The road back

At one facility we are in the 10th week of a forgiveness project. We’ve watched  videos of people talking about bad things done to them and describing how they have — or have not — been able to forgive. We’ve read and discussed similar stories. And we have interviewed each other about our bad decisions and how they have sometimes led us into situations where others did us wrong and we were confronted with the question of forgiving.

GH has been a relentless interviewer at such times. He bores in with questions that make you squirm. More than once I needed to remind him that we are more interested in the future — which we can change — than in the past, which we cannot change. Forgiving, I always say, has great potential to write a new narrative for the future of all of us. We learn from our past, hopefully; but we cannot change it.

I had been asking GH to let me interview him in front of the class. He declined at first but later relented. We sat facing each other a week ago and I asked the question with which we always begin such interviews: “G, tell us about being wronged by someone in the past.”

He looked at me and smiled. “I am not going to tell the story you think I am.” I knew that G’s son had been shot and killed by a police officer and, indeed, this is the story I expected him to tell. He continued, “I am going to tell you how I have harmed myself.”

I truly was not expecting this, but I invited G to proceed. In less than a minute, he was deep into the story of his multiple and repeated failures to do the right thing. Once, previously, it had landed him in a county jail. Now, again, he was back in prison. But he was more anguished over all the bad choices that hurt him and people close to him, even if he escaped arrest and prosecution.

His eyes filled with tears and he became very self-conscious. I, and other caring men in the room, offered tender words and wise questions that seemed to help G climb on top of his emotions and gather his thoughts again. At one point he said something like to this: “What worries me  most is the thought that I am, at heart, a criminal and will never be anything else.”

In almost five years of work in prisons, I have never heard anyone say something like that. Many will affirm the injustice of their arrest or prosecution or sentence. Once in a  while someone will say he is looking at imprisonment as the chance to turn his life around. I had never heard anyone worry aloud to me or a group of inmates that he was afraid that he would always do the criminal thing.

Another participant, GF, echoed GH’s worries. He said he wondered if he, too, was somehow doomed to repeat the past. But he affirmed, correctly in my opinion, that the ability to even ask the question was a sign of progress that held hope for the future.

Another participant raised the forgiveness question: “G, have you been able to forgive yourself?”

“Not entirely,” G responded. “This is something I am still working on.” I suggested that the forgiveness question is related to the worry that he will be a career criminal. G agreed.

Toward the end, G made the hopeful statement that he was glad to still have some time left on his sentence to work on things. “I am not ready to go back home,” he said. “But I very much want to be ready when the time comes.” I have two more sessions with him to do my part. But I know that his willingness to take a six-week forgiveness class, followed by a 13-week forgiveness project says hopeful things about his chances of success.

As we were adjourning, G turned to me and said, “You thought you had me when my eyes got watery.”

I replied, “G, you know I’m not here to get anyone. We are all in this together.” He smiled, shook my hand and walked away.

 

Former federal inmate returns to prison

In 1987 Michael Santos was sentenced to 45 years in federal prison for a crack cocaine conviction. He earned his release after 26 years of good behavior, while also earning undergraduate and graduate degrees. He now returns to prisons to speak to inmates about his story and how their story can change. What does it take? In Santos’ own words, it takes a “100 percent commitment to rejecting the criminal lifestyle…100 percent commitment to preparing for success upon release.”

You can watch the story here.

He listened…and acted

The theme was the limits of forgiveness. It is the class where I acknowledge what almost everyone believes — that some things are unforgivable. The example I intended to put forward was Ariel Castro, the man who held three women captive in his home in Cleveland for ten years. It is a horrifying story of depravity, cruelty, and sexual abuse.

Before I could get to the story, however, one participant had his hand up, ready to provide his own example of the unforgivable. Not surprisingly, James began to describe his codefendant. The man had been a friend, but when offered a lighter sentence in exchange for his testimony against James, he took it. Worse still, he even embellished his testimony against James.

James described the impact. “I laid awake at night for 48 months, hating this man for what he had done to me and  my family.” James received a lengthy sentence and his family has suffered in the way all families of prisoners suffer.

James continued. “For a long time it really did not matter that I was actually guilty of what they convicted me of. I blamed this man for putting me in prison because it was easier than admitting that I am the one who made decisions to break the law.”

Up to this point James had said nothing I had not heard numerous time before. In prison “codefendant” is a three-letter word spelled “rat.” Among inmates, codefendants are almost always at the top of a list of the unforgiven. But then James said something that really moved me.

“So after four years of hating and blaming this man — and losing lots of sleep over it — I decided to try what you recommended one night at the Sunday service.” My antenna went up. James continued: “You recommended that before we went to sleep that night we should forgive the people who have hurt us. So when I climbed in my bunk that night I forgave my codefendant.”

The room was very quiet; everyone seemed to be waiting to hear the outcome. James provided it: ” I did not completely succeed that night, but I got a good start, and I have continued to work at it. Remembering what he did now is not the way it used to be. I think about it and I move on. And I am sleeping at night again.”

Before I could say anything, another participant, seated just two chairs away from James, blurted out, “That’s what I need to do! His story is exactly the same as mine.”

I told the class that James had taught the lesson better than I could have. It is one thing, I said, to speak  abstractly about what we consider to be unforgivable; it is something else when we are in bad pain because of something unforgivable that’s actually been done to us. In James’ case, what his codefendant did was, for four years, unforgivable. But after many sleepless nights, he decided to see if it really was unforgivable. And he has discovered that it wasn’t. He has encouraged us all to reconsider.

My point did not stand for long before another participant vowed that he would never forgive his codefendant for ruining his life. And not only would he never forgive, he would have his revenge one day. The rat would pay.

“Brother,” I said, “being so honest about this is a good thing, and it takes  courage to say what you just said in the middle of a class on forgiveness.” I added, “please stay with me for the several classes that remain and let’s see what happens.” He smiled and agreed.

“I never forgive anyone”

I was halfway through the one-hour class on forgiveness at a local county prison when his hand went up and the inmate responded to a point in the lesson with, “I never forgive anyone.” I asked him to say more about that.

His answer was interesting. He stated that holding a grudge against someone was a good way of reminding him not to commit a similar wrong against someone else. “If I forgive,” he said, “I will have no incentive to hold myself to a higher standard. Holding a grudge helps  me not to do the thoughtless, harmful things to someone else that have been done to me.”

I have heard numerous arguments against forgiving, but I must admit I have never heard this one.

We had been talking about a man who had spent much of his life blaming his father for being an alcoholic, for beating his mother, for being a terrible father. Whenever something went wrong in his life, the son blamed the father. He justified his own irresponsibility by blaming his father.

But his perspective dramatically changed when he became a father. He realized that his father had not set out to be a bad father. He imagined that his father experienced the same feelings of love toward him as he felt toward his own son. He worried that if he did not forgive his father, he might somehow be doomed to repeat the same bad fathering toward his son as he had experienced growing up. So standing there beside his son’s crib, he forgave his father.

The inmate in my class had his own explanation of why the son forgave his father. “I think he forgave his father so that when he screwed up later in life he could let himself off the hook and lay the blame back on his father.” The inmate added this: “Holding a grudge is a powerful incentive not to repeat the wrong that has been done to you. Forgiving the person who wronged you is nothing more than a psychological game in which you give yourself an excuse somewhere down the road to be just like the person who hurt you.”

I responded that this was precisely the opposite of what I had experienced. My experience, I said, was that when I judged someone for the wrong he had done to me, refusing to forgive, I invariably sinned against someone else in the same way this other person had sinned against me.

His response was something like this: “You saying that doesn’t make it so.”

A door opens at a county prison

I learned last Thursday afternoon that the federal facilities where I minister would be in lockdown through the weekend. Apparently there was some violence. I also suspect that the one-year anniversary for the murder of a correctional officer might also have had something to do with the prison closing. In any event, I was unable to enter the minimum security facility on Friday for the Forgiveness Project or both facilities today for the Protestant services.

This meant I could give a bit more time to preparing for the first session in a Forgiveness Project I am beginning at the Pike County Correctional Facility in Lords Valley. When I first approached a counselor at PCCF about offering my services there, the discussion centered around money management classes. But when she learned of my work at Canaan with the Forgiveness Project, we both felt this would be good for the men at PCCF.

Twenty-two men were waiting for me in their cellblock at 1:30pm on Friday. I sat at one of the steel picnic-style tables, introduced myself and began to talk about why forgiveness matters. I welcomed questions, probed their answers to mine and showed a clip from a video about how forgiveness has entered the vocabulary of nations torn by war, violence, racism and genocide. The hour ended too quickly. But it was a good start.

The difficult but important work of forgiveness

A big part of the Canaan Forgiveness Project sessions are the interviews inmates conduct with each other. They ask each other questions about how they responded to people who did them wrong. Questions deal with the what, where, when, who and how; but also with feelings, responses and long-term fallout.

Today, P.C. agreed to be interviewed; D.H. was the interviewer. When he agreed two weeks ago to be interviewed today, P.C. said that he would not talk about his most painful hurt, something having to do with the death of someone he loved. That one, he has said, is unforgivable.

Instead, P.C. described a pool hall fight with a man he called a bully that eventually escalated into gunshots. Some days later it resumed with P.C. being threatened by the same man, this time holding a sawed off shotgun, which resulted in P.C. being arrested and prosecuted, while the man who threatened him suffered no consequences. P.C. said the cost of his defense, acquittal and the subsequent court costs and fines was thousands of dollars. He spoke of his anger and hatred toward the man. He also described the stress he endured over the ensuing eight years when even the sight of the man brought back  bitter memories and  fear that if they got too close, one of them would likely die.

Eventually, P.C. said, the dreaded moment arrived when the two of them found themselves alone and together with no easy way to escape. Instead of a violent confrontation, his enemy apologized and extended his hand. Here, it is worth quoting P.C. “I still do not know how it happened, for I had no good feelings toward this man. But suddenly my hand grabbed his hand.”

“Was it forgiveness?” another inmate asked. P.C. said that he does not think so. But, he added, there was a sense of peace. In fact, he felt so much better that he has since often wondered why he was willing to endure eight years of frequent torment every time he saw the man or something triggered the memory of what happened. “I would be playing with my kids,” he said, “and then see the guy driving by. And I would instantly lose all enthusiasm for being with my children. The anger would come back and I would become anything but a loving father.”

Another inmate asked, “Well, have you forgiven this guy?” P.C. said that he thought he had. I then asked P.C. if he had forgiven himself for his role in the initial act of violence that got him into trouble. P.C. was indignant and told me plainly that he resented the question. “None of it was my fault,” he insisted. “This other guy was the one who did me wrong.”

“But you responded to his aggression by fighting rather than talking him down or walking away.” P.C. defended his actions, insisting that he would have lost face with his friends if he had not met aggression with aggression. “Perhaps so,” I said, “but by participating in the escalation you ultimately ended up in court, spent thousands of dollars you did not have defending yourself, and then endured eight years of periodic torment every time you saw this guy and thought about him. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that you suffered a great deal because you chose not to walk away from a fight. That’s why I asked if you had forgiven yourself.”

P.C. looked at me for several long seconds before saying, “No one has ever helped me look at things the way you just did. I have a long way to go with this forgiveness stuff. It’s hard.”

Yes it is. But oh so important.

 

The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013

To many who have never had a loved one in prison, or who were the victim of a crime, or who assumed that our judicial system delivered pristine justice at all times; a law to reduce sentences for non-violent crimes probably seems unnecessary at best or misguided at worse. But to the many inmates in federal prison, serving lengthy sentences for non-violent crimes, including drug trafficking, such a law is long overdue.

The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 was introduced in the United States Senate on July 31, 2013 and referred to the Judiciary Committee. The Judiciary Committee reported it to the entire Senate for consideration on January 30, 2014. The bill, introduced by Richard Durban, Democrat of Illinois, now has 10 cosponsors — 5 Democrats, 4 Republicans and 1 Independent. Among the Republican cosponsors are three of the Senate’s most conservative members — Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul.

The bill has a fairly good chance of becoming law. If that happens, according to a summary of the law produced by the Library of Congress, the following will result:

  1. It will amend the federal criminal code to direct the court to impose a sentence for specified controlled substance offenses without regard to any statutory minimum sentence if the court finds that the criminal history category for the defendant is not higher than category two (under current law, that the defendant does not have more than one criminal history point).
  2. It will authorize a court that imposed a sentence for a crack cocaine possession or trafficking offense committed before August 3, 2010, on motion of the defendant, the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, the attorney for the government, or the court, to impose a reduced sentence as if provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 were in effect at the time such offense was committed.
  3. It will amend the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act (CSIEA) to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for manufacturing, distributing, dispensing, possessing, importing, or exporting specified controlled substances.

 

If it becomes law this bill will not afford very much comfort to prisoners convicted of violent crimes. But it may do something very good for the many (mostly black) men who are serving lengthy sentences for non-violent drug offenses. The bill is especially noteworthy for two things: First, it will remedy the significant disparity in sentences given for crack cocaine possession or trafficking as opposed to sentences for powdered cocaine possession and trafficking. Second, the bill will allow courts to disregard the mandatory minimum sentences if the defendant is not a violent criminal or repeat offender.

The effects of this bill, if it becomes law, will be retroactive. Many who are currently serving sentences could have a reduced sentence imposed and, in some cases, be immediately released from prison.

Aside from its implications for justice, this bill recognizes another reality. The financial cost of the mass incarceration of non-violent drug offenders is staggering. The nation’s prisons are full and, in some cases, overcrowded. The sentencing guidelines that put so many behind razor wire are viewed by many as unaffordable.

In the facilities where I minister, inmates are talking about this bill. When I lead Christian services, we take time to pray for the passage of this bill. For many, that may not seem like much. For those sentenced under the mandatory minimums, the prayers are fervent because the injustice seems so real.

 

Guilt and innocence

In a memorable scene from the film “The Shawshank Redemption,” Red explains to Andy that every inmate at Shawshank is innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. Such assertions,usually with minor caveats, are more common than one might think: “I did not commit the crime they prosecuted me for. I did break the law at other times, but I did not do what they sent me to prison for.” Or this: “I did not deliberately break any law. I made some wrong choices, took some bad advice. But I did not set out to commit a crime.”

A prison sentence, regardless of the length, brings awful consequences to the life of the convicted and his family. I understand why a man in prison wants to diminish or deny his guilt. It is surely a defensive mechanism that somehow enables one to cling to some hope that a perceived injustice will some day be righted and an especially lengthy prison sentence will be ended on successful appeal.

Still, I am often distressed at the patterns of denial I observe among the men to whom I minister at Canaan. To believe many of them one has to believe that the entire criminal justice system mostly gets it wrong or, worse, is completely corrupt. For me that is a bridge too far. Yes, sometimes the system does get it wrong. Yes, sometimes there is racial bias. Yes, more often than not, the sentences for non-violent offenses are too long. But at the end of the day, most men in prison broke the law. Owning up to that fact without caveats and self-justification, for many, is difficult.

But I am beginning to discover that honesty can emerge when the setting is safe. In one of the recent Forgiveness Project sessions, I turned the class over to the participants, allowing them to interview one of their number about a time when someone did him wrong and how he responded to it. I provided basic questions, but the class participants asked many additional questions. In addition, they offered a number of insightful observations about the interviewee’s decisions and judgments before, during and after the incident. I was struck by the honesty that emerged, as well as the empathy expressed be all the interviewers. No one criticized or judged. The mood was of a group of men who have all made bad decisions and suffered the consequences, including a prison sentence.

What really encouraged me was the way several participants honestly acknowledged some of the mistakes that derailed their lives and listened as others sought to help them redirect their thinking toward a more hopeful future. I am sure that I could never have succeeded in producing such honesty if I had conducted the interview.

“Come on in boys, the water is fine”

Walking back to the shore following his spontaneous baptism in “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, Delmar tells his fellow criminals that “the preacher done washed away all my sins and transgressions.” He mentions that his robbing of the Piggly Wiggly is included. One of the other criminals reminds him that he denied being involved in that robbery. Delmar hesitates, then admits that he was lying when he said that. Yes, even the robbery of the Piggly Wiggly has been washed away. “Neither God nor man’s got nothing on me now,” he says. Finally, lifting both arms he extends the invitation: “Come on in boys, the water is fine.”

None of the nine men I baptized at the penitentiary last Sunday said those words, but the expressions of delight and joy as they came up out of the water said just as much to the 40 other men who witnessed the event.

It’s odd that an act of obedience that the Bible considers as “into the death of Jesus,” should be such an occasion of joy. But sin is an onerous burden. The men to whom I minister know this better than most. Some of them have the rest of their lives to think about where sin put them. Leaving it under the waters of baptism is a cause to rejoice.

Paul said it well in Galatians: “I am crucified with Christ. Nevertheless, I live. Yet not I; it is Christ that lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Come on in; the water is fine.

The sound of a broken record

Back in vinyl’s heyday, a badly scratched or broken record would always kick the needle back and replay the same segment of the song, over and over again.

News and opinion pieces about draconian mandatory prison sentences for drug convictions are now so universally consistent that they all sound like a broken record. What is being replayed, over and over again, is the tragedy of far too many men and women sent to prison for far too long.

Prosecutors Draw Fire for Sentences Called Harsh” appeared this evening on the website of  The New York Times.

It is a story I have heard too many times already in conversations with too many prisoners.

But I recommend that you read it.