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.

Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013

Nelson Mandela, friend and practitioner of the art of forgiving, died today at the age of 95.

In 1990 Mandela emerged from prison after serving almost three decades of a life sentence to lay the groundwork for the first multiracial democracy in South Africa’s history. Elected as President in 1994, Mandela guided the nation out of the dark night of apartheid’s brutal and racist reign by the moral power of a heart committed to truth, forgiveness and reconciliation.

Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s current President, announced the news in the middle of the night — late afternoon in Pennsylvania. He said, “our nation has lost its greatest son; our people have lost a father.”

With Mandela’s strong support, the South African national legislature passed the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act in 1995, which established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to help the nation deal with what happened during the apartheid regime. The TRC held public meetings throughout the nation, allowing victims and perpetrators alike the opportunity to tell the truth about what happened. Many blacks told gut wrenching stories of the violence visited on their families and communities. Very few whites confessed to their role in perpetrating the violence. The TRC had the power to grant amnesty to perpetrators of violence, both black and white. The conditions were strict; more blacks than whites were granted amnesty for their crimes during the years of apartheid.

The TRC made a critically important contribution to South Africa’s remarkably peaceful emergence from apartheid and the establishment of a multiracial democracy. As one of the first national efforts at restorative justice, the TRC became a model for other nations’ attempts to emerge from times of ethnic violence.

In our time, Nelson Mandela has been one of justice’s greatest advocates. So, too, will his name rightly be linked to the word “forgiveness.” It was, for him, more than an idea that had merit for individuals. He saw its power to save and shape a nation. The reality of forgiveness in Nelson Mandela seems, to me, to be forever captured in his brilliant and engaging smile. More even than his words, Mandela’s broad and genuine smile speaks to the life-changing power of forgiveness.



The Forgiveness Project’s first amazing week

This past Tuesday and Friday I met with inmates at both prison facilities for the first sessions in the Canaan Forgiveness Project. I am not sure who was more excited when each session ended — the participants or me. Both were (and I’ll use a words I don’t much like) “pretty awesome.”

I followed the same format with the 14 men at the camp as I had followed three days earlier with the eight men at the penitentiary. First, we went over the ground rules. We agreed to listen to each other carefully, to refrain from preaching, to maintain confidentiality, to disagree without being disagreeable, to refrain from judging each other — the kinds of small group considerations that will help make this a more positive experience for everyone.

Next, everyone shared their hoped-for outcomes from participating in the Canaan Forgiveness Project. Following this, I put myself in the hot seat and allowed the entire group to interview me about a time in my life when someone had wronged me. I provided basic interview questions about what happened, how I felt about it, what I did about it and whether I had been able to forgive the person who hurt me.

If ever there was a pent-up need among these men (all of whom have taken my six-week class on forgiveness) to see if I could really practice what I preach, it spilled out like a broken water main. I have probably never been subjected to such close questioning about my judgment, my decisions, my attitudes, my feelings and my actions as in the interviews, both at the penitentiary and at the camp. Almost everyone got involved.

One participant suggested I was totally responsible for what had happened. Another said I was only partially responsible. Still another said it did not matter who was responsible; what mattered was whether or not I had forgiven the person who wronged me. Some of the insights offered were worthy of a trained psychologist.

As I listened and responded to their questions and insights, it was clear that my willingness to offer myself to their questions and scrutiny allowed them to use me as a mirror for their own experiences of bad judgment, mistakes, hurt and resentment. I felt at one point that it was cathartic for them to turn the screws on me for getting into a situation wherein I felt wronged so that they could avoid, at least for the moment, having to do it to themselves for their own complicity in something similar.

When it was over, I warmly thanked them for their profound insights and searching questions. I told them this had really been of value to me. And I invited them to consider, in a future session, allowing themselves to be interviewed along a similar line. I wrapped it up by saying something like this:

“You have all correctly identified my error of judgment and bad decision in allowing myself to get into a situation that opened the door for someone to wrong me. You have also perceptively described what I should have done to avoid the damage that was ultimately done. The fact is, however, that all of us make errors in judgment and bad decisions that, later, we come to regret. But we cannot rewrite history. The only two things we can do are, first, deal redemptively with the wounds that come from our mistakes and, secondly, learn from them so as not to repeat them. Forgiveness is an essential tool in dealing redemptively with the past — forgiving ourselves for the stupid or malicious things we have done and forgiving others for the stupid or malicious things they have done to us.”

Every head knowingly nodded. As we broke up, I received several warm and firm handshakes that seemed to say, “We’re all in this together.”

I shall be interested to see who takes the hot seat next time and what collective wisdom — and hopefully, grace — comes forth from each group.

Righting institutionalized injustice

How, I recently wondered, did a nation with such deep roots in western Christianity tolerate the injustice of slavery for as long as it did? To be sure there were powerful economic interests in the continuation of slavery. And maybe there were reasonable questions about the Constitution and states rights. And — though I strain to believe it — perhaps a large number of slaveowners and those who supported slavery honestly believed that it was a “benevolent institution” that benefited black people.

Still, how could it have taken the country over 250 years — and a horrific Civil War — to finally end the injustice of slavery? How did so many Christians fail to grasp the Bible’s clarion call for “liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” for so long?

Why, I have also been wondering, is it taking so long for lawmakers and the criminal justice system to put an end to the absurdly long sentences still being routinely handed out to non-violent criminals, especially those committing drug offenses? This question presses me more intensely each time I enter the prison at Canaan to minister.

I have spoken with a federal prosecutor whose work focused entirely on drug traffickers. I understand the explanation that many drug offenders are guilty of far more criminal acts associated with illegal drugs than they are actually prosecuted for. Conversations I have had with inmates who are serving lengthy drug sentences confirm this. Some have readily admitted — to my frequent bemusement, I must add — that while they are currently serving time for something they did not do, they were involved with drugs the day before they were arrested. Just not on the day they did get caught.

Moreover, I work several days a week in a women’s substance abuse rehabilitation center. I see the struggle many of these women are going through as they attempt to reconstruct their lives following years of drug use. But someone had to sell the drugs to them. Did he or she realize the destruction of such actions? Should those who do such things escape punishment? No, there must be consequences. I get that. But is life in prison without parole a truly just punishment?

Yes, you read that last question correctly. I know inmates who received such sentences. And hardly a week passes that a major news organization doesn’t report or opine on how widespread such sentences are.

Today, it was Nicholas D. Kristof on the opinion page of The New York Times. Kristof based his op-ed piece on a recently released report by the American Civil Liberties Union, “A Living Death: Life without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses.

The ACLU identified 3,278 prisoners serving sentences of life without parole (LWOP) for nonviolent drug and property crimes in the Federal Bureau of Prisons and in the nine states that provided statistics. “There may well be more such prisoners in the other states,” says the ACLU. The report states that two-thirds of the LWOP prisoners are in the federal prison system (BOP) and that of these, 96 percent are serving LWOP for drug crimes. Eighteen percent of the federal LWOP prisoners were given LWOP sentences for their first offense.

Across the BOP and the nine states surveyed by the ACLU, almost 80 percent of prisoners serving LWOP were convicted of non-violent drug crimes.

This is part of the legacy of the “war on drugs” that brought about an array of mandatory sentences for drug crimes. The ACLU report stated that “83.4 percent of the LWOP sentences for nonviolent crimes surveyed by the ACLU were mandatory.” This means that judges had no discretion and were bound by the sentencing laws. However, “prosecutors, on the other hand, have immense power over defendants’ fates: whether or not to charge a defendant with a sentencing enhancement triggering an LWOP sentence is within their discretion,” the report goes on to say.

Unsurprisingly, at least to someone like me who has spent a lot of time in a high security federal prison, the majority of prisoners serving LWOP for non-violent crimes are black. The ACLU estimates the figure at 65.4 percent.

During the minutes before and after I lead a formal session at the prison, I sometimes hear inmates talking with one another about their convictions, sentences or appeals. I do not understand some of the legal terminology they use so I ask them to explain. It does not take long to figure out that prosecutors have a great deal of latitude in how they choose to charge a defendant and that this can have enormous consequences if the defendant chooses to go to trial and is found guilty. It is also clear that prosecutors offer defendants deals that involve lower, but still mandatory, sentences if they cooperate. This usually means testifying against someone else in exchange for a lighter sentence. I know prisoners who have been on both ends of that conundrum. They chose not to “rat” and got a stiffer mandatory sentence, or they got ratted on and also got a stiffer mandatory sentence.

Because prisoners are locked up far away from the rest of us, serving what we assume to be appropriate sentences for what we assume to be just convictions, the majority of citizens have no idea what the human toll is in having so many of our fellow citizens in prison (1 of every 104 adults) and a disturbing number of them serving LWOP for non-violent crimes. To be sure, the black community knows the cost. But for most of us, it is a non-problem far, far away.

Forty or so years into the “war on drugs” and the subsequent mass incarceration of 2.2 million men and women, with several thousand of them serving LWOP for their non-violent drug crimes, how much longer is a nation where most citizens are Christian going to tolerate this? It only took ten years for the nation to become weary of the unending war in Afghanistan — less than that in Iraq.

Is it not time for our state and federal legislators to negotiate an end to the war on drugs and seriously revise the sentencing guidelines that have brought such pain, especially in the black community? Ought not a largely Christian citizenry demand this, as indeed did many brave Christians in the 1850s when so many were hopelessly enslaved?

The Canaan Forgiveness Project

After teaching “classes” on forgiveness at Canaan’s penitentiary and camp for more than two years, we have decided to take the next step — starting the Canaan Forgiveness Project.

Feedback from inmates who have taken the class — in some cases twice — convinces us that some have a need for ongoing work in the task of forgiveness. The Canaan Forgiveness Project will offer men who have completed the classes the opportunity to go deeper in applying the balm of forgiveness to themselves and others.

Of those who took the classes most recently, about half the men in each class eagerly signed up to be part of the Canaan Forgiveness Project. At the camp I opened it to those still at the facility who took the classes previously. Another ten wanted their names added to the list.

So on Tuesday November 19, ten inmates at the penitentiary will meet with me in the early afternoon for an hour and a half to continue the project of forgiving. Three days later, 20 inmates at the camp will do the same. Each group will meet every other week for six months.

I ask those who follow this blog to pray for this project and the men who have joined it.