It’s easy to keep some cold, hard distance from the reality of prison in America until someone you know and care about lands on the dark side of these stone walls.
Among the most basic unwritten rules for the 2.4 million people in prison in America is one that I am about to violate. The rule of thumb for any prisoner with something good to say about his captors is that he should keep it to himself. I have to make an exception to that rule. In my post, “Entrustment to Divine Mercy for Wounded Warriors,” I wrote of a sometimes frustrating endeavor that has been taking up a lot of my time.
Three years ago, I was challenged to serve on a committee that attempts to negotiate with the prison administration over a wide range of prisoner issues and concerns. I managed to duck this invitation for several years until someone I knew was caught up in an unjust predicament here. My friend received an A-Level Disciplinary Report – the highest level possible short of a new criminal charge. The report listed his offense as being “Out of Place,” meaning that he went somewhere in the prison where he should not have been, and without authorization.
This should have been classified as either an “A, B, or C-Level” offense depending on seriousness, or as a “bad spot” if trivial, but it was written at the highest level possible. The prisoner involved faced sanctions such as 100 hours extra duty (free labor), 100 days loss of access to the commissary and outside recreation, and a one-year termination from his most treasured outlet: woodworking.
My friend was pressured to plead guilty without a hearing under threat of being moved to other housing. The penalties seemed severe. I assumed that this friend must have done something serious to warrant all this, but when he showed me the report, I was stunned. His offense? He was standing in line for medication that he takes daily. When someone asked him a question, he stepped a few feet out of the line to answer it.
So I braved something that I technically had no right to do. I went to the officer who wrote the report and asked him why it was written at the highest level when it should have been a simple “bad spot,”or at most a “C-Level” report. The officer then showed me a list of newly revised disciplinary infractions in which all “out of place” reports – no matter how serious or trivial – are to be treated as “A-Level” offenses.
Then I went to the administrator of the woodworking program here and argued that such a minor infraction should not have a one-size-fits-all penalty such as loss of woodworking for an entire year. He agreed, but said his hands were tied. Then he said, “If you really want to do something about this, join the ICC and argue the point.” So I accepted – reluctantly.
In my first meeting with the prison administration a month later, I argued the case. The Commissioner of the Department of Corrections stated that a revision of all rule infractions had been undertaken “with unforeseen consequences” by someone in his office. I argued that fair notice is considered the basis of due process in all legal systems, and there was no fair notice about this drastic upgrade in rules and sanctions. He agreed, and rescinded the entire revision, restoring the previous version of disciplinary infractions and sanctions.
Recently, the prison administration here signed and ratified a Policy and Procedure Directive defining its intent to work with the Inmate Communications Committee (ICC):
“It is the policy of the NH Department of Corrections to establish and support an Inmate Communications Committee (ICC) consisting of inmate representatives with the support and assistance of assigned DOC staff. The ICC shall advocate for inmate issues and serve as a communications source and a conduit of pertinent information for inmates at DOC facilities in identifying issues and bringing proposals forward to management authorities. All issues and proposals shall be intended to serve the general good and welfare of the inmate population, including security and safety concerns. It is not intended to be used to advocate for individual inmates’ personal issues.” (PPD 7.03)
PRISON AND RESTORATIVE JUSTICE
I proposed and wrote PPD 7.03 which is now a public document, but no one was more surprised than me when the current prison Warden became its proponent and the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections signed it into local law. So in a way, I made the bed that I now have to sleep in. From the most crowded and unlivable living quarters in this entire prison system, I advocate – along with six others – for everyone’s issues and concerns except my own. I can talk about how unjust and oppressive the current policies regarding housing are, or how difficult it is for someone else to live eight to a cell on a long term basis, but I cannot ever mention my own discomfort.
Still, I commend the administration of the New Hampshire Department of Corrections for having the foresight and sense of justice to include some formal prisoner advocacy among the voices and agendas they are willing to hear. It’s a progressive step, and especially so when most so-called “progressives” in the political arena have abandoned the criminal justice reform and prison reform agendas they once championed. I wrote a little about this before the last election cycle in “Hillary Clinton, Judge Alex Kozinski, & Prisoner 67546.”
Please do not conclude from the above that I have “found my place” or worse, “found my peace” with this environment. I must do everything I can to resist an unjust conviction and sentence imposed on me. Readers who have been paying any attention at all know that my cross of false witness and unjust imprisonment has been heavy.
I do not believe that God has given me this cross because I can bear it, or because He wanted me to rescue other souls here from the eve of destruction. I do not believe that God did this to me at all. It was the work of men – of selfish, greedy, sinful men. What God gave in response was the grace to endure this evil and not be defined by it. If there has arisen from this evil something good for someone else, it is not my doing.
I remain committed to a basic principle proposed by Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning. It’s one that I actually heard the prison Warden here repeat in a recent meeting.
“There is one freedom that can never be taken from you: the freedom to choose the person you will be in this, or any, circumstance.”
I am not, therefore, a bitter or broken man, and I have not exchanged evil for evil. That is solely because of the work of grace, and it is a good thing. The alternative to cooperating with that grace is to become selfish, resentful, vindictive. I might fit in better, but I could not “do time” as most prisoners describe prison. Time would do me!
But what about the vast majority of prisoners who have indeed committed crimes against society and come to prison as a just consequence of their action? Midway through my 23rd year in prison as I write this, I have learned a few things about them, about the prisons that keep them, about restorative justice, and about not only what is in their best interest, but in yours as well.
One truth that I have learned is something that I wrote in a recent post: “Beneath every story is another story that brings light to what is on the surface.” This is true in the story of every prisoner I have met. There are evil people in prison. There are some who should never again be entrusted with freedom beyond these stone walls, but they are a small minority. For the vast majority of prisoners I have met, restoring justice to their lives and restoring their freedom is a singular goal. The problem is that there is very little that happens in a one-size-fits-all prison that helps bring that about, and there is a lot in prison that actually works against it.
My recent article for Spero News, “The Shawshank Redemption and Its Real-World Version,” described the challenge of living eight to a cell in an environment characterized by physical, psychological, and spiritual uncertainty and chaos:
“The restoration [of a prisoner] stands as a monument to the great tragedy of what is lost when strained budgets and overcrowding transform prison from a house of restorative justice into a warehouse of nothing more redemptive than mere punishment.”
OBSTACLES AND ALLIES IN RESTORATIVE JUSTICE
During the last presidential election year in the United States the topic of criminal justice reform came before the public consciousness. In the ebb and flow of political rhetoric, there were some good ideas floated to embrace both criminal justice reform and prison reform. One solid idea was a plan announced by the Department of Justice to cease the use of private “for-profit” prisons to house federal prisoners.
During one of the presidential primary debates, Hillary Clinton declared her opposition to private prisons, stating that the lives and rehabilitation of young offenders “should not depend on someone’s bottom line.” There has not been much that I agree with Mrs. Clinton about, but I agree with that. On the other hand, she did fail to mention that the 1990s Clinton Crime Bill was largely responsible for the explosion of prison populations across the land with no real change in crime rates.
On the heels of Mrs. Clinton’s statement, – (all of entrenched Washington thought she would win, after all) – the Department of Homeland Security also announced that it would review its policy of housing some illegal immigrant detainees in private prisons. Almost instantly, the three largest for-profit prison companies in the United States dropped a total of $2.2 billion in their stock value.
Since the election, however, President Donald Trump reversed course. After stating the Administration’s support for private prisons, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Justice Department’s decision to end their use.
I believe this is unwise, and a misguided effort that I hope our President will reconsider. The bureaucracy of government is an enormous obstacle to restorative justice. The one thing that would make it worse is to trade government bureaucracy for some corporation’s shareholders and profit margin.
This nation has to rethink crime and punishment. Some of the statistics are staggering. The United States imprisons citizens at a rate higher than any nation in the free world and most that are not so free. We have more citizens under age thirty in prison than all nations of the European Union combined. The U.S. has five percent of the world’s population and twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners.
From my own perspective, maybe a good place to start would be to address the sanity behind offering a defendant a one-to-two year sentence to plead guilty, then sentencing him to prison for sixty-seven years for maintaining his innocence. Or the sanity of keeping an 18-year-old defendant in prison for over four decades – long after his rehabilitation is aptly demonstrated.
If you think that prison in and of itself restores an offender, think again. Just a week after I and others were forced to live eight-to-a-cell – a story I described in “Hebrews 13:3: Writing Just This Side Of the Gates of Hell” – I was sitting in the prison dining hall when a younger prisoner sat across from me. He told me that he first came to prison at age 18, and is now back for his 13th parole violation at age 30. He said he has gone “to the most comfortable housing” each time, and “I really like it there.”
God forbid they should make him a little less comfortable. Maybe he would not have come back 13 times! As he regaled us about his 13th return visit, he was oblivious to the fact that I had to dissuade the other three men at my table from punching him.
This guy came here as a lost 18-year-old and was warehoused, and now he is an institutionalized 30-year-old. Taxpayers could have put this kid through Harvard for what they spent to subsidize this human tragedy. Now multiply that by 2.4 million.
I had the great privilege recently of exchanging some ideas with Chandra Bozelko whose eye-opening article, “It Isn’t Offensive to Give Offenders a Second Chance” appeared in The Wall Street Journal (January 9, 2017). She wrote of how our supposedly progressive news media dogged Donald Trump during the past election because someone with a long-ago felony conviction presented him with a bronze eagle award on New Year’s Eve. From this, the liberal news media declared that Trump had been “associating with felons.” Ms. Bozelko wrote,
“The media’s guilt-by-association mind-set would make convicted felons more toxic and untouchable by justifying employers’ refusal to hire us or schools denying us admission.”
And in a recent cover story for the ever faithful Our Sunday Visitor, “Incentivized Incarceration: For-Profit Prisons,” (OSV April 9-15, 2017) writer Nicholas W. Smith penned an excellent analysis of the subject of prisons and prison reform. OSV has opened a much-needed discussion about America’s private prison industry and its use for both prisoners and immigrant detention. With the help of a friend, I was able to post a comment on that article. It might signal OSV about the importance of this story if you click on the article and read my comment.
Lastly, I thank you for reading this far. “When I was in prison you came to me” (Matthew 25:36). You have performed a Corporal Work of Mercy for which I ask the Lord’s Divine Mercy blessings upon you in abundance.
Now please share this post!