Thursday, July 31, 2014

What About the Victims?

Being incarcerated for over a decade among hundreds of criminals, there are no shortages of "victims." Even though there are innocent people here in prison, most prisoners are indeed guilty. Too many see themselves as victims of a corrupt system. They are in prison unjustly, not because they are innocent, but because their "rights" were violated. The may claim their Miranda rights weren't read to them by the police, their indictments weren't issued properly by the grand jury, or any number of other mistakes made by law enforcement or court officials. I agree that the System fails. But most importantly, it fails the true victims, those who were harmed by us, the criminals.

As someone who is guilty of murder, I am ever mindful of my own victims. Having never lost a loved one under such violent circumstances, I can only feebly attempt to imagine what they have gone through and continue to go through. I only know of the guilt I feel and the depression, anguish, and suicidal thoughts that it caused. No one deserved what I did to them. Even all these years later, I still remember the victims in the court room with their inconsolable sorrow and angry faces. Having written letters of remorse and apology with no reply, I can only assume they still have no consolation. Some say "time heals all wounds," but I know that to be untrue.

Besides my own experience, I've known guys whose parole was protested by victims twenty or thirty years after the fact. It's a tragedy that our victims have had and continue to bear that sorrow and anger for so many years. In our current Criminal Justice System, once "justice" has been done and the criminal has been punished, that's supposed to be the end of it. But it isn't. The wrong has not been righted or else there would be peace and, as much as is possible, some sort of normality restored. That is where I think we find the biggest failing of our Criminal Justice System – the victims never receive healing. Once their testimonies and mournful faces are used to prosecute us "monsters," they are left to deal with their loss on their own. Reconciliation isn't in the equation. Why? Because the offenders don't deserve it? Of course we don't deserve it. But it's not all about the offenders. There cannot be true healing without forgiveness. The victims' lives and the community remain broken and scarred.

Other countries realize that reconciliation is the best thing for both the communities and the victims. That's why they promote victim-offender reconciliation programs. It promotes offenders taking full responsibility for their actions and having them face their victims. A lot of offenders don't feel the full impact of their crimes because they don't have to face their victims after the fact, unless they go up for parole. A lot of sentences have no parole so they don't have the opportunity at all. However, if there were programs that allowed victims to confront their offenders and the offenders face their victims, then there is a chance for understanding, which leads to a hope for healing. Forgiveness, remorse and responsibility are hard and take much work. Victims need answers, and there are programs available to help them get them.

Why isn't the Justice System pursuing reconciliation? Why do we as a society insist on rejecting the notion of forgiveness and continue to pursue mere retribution? Everyone to some degree knows how refusing to forgive someone causes anger and bitterness and robs us of peace. How much turmoil have we experienced and how many sleepless nights have we had when we refused to forgive someone for something? We know forgiveness would be the best thing. It's hard especially when harm and violence had been caused. It will take time and work, but it will be worth it. Victims deserve healing. They need it. Isn't it about time we as a society do what’s best?

by Joshua

Monday, July 28, 2014

"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," by Ursula Le Guin

With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the
city Omelas, bright-towered by the sea. The rigging of the boats in harbor sparkled with flags. In
the streets between houses with red roofs and painted walls, between old moss-grown gardens
and under avenues of trees, past great parks and public buildings, processions moved. Some were
decorous: old people in long stiff robes of mauve and grey, grave master workmen, quiet, merry
women carrying their babies and chatting as they walked. In other streets the music beat faster, a
shimmering of gong and tambourine, and the people went dancing, the procession was a dance.
Children dodged in and out, their high calls rising like the swallows' crossing flights, over the
music and the singing. All the processions wound towards the north side of the city, where on the
great water-meadow called the Green Fields boys and girls, naked in the bright air, with mudstained
feet and ankles and long, lithe arms, exercised their restive horses before the race. The
horses wore no gear at all but a halter without bit. Their manes were braided with streamers of
silver, gold, and green. They flared their nostrils and pranced and boasted to one another; they
were vastly excited, the horse being the only animal who has adopted our ceremonies as his own.
Far off to the north and west the mountains stood up half encircling Omelas on her bay. The air
of morning was so clear that the snow still crowning the Eighteen Peaks burned with white-gold
fire across the miles of sunlit air, under the dark blue of the sky. There was just enough wind to
make the banners that marked the racecourse snap and flutter now and then. In the silence of the
broad green meadows one could hear the music winding through the city streets, farther and
nearer and ever approaching, a cheerful faint sweetness of the air that from time to time trembled
and gathered together and broke out into the great joyous clanging of the bells.

Joyous! How is one to tell about joy? How describe the citizens of Omelas?

They were not simple folk, you see, though they were happy. But we do not say the
words of cheer much any more. All smiles have become archaic. Given a description such as this
one tends to make certain assumptions. Given a description such as this one tends to look next
for the King, mounted on a splendid stallion and surrounded by his noble knights, or perhaps in a
golden litter borne by great-muscled slaves. But there was no king. They did not use swords, or
keep slaves. They were not barbarians. I do not know the rules and laws of their society, but I
suspect that they were singularly few. As they did without monarchy and slavery, so they also
got on without the stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police, and the bomb. Yet I
repeat that these were not simple folk, not dulcet shepherds, noble savages, bland utopians. They
were not less complex than us. The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants
and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual,
only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and
the terrible boredom of pain. If you can't lick 'em, join 'em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise
despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have
almost lost hold; we can no longer describe a happy man, nor make any celebration of joy. How
can I tell you about the people of Omelas? They were not naive and happy children – though
their children were, in fact, happy. They were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives
were not wretched. O miracle! but I wish I could describe it better. I wish I could convince you.
Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time.
Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the
occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all. For instance, how about technology? I think that
there would be no cars or helicopters in and above the streets; this follows from the fact that the
people of Omelas are happy people. Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is
necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive. In the middle
category, however – that of the unnecessary but undestructive, that of comfort, luxury,
exuberance, etc. -- they could perfectly well have central heating, subway trains, washing
machines, and all kinds of marvelous devices not yet invented here, floating light-sources,
fuelless power, a cure for the common cold. Or they could have none of that: it doesn't matter.
As you like it. I incline to think that people from towns up and down the coast have been coming
in to Omelas during the last days before the Festival on very fast little trains and double-decked
trams, and that the train station of Omelas is actually the handsomest building in town, though
plainer than the magnificent Farmers' Market. But even granted trains, I fear that Omelas so far
strikes some of you as goody-goody. Smiles, bells, parades, horses, bleh. If so, please add an
orgy. If an orgy would help, don't hesitate. Let us not, however, have temples from which issue
beautiful nude priests and priestesses already half in ecstasy and ready to copulate with any man
or woman, lover or stranger who desires union with the deep godhead of the blood, although that
was my first idea. But really it would be better not to have any temples in Omelas – at least, not
manned temples. Religion yes, clergy no. Surely the beautiful nudes can just wander about,
offering themselves like divine souffles to the hunger of the needy and the rapture of the flesh.
Let them join the processions. Let tambourines be struck above the copulations, and the glory of
desire be proclaimed upon the gongs, and (a not unimportant point) let the offspring of these
delightful rituals be beloved and looked after by all. One thing I know there is none of in Omelas
is guilt. But what else should there be? I thought at first there were no drugs, but that is
puritanical. For those who like it, the faint insistent sweetness of drooz may perfume the ways of
the city, drooz which first brings a great lightness and brilliance to the mind and limbs, and then
after some hours a dreamy languor, and wonderful visions at last of the very arcana and inmost
secrets of the Universe, as well as exciting the pleasure of sex beyond all belief; and it is not
habit-forming. For more modest tastes I think there ought to be beer. What else, what else
belongs in the joyous city? The sense of victory, surely, the celebration of courage. But as we did
without clergy, let us do without soldiers. The joy built upon successful slaughter is not the right
kind of joy; it will not do; it is fearful and it is trivial. A boundless and generous contentment, a
magnanimous triumph felt not against some outer enemy but in communion with the finest and
fairest in the souls of all men everywhere and the splendor of the world's summer; this is what
swells the hearts of the people of Omelas, and the victory they celebrate is that of life. I really
don't think many of them need to take drooz.

Most of the processions have reached the Green Fields by now. A marvelous smell of
cooking goes forth from the red and blue tents of the provisioners. The faces of small children
are amiably sticky; in the benign grey beard of a man a couple of crumbs of rich pastry are
entangled. The youths and girls have mounted their horses and are beginning to group around the
starting line of the course. An old woman, small, fat, and laughing, is passing out flowers from a
basket, and tall young men, wear her flowers in their shining hair. A child of nine or ten sits at
the edge of the crowd, alone, playing on a wooden flute. People pause to listen, and they smile,
but they do not speak to him, for he never ceases playing and never sees them, his dark eyes
wholly rapt in the sweet, thin magic of the tune.

He finishes, and slowly lowers his hands holding the wooden flute.

As if that little private silence were the signal, all at once a trumpet sounds from the
pavilion near the starting line: imperious, melancholy, piercing. The horses rear on their slender
legs, and some of them neigh in answer. Sober-faced, the young riders stroke the horses' necks
and soothe them, whispering, "Quiet, quiet, there my beauty, my hope. . . ." They begin to form
in rank along the starting line. The crowds along the racecourse are like a field of grass and
flowers in the wind. The Festival of Summer has begun.

Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe
one more thing.

In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the
cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no
window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a
cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a couple of
mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand near a rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little
damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is. The room is about three paces long and two wide: a
mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl.
It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective or
perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and
occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits haunched in the corner farthest
from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its
eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will
come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes-the child has
no understanding of time or interval – sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a
person, or several people, are there. One of them may come and kick the child to make it stand
up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl
and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked, the eyes disappear. The people at the door
never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember
sunlight and its mother's voice, sometimes speaks. "I will be good," it says. "Please let me out. I
will be good!" They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good
deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, "eh-haa, eh-haa," and it speaks less and less often.
It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal
and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its
own excrement continually.

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it,
others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them
understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their
city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars,
the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their
skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery.

This is usually explained to children when they are between eight and twelve, whenever
they seem capable of understanding; and most of those who come to see the child are young
people, though often enough an adult comes, or comes back, to see the child. No matter how well
the matter has been explained to them, these young spectators are always shocked and sickened
at the sight. They feel disgust, which they had thought themselves superior to. They feel anger,
outrage, impotence, despite all the explanations. They would like to do something for the child.
But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile
place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were
done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and
be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in
Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the
chance of the happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed.

The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.

Often the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, when they have seen the
child and faced this terrible paradox. They may brood over it for weeks or years. But as time
goes on they begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good
of its freedom: a little vague pleasure of warmth and food, no doubt, but little more. It is too
degraded and imbecile to know any real joy. It has been afraid too long ever to be free of fear. Its
habits are too uncouth for it to respond to humane treatment. Indeed, after so long it would
probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own
excrement to sit in. Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible
justice of reality, and to accept it. Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and
the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their
lives. Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not
free. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence,
that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity
of their science. It is because of the child that they are so gentle with children. They know that if
the wretched one were not there snivelling in the dark, the other one, the flute-player, could
make no joyful music as the young riders line up in their beauty for the race in the sunlight of the
first morning of summer.

Now do you believe in them? Are they not more credible? But there is one more thing to
tell, and this is quite incredible.

At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to
weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls
silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down
the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the
beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth
or girl man or woman. Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the
houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go
west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the
darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable
to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not
exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Blind Eye of Criminal Justice

If we as Americans were asked, "What is the criminal justice system?" most would say it is the system of government that protects us against the gravest of threats to our society. However, the criminal justice system does not protect us against the gravest threats to life, limb, or possessions. Its definitions of crime are not simply a reflection of the objective dangers that threaten us. The workplace, the medical profession, the air we breathe, corporate misbehavior, tax cheating, fraud, consumer deception, embezzlement, and the poverty we refuse to rectify lead to far more human suffering, result in far more death and disability, and take far more dollars from our pockets than the murders, aggravated assaults, and thefts reported annually by the FBI. The government could treat these behaviors as more serious criminal offenses. This suffering could be prevented, but yet the government does little or nothing at all. Why?

The United States has an enormous drug abuse and addiction problem. There is considerable evidence, however, that our attempts to cure it are worse than the disease itself. Most people associate drugs with crime because addicts steal, but addicts steal because the cost of drugs is high. The high cost is related to the drugs being illegal because everyone in the distribution chain needs to profit enough to compensate for the risk of being caught and locked up. Much of the violence surrounding the drug trade is at the hands of gangs and organized crime that make a profit on the illegal market. Their disputes are not resolved through free markets or the legal system. In response, the government has engaged in a "Drug War" that has cost billions OF dollars, incarcerated millions of people, and is responsible for little change in drug usage. Moreover, the criminalization of drugs undercuts public health efforts to deal with the real problem: drug addiction.

A government truly intent on protecting us would strengthen and enforce work safety regulations, police the medical profession, require that clean-air standards be met diligently, be more attentive to the massive chemical exposure faced by the public, and devote sufficient resources to the poor to alleviate the major disabilities of poverty and drug abuse, but it does not. Instead, we hear a lot of "can't" about law and order, and a lot of ranting about crime in the streets. The criminalization of drugs creates even more criminals/crime by labeling addicts "felons," taking away their rights, and imprisoning them, instead of treating or curing these same people. A good example is Tennessee's newest legislation on pregnant mothers found with drugs in their system. You can read more about this wrongheaded law here.

It is as if our leaders are not only refusing to protect us, but also trying to cover up this refusal by diverting our attention to crime, as if street crime were the only real threat. You can even notice it in the way media portrays crime. Look at the difference in how it portrays a local mugger/murderer compared to a mining disaster or a tragic factory explosion when safe guards were ignored or compromised. Both caused death through negligence – the former only one, the latter many. Through the media, one is portrayed as a murder while the other is portrayed as a tragic accident or disaster.

The justice system has become a carnival mirror of sorts, presenting a distorted view of what threatens us most, while avoiding or diverting attention from some of society's biggest threats, so that in the end, when we look in our prisons to see who we perceive to be the greatest threat, virtually all we see are poor people. All the while, most of the well-to-do people who endanger us have been discreetly weeded out of the system. At every stage of the criminal justice system, the poor criminal is greatly disadvantaged compared to her rich counterpart. And this disparity in treatment occurs after most of the dangerous acts of the well-to-do have already been excluded from the definition of crime itself. The bias against the poor within the criminal justice system is all the more striking when we recognize that the door to that system is shaped in a way that excludes in advance the most dangerous acts of the well-to-do.

It is time to look more closely at the way our criminal justice system actually works.

by Elijah

Monday, July 21, 2014

Go to Hell! God’s Gracious Word to American Christians

A blog post by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a kindred spirit:

For every season, there is a message. "Do not be afraid." "Let my people go." "Take up your cross." "I have a dream."

In America today, I've come to believe, God's Word for us is, "Go to hell."

Unbeknownst to most Americans, our justice system changed radically in the late 20th century. Like most countries in the modern West, roughly one in a thousand Americans were in prison in the early 70s. Today, we incarcerate 1 in 107 Americans. Over 7 million adults are currently in jails, in prison, or on probation. More than 65 million US citizens now have a criminal record, while another 11 million undocumented people live outside the the law, subject to seizure and deportation.

Legal scholar William Stuntz has described the past 40 years as the "collapse of America's criminal justice system." Noting the ways "law and order" has landed more black men in prison today than were in slavery in 1850, Michelle Alexander calls it the "new Jim Crow." Or, as Piper Kerman puts it, "orange is the new black."

But none of this analysis captures what one person experiences when he is cut off from his community, denied any opportunity for growth, subject to constant humiliation and threat of bodily harm, and told that he is permanently condemned to this status of "criminal" or "illegal." What does it mean to be told, "You'll rot in prison?"

What does it mean for a nation to condemn our neighbors to a hell of our own making?

For the past five years, I've walked alongside seminary students from Duke Divinity School as they study with people who are incarcerated in state and federal prisons. As participants in Project TURN, students learn about prisons, about the people who find themselves there, about their own assumptions and fears. But overwhelmingly, these students learn something about God's Word to American Christians in our time. And what they learn, they've been teaching me.

Strange as it may seem, God is saying to the church in America, "Go to hell."

"When I was in prison," Jesus said in Matthew 25, "you visited me." We find Jesus in prison because prison is where Jesus has established residence here on earth. We don't visit to take Jesus to inmates. We follow Jesus into the hell of America's prison because this is the way God has revealed for us to receive the gift of resurrection life.

I'll admit, this doesn't make a lot of sense to me. I was raised to stay out of trouble, to act right and to talk right, and to believe that this contributed to my "Christian witness." God, I always thought, is happy with those who stay on the right side of the law.

But God said, "Go to hell." And the people I met in America's prisons quoted Scripture to me:

"If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us."

"No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law . . . But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify."

Toward the end of his life, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth only preached in prison. It wasn't that the men there needed the gospel the most. Rather, he found that they were able to hear God's Word as good news in a way that most respectable Swiss people couldn't.

Barth preached in prison because the living Word was present there.

As I watch students who know their Greek and Hebrew learn the same thing ("It's like I'm hearing the gospel for the first time."), I keep coming back to that line from the creed:

He descended into hell and on the third day rose again.

"God's way up is down," a preacher said to me when I was young. And he was right. But I didn't get it. I'm not sure I could get it because, like so many respectable Christians in America, I thought I knew the gospel.

You don't have to do anything to earn salvation – just this one thing, we say: "Confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead." Okay, two things. But they're easy, right?

Righteousness according to the law is an awfully slippery slope. And it will cost you your soul.

Which is why God says, "Go to hell." Follow the One who was numbered with the transgressors to sit among the condemned, the written-off, the outcast. And while you are there, listen. Because Jesus didn't go to hell to stay there.

Jesus went to hell on the way to resurrection.

"And if we have died with him," the prisoner Paul asks, "will we not also live with him?"

My friend Billy Neal Moore spent sixteen years on Georgia's death row for a murder he committed when he was 22 years old. Billy is the only man whose sentence the Georgia parole board has ever commuted. After thinking he would fry in the electric chair, Billy got out on time served – a second chance at life. Billy's a preacher, and he only has one sermon: "No one is beyond redemption."

"Go to hell," God says – not to stay there, but to learn what you and I can only hear there: namely, the gospel.

No one is beyond redemption, and the church depends on people gathering together in the common faith that this truth alone can sustain us. Since, in the end, everything else will burn away like dross anyway, it behooves us to follow Jesus into hell even now.

At least, that's what Project TURN students keep telling me. "It's like I’m hearing the gospel for the first time."

Read more:

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Making Known What Is Hidden

Click here for a link to a 1971 statement on the conditions of French prisons.

"For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open." Luke 8:17

Monday, July 14, 2014

Is It Any Wonder I Became a Violent Offender?

I was born in 1967, the third child of unstable, poor parents. My father was a womanizer, but my mother loved the ground he walked on. When she became pregnant with me, he denied being my father and accused her of sleeping around. He ended their marriage, which broke my mother's heart.

I saw my father often around town, but he would not acknowledge me unless he was drinking. Even then, he would go back and forth from being nice to me to calling me names and denying being my father. You can imagine the impact my father's insults had on me as a little boy. He maintained a supportive relationship with my siblings, but he never missed a chance to remind me that he did not consider himself to be my daddy. My father was a large man with a booming voice, and from an early age I associated his voice with fear.

My mother, siblings, and I lived in an old rundown house that backed up to an alley. As I got older, I spent more and more time in the alley, especially at one club in particular. I grew up fast hanging around the club. I saw more fights, stabbings, and shootings around that club than I saw on Gunsmoke. I specifically remember seeing a man shoot another man in the back after they had a fight in the club. I watched the blood pour from a hold in the man's back until the ambulance arrived. I couldn't have been more than eight or nine years old at the time. Is it any wonder that I became a violent offender?

Eventually, my family moved into the projects. I was grateful for air conditioning, locking doors, and no more rats from the alley, but the projects were just as violent. Fights, shootings, and police sirens were the norm. Looking back on it, I see that it was madness. But it was the only life available to a single mother and her five children. It was like a war zone, but we weren't in the military.

In 1980, I was thirteen years old. My estranged father told me he would get me a bike for Christmas. I was so excited and told everyone what I was expecting for Christmas. My mother told me that my father had never done anything for me and wasn't going to start now, but I looked up to and believed in my father. On Christmas morning, I went to my father's house. His girlfriend answered the door, and I asked if he had my bike. My father had been drinking, and he was in bed asleep. His girlfriend woke him up and asked him if he had gotten me a bike. He awoke in a rage and yelled, "I'm tired of this little ugly motherfucker! Get your goddamned ass out of my house!" I was paralyzed with fear, trembling, and tears streamed down my face. My father got up, grabbed my arm, and pushed me out of his house. I was devastated.

When I got home, my mother was furious that I had not listened to her, and she berated me. I was crying uncontrollably, and my mother demanded that I shut my mouth. She began to beat me with a small club. I crawled to the corner, crying, but my mother would not relent. Several of the blows struck me in the head. Finally, my sister intervened and got the club away from my mother. I spent the rest of the night with my head resting on my sister's leg, quietly crying. As a thirteen-year-old child, I learned the terrible lesson that both of my parents hated me. Is it any wonder that I became a violent offender?

I resolved at the age of thirteen to learn to take care of myself and make sure no one could hurt me again. Violence was the only thing that made sense to me. By the time I was eighteen, I had been in numerous fights and had several run-ins with law enforcement. Yet I had never touched or been around guns. One day, however, I came upon my uncle, who had been drinking. He made some comment about me being a bad-ass now. Then he pulled out a gun and pointed at me. Although I could fend for myself, staring at that gun, I felt helpless again. The moment passed, and he left, but I remained angry at having been made to feel fearful again. It was not long before I procured my own gun. Eventually this pattern of violence that had been with me from the time I was born culminated in me taking another person's life.

In 1954, author and counselor Dorothy Law Nolte wrote a poem entitled "Children Learn What They Live." In the poem, she states, "If children live with hostility, they learn to fight." My experience demonstrates the accuracy of Ms. Nolte's wisdom. Given the circumstances of my life, is it any wonder I became a violent offender?

by a son of Israel

Thursday, July 10, 2014

51 Years: The New Life Without Parole


Tennessee is drawing wide attention for its policies on the death penalty. Less well known is how barbaric our sentencing laws are in general. For instance in Tennessee, all penalties for First Degree Murder, even for juveniles sentenced as adults, are equivalent to a death sentence, whether a social death sentence or a physical one. In Tennessee, the only options are the death penalty, life without parole, or a life sentence requiring service of 51 to 60 calendar years. 51 years is impossible to do in practice. No one in Tennessee on record has ever served longer than about 45 years. Therefore, there is no possibility of release with a life sentence in Tennessee.

In 1989 a bill was passed which gave the criminal sentencing structure in Tennessee an overhaul. The 1989 Sentencing Reform Act established a rigid sentencing structure with ranges based on prior criminal history and a maximum sentence of 60 years for those repeatedly convicted of the most serious crimes. Even someone who committed the worst crimes could still be eligible for parole after a reasonably lengthy sentence served day for day, usually around 25 years, if they were first time offenders, the logic being that first time offenders when they are young may still be capable of total reform, and the parole board could decide the matter.

All was well after the 1989 Sentencing Reform Act. Legislators were confident they had modeled a system which would carry them into the future, especially with the war on drugs ramping up and the luring scent of federal money in the air. In 1993 another bill was passed which required at least 25 years of a life sentence to be served before parole eligibility and for juries to have the option of life without parole for those hard cases where the death sentence is not in play.

And yet, that wasn’t far enough.

In 1995 in Tennessee, the legislature and the business interests walked in lock step to pass a “Truth In Sentencing” law. From that point forward, men and women who commit certain crimes on an arbitrarily composed list, regardless of past criminal history or any other mitigating factors, no longer have any chance of consideration for parole and at least 85% of the sentence must be served regardless of how many sentence credits (good behavior credits) the inmate receives. Some of the legislators who first discussed the bill on the floor spoke of the law as a “three strikes” law. They can be heard on the tape recordings of the sessions, available at the state archives located in downtown Nashville. In Tennessee, we threw out the last two strikes and decided it was best to impose the maximum possible sentence, even for first time offenders and juveniles, a major change in policy regarding the hope of rehabilitating an offender or salvaging his or her life in any way.

Our legislature made the policy decision to throw human beings away like garbage in a land fill called the prison system.

I am a piece of that garbage. When my jury deliberated on my case after a week long trial, they considered the charge of First Degree Murder and lesser included offenses such as Second Degree and Voluntary Manslaughter. Each of the lesser crimes carried a lesser possible sentence. My lawyers argued that my state of mind was so impaired that the legal definition of the crime chosen should be reduced down from First Degree Murder. At one point the jury asked the judge how much time I would have to serve before being eligible for parole if given life in prison versus life without parole (the death penalty was not an option). The response: he could not tell them that information.

The State of Tennessee passed a law that constrained the jury in my trial from giving me another chance through parole, and then ruled that it could not explain the law precisely when it was most important that they understand. The jury saw the tragedy of my case, knew the severe irreparable damage I had done, and had the responsibility of deciding what justice meant. But they were restrained severely, and apparently they were not responsible enough to know what the legislature had done.

Was it a secret?

The average person does not closely follow each law passed. If they know anything about it, most people would guess that 25 years is the length of time one serves before parole consideration in the worst cases. But in Tennessee, because of the “Truth In Sentencing” law passed in 1995, I will have to serve at least 51 years before being eligible for release with max sentence credits. Without the behavioral credits, it could be as long as 60 years before I am eligible for release.

I was an eighteen year old child with no prior criminal record when I made a tragic mistake. I live with the heavy burden of guilt and regret for taking a young man’s life. I would change it if I could. I want to do anything I can to help those I have hurt, to live my life now with the purpose of helping instead of hurting.

I am NOT now worthless as a human being. I can contribute. I have tremendous talents and skills to be used for good. My family could certainly use my contribution. I want only the chance to come into the light of day and give back, but in Tennessee I am already dead. I suffered a social death, one legally justified in the U.S. since the 13th Amendment did not ban slavery, but forced it to evolve.

Is this waste of life and talent justified? A few people got together and made an arbitrary policy decision in 1995 with the promise of federal money which has long since dried up, and now I must serve at least 51 years before being dragged out into the sunlight blinking and coughing again, an old man of 69 since I was barely 18 when I was arrested for taking a life. 51 years is more than twice the length of time that someone formerly served for the same crime. The cost to the Tennessee taxpayers is staggering.

It costs about 27 thousand dollars to house a prisoner in Tennessee as of 2013. If he is over 55, the cost doubles. 51 years at that cost, without the inevitable inflation, is about 1.5 million dollars of taxpayer money, more than twice what it would have cost before the 1995 law was passed. Over six hundred men and women have been given this sentence so far in Tennessee. The math becomes scary very quickly. Soon we will see the kinds of problems that other states like Louisiana are facing with their aging population.

Why are we spending so much money? People like me with First Degree Murder convictions are actually least likely to re-offend after release, especially first-time offenders. No one needs to be protected from me. I have consistently demonstrated highly functional behavior for over a decade in the system. I have no criminal history and considerable education. Even though the jury had the dread responsibility of looking into the face of tragedy and deciding what to do for everyone’s good, they were not given the option to consider the value of my life, whether it was worth saving for the sake of the positive contributions I might still make.

51 years is the new life without parole. I know that if the law does not change, I will die in prison even though the jury in my community wanted me to have another chance. I spent over a decade in a CCA prison where my body earned the company a large slice of that $27,000 per year of taxpayer money. This is the bewildering solution offered by our legislature: throw them away like garbage in the best most expensive landfills.

When will we wake up and reconsider how we use the most precious natural resource: human beings?

by Parrhesia

Monday, July 7, 2014

Jesus, the Slave

"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." - Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution

How much longer do we as Christians intend to accept (encourage) the continuance of slavery in our nation? Our Christian ancestors didn't just turn a blind eye to slavery; they justified it with the Word of God. They used the words of the apostle Paul to subject an entire race of people to torture, humiliation, divided families, and many other tragedies.

Slavery is legal and exists even today in this country pursuant to the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Now, however, it isn't only African-Americans who are enslaved; it is anyone who is convicted of a crime.

We are allowing the trade in human flesh to continue in our ever-growing prison system. The form of slavery has evolved, but the concept is no different. People are being used as commodities. Laws are passed to continue the right to imprison a certain class of people and to accumulate wealth for another class. As Christian men and women, we need to remove the band-aid and have a close look at this deep, old wound.

I say "wound," not scar. It still hasn't healed; we've just kept it covered up for too long because we don't want to look at it. Slavery wasn't abolished; it merely changed form. The slave became a prisoner; the plantation is now a prison. In Mississippi and Louisiana, prisons are literally located on top of old slave plantations. The relationship is not that far-removed. How do we continue to let slavery go unpunished?

This isn't the example that Jesus left us. He tore all kinds of band-aids off of the old Jewish wounds. He showed the people the wounds of their past. He died to provide freedom; he lived to demonstrate freedom. He was a member of a culture that had once again found itself under the rule of another. Rome may have given the Jewish people certain liberties, but they still didn't rule their own land or their own lives. Jesus was making a point about freedom, about oppression, and about foolish laws that are meant to subjugate and punish. Remember the woman caught in adultery? Indeed, if we think about it, "there was only one guy in the whole Bible Jesus ever personally promised a place with him in Paradise. Not Peter, not Paul, not any of those guys. He was a convicted thief, being executed." American Gods, by Neil Gaiman.

Jesus knew help was needed, and he knew who needed help. His own people were enslaved over and over again. He knew they were being oppressed, and he acted, all the while providing us with the greatest example of love and compassion and bravery. We need to be brave. We should not just drop our stones and walk away; we need to throw the damn rocks at the walls that continue to entrap people in slavery. Jesus' disciples were ready to fight for him. If we are a part of his body, shouldn't we fight for it? Shouldn't we fight for the freedom of our brothers and our sisters? What we do for the least, he said, we do for him.

by Job