointed in their direction as if they were detainees at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay.

Prisoners are treated as enemies of the State in Tennessee. Why must we be subjected to this level of cultural violence? I am not intimidated by correctional officers, but I do have reason to fear when I hear of officers beating inmates, abusing them by dousing them with scalding hot water, even killing them in the name of security. When a person is no longer considered to be a human, it is easy for agents of the State to display animosity toward them and violate their very humanity. "What I have tried to do is show that the shame that is Guantanamo has a history in our nation and in its treatment of its own. Which brings me to the origin and real impetus of this book: the uses of incarceration in the United States to criminalize, exclude, and do such violence to persons that they are returned to their communities - when they are - diminished and harmed sometimes beyond repair, or redress." (Dayan, p. xiv).

People often believe that criminals are sent to prisons in order that they may be punished. However, the prison itself is the punishment. It is a distinction with a difference. The punishment is the separation from families and the exile from society. We are under 24-hour surveillance, have limited contact with the free-world community, are locked down at least ten hours a day, and endure daily cell searches, inspections, and violence in every form imaginable. Yet some would impose even more tortuous conditions and treatment in order to punish inmates, misguided by the belief that harsh treatment will discourage prisoners from returning upon their eventual release. But living in prison and enduring the prison culture is the punishment. Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE) believes that "a person is sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment." (Beyond Bars, Ross & Richards, foreward). Many prisoners are parents with very young children who may not be able to sustain family connections. In Tennessee, prisoners often experience the passing of their parents and other family members while incarcerated without the privilege of attending the funeral and seeing their loved ones one last time. There is more than enough revenge and punishment to go around in the lives of prisoners.

Dayan introduces the notion of "premature burials" and states that "confinement of prisoners in the United States became an alternative to slavery, another kind of receptacle for imperfect creatures whose 'civil disease' justified containment. I do not mean that slaves can be equated with criminals, as if slavery were a form of punishment. Rather, I am interested in how, once convicted of a crime, the criminal can be reduced - not by a master, but by the state - to a condition that is sustained under the sign of death." (p. 63). What Dayan refers to as a civil death is essentially a legal designation imposed on citizens who have been convicted in a court of law. Although inmates do not lose all of their constitutional rights, their rights are greatly diminished. "Imprisonment allows is to apprehend how the condition of being civiliter mortus, or 'dead in the law,' marks the disabled citizen as both a symptom and a symbol of afflicative punishment. Unlike slaves, felons remain citizens - citizens who are deprived of liberty. The character of prisoners, the alleged danger they pose to prison order, and the need for them to be transformed are all cited as reasons for the restriction of their rights and the resulting negation of their social and spiritual self. This legal curtailment coincides with the ways former slaves were effectively deprived of their civil rights and reduced to the status of incomplete citizens even after their emancipation. "As far as those imprisoned for life were concerned, the idea was to emulate the results produced by natural death." (pp. 63-64). Personhood ceases to exist after death. Though not dead in fact, the convict dies in a sense by virtue of the law.

This "thing of death" imposed upon the prisoner strips away his human identity and justifies a particular form of harsh treatment. All procedures or rituals exercised through the criminal justice system serve to perpetuate dehumanization and justify legalized slavery, allowing the Prison-Industrial Complex to profit off of the bodies of the poor. In the same way that the auction block imposed a status of non-being onto slaves who were transformed into chattel, modern legal rituals transform citizens into prisoners who are subjected to forced labor and whose bodies are controlled by corporate interests to make money. The law permits slavery and systematic dehumanization through mass incarceration of over two million citizens, many of whom are serving sentences for non-violent offenses. Moreover, none of those who are stripped of their rights by these laws had any meaningful say in the creation or application of these laws.

Pinn writes, "Slave auctions were a ritual by which the slave system enforced and celebrated the dehumanization of Africans. I refer to this ritual as a ritual of reference: it is repeated, systematic activity conducted in carefully selected locations that is intended to reinforced the enslaved status as object. Slavery as a major shift in being requires ritual expression that gives select behaviors their legitimacy and strength, or their power. It is through this ritualizing that the slave's status is given social force and meaning because it makes explicit the re-creation of the slave as a "thing." Through this ritualized manipulation of African bodies, new social arrangements complete with existential and ontological ground rules are put in place." (p. 49). This is precisely what happens today when American citizens are transmuted into prisoners through the ritual power of the criminal justice system. I am constantly reminded of my status as a convicted felon by processes authorized by law and carried out by agents of the State. I experience myself not as a man, but as a thing.

The perpetual rituals of thingafication suck the life out of my humanity, or vice versa, and consequently erase my social existence through the law and its language. I am obliterated by words such as "infamous," "criminal," "defendant," "felon," "inmate," and "prisoner." I am not a danger to anyone. I invite anyone who is willing to take the time to come to the prison, meet me, listen to me speak, and inspect my humanity. To whom can I call? Believers in God, whether Christians, Jews, or Muslims? Humanists? Who will assist in the abolition of post-Thirteenth Amendment slavery, mass incarceration, and the legal creation of permanent second-class citizens?

I close with the words of educator Paulo Freire: "Dehumanization, which marks not only those whose humanity has been stolen, but also (though in a different way) those who have stolen it, is a distortion of the vocation of becoming more fully human. Because it is a distortion of being more fully human, sooner or later being less human leads the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so. This struggle is possible only because dehumanization, although a concrete historical fact, is not given destiny but the result of an unjust order that engenders violence in the oppressors, which in turn dehumanizes the oppressed. In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both. It is only when the oppressed find the oppressor out and become involved in the organized struggle for their liberation that they begin to believe in themselves. This discovery cannot be purely intellectual but must involve action; nor can it be limited to mere activism, but must include serious reflection; only then will it be a praxis. True solidarity with the oppressed means fighting at their side to transform the objective reality which has made them these 'beings for another.'" (Pedagogy of the Oppressed).

by Saul-Paul

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Putting the $ into Perspective

Food for thought: the annual cost of incarcerating the nation's aging prison population is enough to send 170,000 people through a four-year college. What's the better investment?

Click here to read more.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Woodland Hills and Beyond

It's been almost thirteen years since I first stepped inside the gates of Woodland Hills Youth Development Center. For many, it marks the beginning of a slippery slope into disenfranchisement, which remains in full effect over a decade later. It's abundantly clear to me that little has changed in the management of the facility or in the State's treatment of children who are declared to be in need of intensive rehabilitative measures. If anything, this facility that claims to be a place for development of young people continues instead to prove itself conducive to their self-destruction and social dehumanization. All youth come into this world as "dependent," relying on families and communities to guide and direct us. Somewhere along the way, however, an impulsive or reckless act left some of us labelled as "delinquents," and by being placed in the custody of the State, we were cast into the outskirts of society. For those of us unfortunate enough to enter the gates of Woodland Hills, our chance for successful development dimmed considerably as were were then considered no better that demons and deviants. As I recently sat and watched the news reports of the thirty-two escapes and overnight riots, I couldn't help but say to myself, "It's been a long time coming." One can only hope that change will soon follow.

The Tennessee Department of Children's Services has always struggled to know how to handle children placed in its care. For children with "happy feet," Woodland Hills was supposedly escape-proof, a claim proven false a few days ago. Woodland Hills is located in Nashville's prison district. The youth facility is a short walk from the adult prisons and is similar in its construction. The compound is surrounded by tall gravity fences designed to thwart escapes, and the entrance is guarded by a manned security shack. It is home to young people whom DCS has declared dangerous or defiant and in need of the most strict security and most intensive treatment the State offers.

I was a resident of Woodland Hills for a year and a half. I was moved to the "inescapable" facility after repeated escapes and escape attempts from lower security facilities. There were treatment plans with vague goals, but no real opportunities to receive meaningful treatment or even understand the goals. The treatment level system was a sliding scale, and once a child reached Level 4, she was supposedly within arm's reach of release; however, "arm's reach" was not defined. Furthermore, a minor infraction for disrespect on a counselor's whim could result in being sent from Level 4 back to Level 1, pushing the elusive release date even further away. Classes were offered that provided high school credit, but no opportunities to gain real understanding. Staff policed the dormitories, but they did not work with the children. Seemingly, the only interaction that the staff were pleased to engage in with the children was restraint. For example, refusing to face a wall for time-out could result in use of force, which inevitably led to an all-out brawl, with officers punching, kicking and throwing elbows. Only the child was charged with assault, however. It was clear then and I'm sure it is clear now that while children move aimlessly through the program at Woodland Hills, there is no concrete correlation between their behavior and their success or failure in the program.

The morning after the thirty-two residents escaped from Woodland Hills, local and national media propagated fear by characterizing the young people as felons on the loose, potentially lethal to anyone they encountered. I simply shook my head. The news outlets warned citizens not to approach suspicious-looking youth, whatever that means, and call came in about scenes as benign as teenagers waiting at bus stops or walking in groups of three or more. Helicopters patrolled the skies while black SUVs and police cruisers roamed the streets. In the first twenty-four hours, nineteen of the children were apprehended and charged with felony escape. Everywhere I went, people were talking about the teenagers. I heard one man remark, "If I see a kid out there, I'm shooting." I wondered how many George Zimmerman's were being created by the latest fear-mongering propaganda. My chest tightened thinking about the dangers facing young boys, not only the escaped teens, but all teens walking Nashville's streets, any of whom might seem "suspicious" to a fearful, gun-toting suburbanite.

In the days that followed, the conflict spurred a familiar dance. The Woodland Hills administration exerted its power by imposing restrictive conditions at the facility, and the residents resisted with another escape from the dorm and more riots. Ringleaders were targeted and isolated, but others took their place. Restraints, violence, and intimidation were the tools of the Powers against the essentially powerless. While most people likely see the Woodland Hills situation as an escalating problem, I prefer to view it as an opportunity for understanding and reconciliation between our disinherited youth and the communities from which they are estranged.

History teaches us that conflict can serve as fertile soil in which democracy and social change can grow and flourish. Conflict can bring some balance when one group has held too much power for too long. Conflict can bring adversaries to the table. Perhaps dialogue will spring forth. Oppressive paradigms may be overturned. Can we move from power plays to collaboration? Will we sift through our differences and locate our common interests? Is it possible to work together for resolutions that establish true community?

Over the last few days, months, and years, the streets have come alive with rage over the blood of young people being needlessly spilled. Their blood is on the hands of every person who, out of ignorance, targets a "suspicious-looking youth," and on the news outlets that play to our fears and prejudices. The time has come for us as a society to re-think our views about our children, particularly poor children and children of color, and the methods we permit the government to employ when errant children fall into its grasp. The conflict at Woodland Hills presents Nashville with a beautiful opportunity to reap a harvest of peace and understanding and mutual concern.

It is true that some young people pose a threat to themselves and other around them. The residents of Woodland Hills are not angels or babies. I sure wasn't. Neither are they monsters. They are, for all their faults, our children. The United States Supreme Court has taken notice that children are physiologically and psychologically distinct from adults. Their level of culpability for wrongdoing is different from that of adults. Their capacity for rehabilitation and positive change is great. (See Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012), and its progeny). The youth at Woodland Hills are not to be subjected to mere punitive, retributive measures. Rehabilitation is the top priority for these young people. Treating them the way we would adult criminals is not only shortsighted, it goes against Supreme Court case law. They are not wards of the criminal justice system; they are in the care of DCS, whose ideological commitment is to protect and provide for children who have no one to adequately care for them. Of utmost importance is the need to develop these young people and foster in them the ability to successfully reintegrate into their communities.

It appears that somewhere along the way, those in charge of helping our youth develop got lost in the tough-on-crime political rhetoric, bureaucratic ass-covering, and pandering to an uninformed and frightened electorate. Today, however, a beacon of hope has been lit, and we can re-focus on the truly pressing issues: How can we effectively rehabilitate our wayward youth? Why have our current methods failed so miserably? What is a next step?

The conflict has sown a seed. Will we reap the harvest?

When I was a resident at Woodland Hills over a decade ago, it was understood that most of us who left would be locked up again, be killed, or become a teen parent. We referred to the lack of a promising future as the Woodland Hills Curse. Over the years, I saw many people confirm the truth of the Curse, and I became an example of it as well. As I got older, I came to realize that this was not a matter of luck or fortune, however. The only misfortune was that instead of being placed in an environment where a collaborative effort toward rehabilitation and development was made, we were tossed into a social refuse bin, warehoused and pitted against authority figures who would gladly beat us into submission at every opportunity. All that developed within us was our bacchanalian proclivities and violent resistance to coercion. We entered the gates of Woodland Hills desperately in need of caring intervention, but we encountered only new ways of being broken that sent us down the path to predetermined fates. Thirteen years later, I'm sitting in a prison cell, thinking, "It's been a long time coming." I only hope that change will soon follow.

by Mary

Thursday, September 4, 2014

What is Solitary Confinement Like?

Click the link below for an article by James Ridgeway, who regularly corresponds with people who are warehoused in isolation.

Inside America’s Prisons » CounterPunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Tennessee Department of Correction Money Pit

Tennessee citizens and taxpayers should know how their government leaders are spending their tax dollars. In the case of Department of Corrections Commissioner Derrick Schofield, spending appears to be unchecked. Every year, the legislature asks for budget cuts, yet Commissioner Schofield seems to find new ways to spend extravagantly at the people's expense.

He recently increased salary and benefits at the highest level by nearly triple when he created new positions for associate wardens. Thanks to these new expenditures, all institutions now have at least two associate wardens. The larger facilities will have three associate wardens. These newly hired executives will of course have salary and benefits commiserate with their experience. In addition to increasing the administrative staff at the individual institutions, Commissioner Schofield has also instituted several executive positions in Nashville as well as regional directors, which also come with handsome salary and benefits. These benefits include, but are not limited to, state cars, food and travel reimbursement, and new i-phones.

In his pursuit of "safer and more secure" prisons, Schofield has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for portable cell phone detectors. Tens of thousands of dollars have been spent on paint alone, as each institution was repainted a uniform gray and white. Each facility now has a "CERT" team, separate from other security staff, who escort the wardens and associate wardens on the compounds and assist with routine cell inspections as well as searches. The CERT members have military-style uniforms, equipment, and training and, it appears they set their own hours and are not subject to the massive mandatory overtime with which other security staff must comply. All of these new expenditures come on top of the aforementioned overtime outlays due to constant staff shortages coupled with a large employee turnover rate. Some corrections officers work double shifts 3 or 4 times per week.

The one thing the Commissioner is NOT overspending on is the food and health budgets. Inmates currently receive no fresh fruit or vegetables (with the exception of lettuce and an occasional banana). All menu items are pre-cooked at the State's Cook Chill plant and transported to the individual facilities. Medical care is woefully lacking. More and more inmates are being forced to purchase needed medical items from the prison commissary whether they can afford to or not. Several of the men's facilities (including West TN) recently staged sit-ins by refusing to leave their cells and refusing to purchase commissary to protest the substandard menu and poor medical care.

The Commissioner has also implemented ineffective changes in housing rules, controlled movement, no-talking zones, and walking in straight lines with hands at the side (even in inclement weather). All of these changes reflect an extreme militaristic approach that is quite counter-productive. Violence has increased by more than 20% during Commissioner Schofield's brief tenure. In an effort to curtail the appearance of increased violence, directives have been given not to write submit disciplines. Staff has been directed to write "other" disciplines. At least three men have been stabbed at West Tennessee in the last few months, and one was stabbed last month at the Turney Center, resulting in a lock-down of a sizeable portion of the population. Commissioner Schofield's approach is not merely ineffective and wasteful; it is dangerous to inmates and guards alike.

Most recently, new stratification process has been planned, which purports to be a viable move to decrease recidivism. However, implementing the program will require mass movement of inmates from prison to prison, creating even more unrest in an already high-stress environment.

Now the Commissioner has begun taking personal property items that have been allowed in the system for decades. As of July 31,2014, inmates will no longer be allowed to keep their personally purchased hotpots. The moc personal property list had allowed this item as recently as December 1, 2013. Rumors are swirling that fans and televisions may be next to go. Many institutions are old with faulty air units, and the fans are necessary in the event the air goes out. While televisions may seem like a luxury, they are the only connection to the outside world for many inmates. If Schofield wants to see violence, unrest, and recidivism skyrocket, he should continue to disallow items that have been allowed without incident for decades, items that were purchased at the expense of the inmate or the inmate family. This places an undue hardship on everyone involved except for Department of Corrections administrators, not to mention violating constitutional due process principles.

As of July 17, 2014, inmates are being forced to sign up for any activities, such as the library, the recreation yard, religious services, etc., one to two days ahead of time and be issued a pass before they will be allowed to exit the housing unit. This unnecessary procedure generates more paper costs as well as payroll expenditures for the staff member who have to prepare all of the passes for no good reason. This is on top of extremely controlled movement already in place.

At least Commissioner Schofield is transparent about his attempts to remake the Tennessee Department of Correction into the state system from whence he came, Georgia. Ironically, Georgia Corrections have discontinued many of the ineffective changes implemented by Schofield while he was there, changes now being replicated in Tennessee. All the while, Schofield's stated goal of "safer and more secure" prisons has yet to be realized, as violence and tensions seem to steadily increase. Finally, since the Select Oversight Committee was dissolved as of July 1, 2011, the Commissioner is no longer being held accountable for the excesses currently taking place with the Corrections budget.

Wake up, Tennessee, to the wretched state of your prison system. Tell others, and do something about it by calling your legislators and informing them that the we should stop blindly throwing tax dollars into the TDOC money pit.

by Esther

Monday, August 25, 2014

Look at Me

Are you a recycler? Do you spend any time separating your refuse into different bins in order to spare the world from expending unnecessary resources? It seems that most of society is beginning to understand the importance of being more "green." The fact is that if we only consume and never find additional uses for the materials, then the supply will one day become exhausted. We can't imagine living without paper products, or drinking water, or bottles and cans to hold our beverages.

Economics has taught us that society's choice of whether and how much to recycle depends basically on monetary factors. Recycling becomes economically attractive when the cost of reprocessing waste or recycled material is less than the cost of processing new raw materials.

With that being said, let me suggest to you that we need to begin recycling human life – the greatest material and resource known to man. Perhaps we don't consider this to be a valid recycling project since new humans are being born every minute of every day. Maybe we feel like it's not worth the energy and trouble it would take to pick through the human refuse to see if any vitality and good is left.

Right now Tennessee has over 21,000 humans in large refuse centers – prisons. They are hoping and praying that they will be recycled. Will someone see the value that they still have for society? Will someone take time to separate them from the unusable waste that surrounds them? In order to do that it requires you to look at them, not as a statistic like I just mentioned, but as a person - a person that has a pulse, life, worth and sustainability.

So look at me! Look into my eyes so you can see that I am flesh and bones, not a statistic, not a product of the justice system, but a human being. After you see me and I see you, we no longer can pretend that we don't exist. Once this is realized, we can move forward in ways that benefit us both. Programs that bring outside people to our inside world behind these fences are a great avenue to connect humans to humans, eyes to eyes.

We are visual creatures. When we can visualize something or hold it living in our mind, we can make it a reality. So when people look into each other's eyes, when they experience the living presence of another person, they become real beings that take up this world's space. We only have so much space in our world for garbage, so we must begin to recycle, even human beings. So while Tennessee has these 21,000 pieces of recyclable products, what is being done to refine the material? How are citizens' tax dollars being spent to make these rough materials into productive, useful and viable members of the world?

In 2011, Tennessee stated that it recycled over 14,000 inmates. That is, while these people had been housed for a time in Tennessee's recycling centers, they had since been released back into the community to serve the world once again. However, Tennessee also admits that almost half of these 14,000 return to prison, apparently somehow defective in their transformation. By that logic, what if we sent 14,000 cans to the recycling center, and half of them returned with holes in them, not being able to hold the liquid they were supposed to contain? Would that be an acceptable return on our investment? Most logical people would likely be dissatisfied with the flawed process.

Consider author Peter Rollin's explanation of the perpetuation of a problem in his book Insurrection. He suggests, "Donating money to the poor without asking why the poor exist in the first place, for instance, allows us to alleviate our guilt without fundamentally challenging the system that perpetuates poverty. As the Brazilian archbishop Dom Helder Camara once said, 'When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.'"

Until you see the landfills polluted with unwanted trash, it's impossible to get the full effect of the waste we produce. That is why we must get in there and get our hands dirty, scouring the landfills for items that can be brought back to life and still have value. Programs that foster outsiders and insiders coming together to help change the prison system, causing it to recognize the potential of the souls trapped inside the razor wire, are essential for any real change that we may hope for.

It is true that insiders' lives are forever changed when outsiders enter our world and make a connection. However, it is also true that the outsiders' lives are changed as well. When you are able to embrace the presence of all of humanity, then you must include those that may have stumbled, fell from society's graces, and yet have living blood running through their veins. And when you are able to do that you have embraced God.

Therefore I suggest to you that until we look at the system and how we are giving up on our most precious materials – human lives – then people will continue to be taken to recycling centers across the nation and left there to sit for years or decades, without being converted into new and precious beings.

So look at me face-to-face and tell me that I am not worth your thoughts, your time, and your prayers. Until then, you are only using your tax dollars to cover up your own guilt, your own shame, or your own disregard for human life and your ability to build recycling plants that do not work.

by David