A Moral Imperative: Release Long-Term and Aging Prisoners

I have a new post on Truthout that I hope you’ll check out. It begins:

It was only for a moment, but on January 20, 2015, this country’s criminal punishment system got a general call for reform in President Obama’s state of the union address. With 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated people, it’s about time we heard this from our president. But what we didn’t hear was an analysis of exactly what we can do to shrink this massive system.

While Attorney General Eric Holder and many others have urged an end to needless mandatory minimums – a good step toward decarceration – this is not going far enough. Research from a variety of nonprofits like the Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch have shown that the majority of long-term prisoners, including many who have committed the most violent acts, are actually the best bet to exit prisons and not return to crime. More here.

Broken in the Moment: Juveniles who Kill

   jail-cell                                Image courtesy of Juvenile Justice Exchange            

Last week, on Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show, the New York Times columnist, Charles Blow was part of a panel discussing persistent and disturbing stereotypes of black men as irresponsible fathers. When Blow mentioned his own dad’s alcoholism and problems raising his son (Charles), he said about his father: “He is not a broken person, he was broken in the moment.” That phrase resonated for me, and I think that concept is pertinent because it applies to all of us. Who of us hasn’t been broken in the moment at some point in our lives?

It might seem strange to you that “broken in the moment” sent me to a recent juvenile lifer parole hearing I attended in Massachusetts. I have now been to eight of these hearings for juveniles and each one is filled with pain but also has demonstrated first-hand the plight of parents as well as the nature of kids who have killed and lived behind bars for years. I wrote about one parole hearing that was filled with healing here, but that is not the norm.

This hearing brought home to me (far more than any I have attended) how awful sentencing juveniles to life without parole really is. Laws have been modified, however 2500 juveniles nation-wide are still serving such sentences since they were behind bars before changes occurred.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision, Miller v. Alabama. Miller said science had proven juveniles were different from adults; they needed a judge’s thorough consideration, case by case, and could not automatically be sentenced to life without a meaningful chance at parole.Then in 2013, Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) went further in its interpretation of Miller with the Diatchenko v. District Attorney decision. The SJC struck down all sentences of life without parole eligibility for juveniles. This made sense; no other country allows juveniles to live behind bars until they die. A Massachusetts juvenile first-degree lifer was to serve at least 15 years before parole eligibility— a number deemed to allow a meaningful chance at rehabilitation. But the Massachusetts legislature changed that last year insisting that these juveniles serve somewhere between twenty and thirty years before parole eligibility, and allowing no parole in some exceptional cases. Other states have been slow to react wrote Josh Rovner for the Sentencing Project, and many require “decades-long minimum sentences” and, unlike Massachusetts,  “few have applied the changes retroactively.”

However, the parole petitioners in these cases that are now coming before the Massachusetts Parole Board, believed when they were sentenced that they would be in prison forever. Many of these teens were indeed broken in the moment. And they made choices in prison that reflect their youth, their despair, and their surety that prison was where they’d die.

Such was the case with Malik Abdul Asaz. Asaz came before the Parole Board at age forty-seven, having served more than thirty years in prison. His crime was horrendous. He killed a man who tried to help him, Stephen Lanigan, a literal good Samaritan who stopped his car, worried that something was wrong when he saw a kid lying in the middle of the road. But the boy jumped up— sixteen-year-old Malik was then named Norman Hawkesworth—and tried to see what it would be like to scare someone, brandishing a gun, and using it. He shot Lanigan in the back, watched him get in his car and drive away; the teen then heard a crash, wondered what had happened, but scared to find out instead fled with his friends.

This action had roots, like most of these murders do, in a childhood filled with trauma: beaten mercilessly by his stepfather as a boy, and knowing only a mother who abandoned him, Asaz barely attended school and got in trouble at a young age. When he entered prison, he believed he needed protection, and as a sixteen year old, maybe he did. In any case, he made the mistake of joining a gang. His entire world became rebellion. He earned 142 disciplinary reports, and his goal turned to becoming a gang leader.

Why on earth, I thought, sitting at this parole hearing and listening to this gruesome tale would we put a sixteen year old in with men who would school him in gang behavior, teach him that the only way was anger and hate? Why is our system not set up to treat these kids but to deprive them of hope? Certainly that will never bring back Stephen Lanigan. Is it really so absurd if you knew you would never get out of prison to lose all hope? In any case, Asaz did. He spent half of his thirty years in solitary confinement.

In 2010, the light bulb went off for Asaz. By this time he had become a Muslim, and he was beginning to realize violence was wrong and a life of hurting others was not what he wanted. But he had become a gang leader by the time this realization occurred. He had ordered “hits” in the prison–having people hurt under his direction, in other words, being violent and encouraging violence. He made these choices, and he admits that now wholeheartedly, but I wonder, how much does our punishment system encourage these choices?

Renouncing a gang is not easy. Luckily, he was transferred to prison in Montana both for his own protection and because of his behavior. There were no gangs there and Asaz began to change. He immersed himself in his faith and in violence prevention programs. He renounced the gang. He realizes that will need a different kind of protection perhaps for the rest of his life. He did this before he knew that he could ever have the opportunity to get out of prison. But would this light have gone off earlier if he had imagined a future?

Asaz came to Massachusetts from Montana and appeared before the Board asking for a two-year setback, not for release at this time. He wants to be returned to Montana to do more violence prevention programs. He realizes he needs more time to work on the kind of anger that he honed behind bars. The Board can grant him that request or they can give him a three, four, or five year setback.

But the question remains for me: what would Asaz be like today if he had not been put in an adult prison? Certainly Stephen Lanigan’s family suffered enormously because of his actions. But was being locked up with adults the best way for him to deal with that crime? Was it the best for our citizenry, the country, the world?

Professor Jonathan Simon from UC Berkeley who has written extensively on how much punishment is enough, said when I interviewed him for another article, that the standard across the world for such cases is ten to fifteen years behind bars. He said that “One thing that favors ten years is that beyond ten years, there is no deterrent value. It is inevitably degrading after that.” The person sentenced in many cases is assumed ready to be released (presumptive parole) but here in the states, he often must prove he is ready for release before he gets out of prison. In the case of Asaz, if he had been locked in a juvenile facility where people acted as educators and counselors, aiming to deal with the deficits in his youth while learning new ways of thinking and behaving—if he got support as well as supervision—wouldn’t he have been able to change in ten to fifteen years?

I do understand that retribution is an important part of our punishment paradigm in the United States. But how much punishment is enough and to what end? Is Asaz ready to come out of prison now? Probably not, and yet he knows that. Will the Board allow him to come back before them in two years, which in my mind would acknowledge that he wants to change, is trying to change, and aims to repair the harm he has caused? Maybe. But it is conceivable that they will give him five years, without believing that the system itself has caused him to be broken even more than he already was.

Ferguson at Harvard

Tear-gas-filled-streets-BLMAn image from the streets of Ferguson, Missouri after Michael Brown was killed by Officer Darren Wilson.

The film, Saving St. Louis, and the event that followed at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute of Race & Justice was overly ambitious for a four hour slot on a Saturday afternoon, but a lot more interesting than what the Boston Globe reported ten days ago in their headline: “Activists Spar with Ferguson Mayor; police chief at Harvard.” While the Globe discussed the tension between stakeholders from Ferguson after unarmed Michael Brown was killed by police officer, Darren Wilson, the article missed some of the event’s best moments in their coverage.

The afternoon was multifaceted and much more vibrant than mere remarks shoved back and forth. First there was a moving introduction given by David Harris, the managing director of the Institute. Speaking of the times we live in when a black man can be choked eleven times by a white police officer, when use of clemency has dwindled across the country and U.S. mass incarceration stands at 2.3 million people, he said (and I paraphrase): We must name the problem if we live in a society that excludes some and not others, i.e. “Implicit bias invades every aspect of our society.” He rightly called the death penalty a way of claiming, “White lives matter rather than black lives matter,” and he shocked us when he said two people in U.S. prisons had faced execution on Martin Luther King’s birthday.

As Harris introduced the day’s events, he beckoned us to remember that “True citizenship is a dynamic of inclusion and participation. What we are learning from today’s protestors is that they are voting with their feet and not their ballots.” Whether or not you think that is a good thing, some of this important on-their-feet-participation was actually present before we walked into the hall where two hundred and fifty or so people had gathered for the event. A group from the Harvard Ferguson Action Committee protested the presence of Police Chief Thomas Jackson and Ferguson Mayor James Knowles whom they called “human rights abusers,” handing out flyers calling for their resignation.

Certainly some of this important anger helped set the stage for the day, but deep concern was behind the anger, a need to fight the kind of injustice that has fueled the Black Lives Matter movement. One such person invited to participate, show his film, and moderate one of the panels was Andre Norman. Boston native and a formerly incarcerated gang member, Norman has turned around his life to become a change agent. His interesting film on the St. Louis school system had been filmed long before the events in Ferguson. It spoke of the kind of inequities that we have seen in poor communities across this nation. The school system was failing and to help improve it, Norman aimed at connecting people, similar and different from himself, and he brought attention to the problem. The film shows us the views and work being done by gang leaders, inner-city activists, and corporate CEOs.

There were several interesting comments about Norman’s attempt to help St. Louis lose the designation of “the most violent city in America.” They included Reverend Charles Shelton of Urban Development Solutions in St. Louis, saying, “When the Mike Brown situation happened, that was already my reality and that was just showing you folks what was happening in my reality every day.” Dr. E. Lance McCarthy, co-founder of Black Silicon Valley and Ferguson 1000 Jobs, said “African Americans contribute a trillion to this economy but jobs they get are not equal to that. You cannot solve economic problems with social solutions.” In other words, people need jobs. Behind the failing schools was economic injustice. But of course, racism was and is also part of the picture.

As the discussion turned to the recent events, we heard from Dianne Wilkerson, Massachusetts former state senator, who has her own checkered past as both a beloved and effective legislator—the first black woman elected to serve in Massachusetts— and also a person who as served time for public corruption charges. The Globe reported that she was “a civil rights attorney for the NAACP and in the Dukakis administration.” One of the most moving comments she made in her introduction was “My personal triumph and victory is that I have kept my son alive.” Wilkerson spoke out about a recent action that stopped traffic on the highways of Boston, countering the idea that it was disruptive for no purpose, and adding that #BlackLivesMatter welcomes everyone to protest conditions that are inhumane and exclusionary.

Boston BLM March


                    Photo by Jean Trounstine from #BlackLivesMatter March in Boston

Wilkerson introduced several people who knew the pain of losing loved ones to police violence. Eric Garner’s nephew Gabriel Baez said he grew up with the same story as St. Louis. “The problem of police brutality is real. We have to change the relationship of police with the urban community.” Monalisa Smith from Mothers for Justice and Equality, founded by mothers who had lost children to violence, said “Hopelessness needs to be turned into solutions. It is not normal for kids to be killed or incarcerated.” She added about what goes on for kids in communities where there is violence, “Trauma impacts the ability to be educated.”  In an amazing moment for the audience, as they absorbed how these speakers had lost sons and brothers and nephews, Dr. Leah Gunning Francis, Associate Dean for Contextual Education at the Eden Theological Seminary, asked, “What can we do as concerned people to bring compassion into the hearts of people who look at us every day and want us dead?”

The most important question of the day occurred when Dianne Wilkerson asked each of the final group of panelists one single question. These panelists included the mayor and the police chief, as well as: OOOPS, a local St. Louis artist and street poet (“battle rapper”) who has been on the front lines in Ferguson;  Justin Hansford, a professor of law at St. Louis University; Derecka Purnell, a Harvard Law School student who went to Missouri to protest; Paul Muhammad, founder of Peace Keepers St. Louis; and Dave Spence, a St. Louis businessman. She asked: “What do you think is the problem,” and she was speaking about Ferguson, but of course, knowing its ramifications have echoed across the nation.

The answers were profound and why I needed this day at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute. Professor Hansford said the problem is: “Black lives do not matter.” He pointed out that “Whenever killing happens and no one is held accountable, someone needs to lose their job.” And he asked the police chief and commissioner to resign. Echoing him, Purnell said “I think that whenever someone is killed by the police they need to go to trial. There is leadership that wants to hold on to power and not justify a broken system.”

The police chief got a cold shoulder from the audience when he said that the problem was “very long term poverty and lack of love in some people’s lives.” He added that he thought the country needed to “establish a national policy when an officer is involved in shootings… a transparent system…you have to talk right away. Police can’t kill someone and not explain why.” Likewise, the mayor was shunted when he ignored cries of “Racism” from the audience and said “Economics is the problem.” He added “I called fourteen elected officials to remove Bob McCullough. Our governor didn’t have the political courage.”

Muhammad said that the problem is “the disregard and dehumanization of black lives.” Speaking of the mayor and police chief and others like Bob McCullough, he added, “It was not personal and they did not feel it when Mike brown on the ground.” Muhammad feels that the racial divide in Ferguson and racial component across the country has to be addressed.

Ooops ended this panel with something that has stayed with me ever since. He said “The biggest problem is I always fit the description. Think about me getting pulled over with a gun in a car that I can legally have. We have to stay alive.”

I applaud the Institute for taking on so many important projects like this one, and for those of you who missed it, check out their website for future events.

Reading Groups in Prison

I’m excited that West Virginia University is starting a  book group that seems based, in part on Changing Lives Through Literature. I have written about CLTL here and there’s info on my blog about it as well. When I went to a conference last year in West Virginia, I talked about CLTL and lo and behold, I think it helped Katy Ryan get this group going, although she had been doing great things already with literature and writing behind bars.

This is a press release from WVA. I forgive them the use of the word, “inmate.” For more info, contact: Devon Copeland, Devon.Copeland@mail.wvu.edu _______________________________________________________________

For the past 10 years, community and West Virginia University nonprofit organization the Appalachian Prison Book Project has helped imprisoned people discover the transformative power of reading.

The project began in 2004 after Katy Ryan, associate professor of English at WVU, realized the state did not have any prison book projects.

The group has received more than 20,000 letters from imprisoned people expressing how needed — and essential — reading is. Books have been shipped to men and women in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Now, the program is starting its next chapter – a prison book club in the secure female facility at the U.S. Penitentiary Hazelton in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia.

The idea for the book club grew from a discussion at last spring’s Educational Justice and Appalachian Prisons Symposium, an event co-sponsored by the Appalachian Prison Book Project. Longtime members of the project Cari Carpenter, Elizabeth Juckett and Katy Ryan are facilitating the book club.

“Prisons are built to isolate and to separate. They stand as formidable barriers between those inside and those outside. Books can lessen that isolation,” said Ryan, founder of the Appalachian Prison Book Project. “Malcolm X wrote that reading in prison changed forever the course of his life. ‘It awoke in me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.’ We all need that intellectual and creative stimulation, and people in prison have fewer opportunities for it.”

Through reading and discussion of selected works, the group hopes to strengthen members’ analytical and communication skills, and build positive peer support and vital connections between people inside and outside prisons.

It can also foster relationships and help mend those affected by incarceration.

“One woman told us that after reading Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, she wanted to reach out to her son. He is going through a hard time, and she hadn’t been able to find a way to connect with him. She had not felt comfortable writing to him, but the book helped her find a way to start,” Ryan said. “She wrote her son a letter. Then they talked on the phone for the first time in seven months.

For others, it can simply be a more personal feeling.

“Several (prisoners) have talked about how a book has stayed with them and given them a new perspective or strength,” Ryan said. “The importance of reading and access to an education while inside prison certainly extends to life outside prison. Studies repeatedly conclude that those with a higher education do better once released than those without. But learning also matters while people are still in prison. Their lives, their health, their relationships, their mental faculties are not on hold. Books—and especially being able to talk with others about books—can be a real resource for living, for figuring things out.”

Every other week the book club works on creative writing. The 14-member group writes short essays and poems, reading them to one another.

“We want the book club to be flexible and responsive to the needs and ideas of participants,” Ryan said. “The women are highly motivated and dedicated to their education and growth. It’s a phenomenal group.”

Though it always accepts donations for postage, supplies and other books (including dictionaries), the group is currently seeking donations of the following titles for the book club. All donated items must be paperback.

There Are No Children Here, by Alex Koltowitz

A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest Gaines

The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy

The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Discussions in the club have been fantastic and reaction to the group has been positive, Ryan said.

“Staff members (at the prison) have reached out to let me know that the women are really excited about the program and are talking about the books as they are reading them. And we know that other women are already interested in joining the next group. There is a lot of momentum.

The group says studies show rates of repeat offenses drop when inmates are given access to such materials while inside. The power of the written word, Ryan said, has the ability to change and transform.

“We often describe books as an ‘escape’ or ‘transporting’ — they move us — and yet they return us to ourselves and our moment,” she said. “The right book at the right time can adjust, even alter, the way that we think about life and the world.”