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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures


Doing Life: Reflections of Men and Women Serving Life Sentences. Portraits and Interviews by Howard Zehr. Good Books, 1996.


In the Pennsylvania legal system, anyone who commits a murder or aids in the commission of a murder is automatically sentenced to life in prison without parole, or at least that was the case in 1996, when this book was published. At that time, the only possibility for release was commutation by the governor at the highly unlikely rate of two to three commutations per year.

Howard Zehr visited several prisons, interviewing and making black-and white portraits of women and men doing life. He requested that they be photographed in street clothes and had them pose themselves because he wanted their images and words to help do away with stereotypes most of society holds of people imprisoned for murder.

In fact, the photos do exactly that––eliminate the pigeonholes we might assign them. None does so more than the very first portrait of a smiling, middle-aged white woman (seen here), whose demeanor and dress reminded me of several nuns  or ex-nuns I've known. In fact, maybe she reminded me of me, as I can't tell you how often random people have asked me if I am or was a nun. It's obvious that Zehr is a professional photographer and also that he established real relationships with these men and women––the photos and accompanying text elicit presence, truth, engagement and warmth from nearly all of his subjects. He is also an activist for a more just approach to crime and its victims. He points out here and elsewhere that in the US, crime is considered a violation against the State rather than against its actual victims.

In the US, restorative justice programs are mostly undertaken by NGOs. They seek to give victims a voice and, as much as possible, some form of restitution. They seek to help offenders learn to empathize and take responsibility for their crimes, which the current system does not do. Victor Hassine said in his interview, "There's no place to talk about guilt in prison. If I went up to my counselor and said, 'I want to talk about the guilt feelings I have,' he'd say, 'Why are you telling me?...You're talking to the wrong man.' There is no mechanism for it because it's not considered important. Do your time. If they review you for possible release through commutation, then it's important. Other than that, we don't care if you're sorry. It's irrelevant."


Certain commonalities can be seen in the inmates' words, likely resulting from the questions Zehr asked, which aren't provided. Many of the respondents use vivid metaphors to describe what life without parole is like. Irvin Moore said, "A life sentence is like an insect encased in amber. Amber at one point is a fluid. As it is exposed to air, it becomes more viscous. Sometimes insects may get trapped in it. As it hardens, you see the insect's movements become slower. When it solidifies, he's just there. Thank God that I have been able to move enough to keep the liquid around me from solidifying."


Irvin Moore also says that not all lifers express remorse or find a path to living a meaningful life in incarceration, creating ways to contribute to society, although most of the inmates interviewed here have done so. Dear to my heart was Moore's mention of how another prisoner started him on a path to recovery by giving him a copy of Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. In my book, Viktor Frankl: A Life Worth Living, I tell how Frankl, at an inmate's request, visited and spoke at San Quentin. Frankl emphasized the relationship between freedom and responsibility, saying, "You were free to commit a crime, to become guilty. Now, however, you are responsible for overcoming guilt by rising above it, by growing beyond yourselves, by changing for the better." For me there was something poetic about Viktor's work setting Moore on his way to a meaningful life within prison walls.


There is much wisdom and candor in these stories, wisdom that stems from acceptance, a search for ways to give back by serving fellow prisoners, youth at risk for criminal activity, and more. However, even when someone has created meaning, they often express, not only remorse for their crime, but regret for all the losses, all the ways, especially if they were young when sentenced, that they have lost out on life. As Letitia Smallwood said, "I missed my womanhood. I missed having a child. I missed living with someone. I missed all the things that make you a woman in society." Sharon Wiggins pointed out that doing time is often harder for women than for men. She said it's because women don't have the type of support systems men have. "If your husband or brother goes to jail, you try to have some type of support system for them, but it doesn't work that way for women in jail….Women seem to be more loyal to their spouses [than men are]."


Several prisoners spoke to the inhumanity of life without parole, Benjamin Vasquez even going so far as to say he feels the electric chair is "more humane than being tortured like this. Yet I don't believe in the death penalty because most people who make mistakes are caught in a vicious cycle. They are victims themselves." His statement reminded me of an incident when I was the clinical supervisor in a domestic violence treatment program. Heather Wilson was our congresswoman at the time, and she visited our program. The executive director explained to her that offenders were charged for group therapy sessions, but victims were not. I had worked enough with both populations to point out that abusers have almost always been abused as children and are perpetuating the cycle in their intimate relationships. I said their trauma needed to be addressed if treatment were to be successful. I felt strongly that charging the offenders and not the victims/survivors was an inequity that also needed to be addressed. Repressentative Wilson expressed surprise at this, and saying what I did went against what was conventional treatment practice at the time.


Perhaps the most astute observation regarding the failings of the prison system came from Tyrone Werts, a Black man, who likened the system to a situation during slavery times in the US. He said there was a group of Northern religious leaders who were concerned that slave owners were executing slaves who were "habitually insubordinate." The reformers wanted to end the practice of execution but did not see that the entire system of slavery needed to be overturned. The inmate drew a parallel with the "justice" system, which also needs a complete overhaul: "From the promulgation of unjust laws; through flawed police investigations, arrests, interrogations, and dealmaking; through unfair judicial procedures and conditions of incarcerations, the whole criminal-justice paradigm is awry and in need of fundamental reform," he said.


Almost all the interviewees expressed a hope for reprieve for which there is a minimal chance. However, as Ralph Sharpe so poignantly put it, "So I'm not saying, I've been in jail 30 years and I deserve to come home. That's crap. I'm asking for mercy."


In ironic images, of nineteen women and men whose wrists are visible, seventeen are wearing wristwatches. Time may be encased in metaphorical amber, and yet, these people continue to mark its passage.

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Doing Life: Reflections of Men and Women Serving Life Sentences. Portraits and Interviews by Howard Zehr. Good Books, 1996.


My pathway to this book begins in childhood. One Sunday morning we arrived at the breakfast table to eat our customary Sunday coffee cake, prepared the night before, as always, by my father and baked fresh before breakfast. But my father wasn't there. My mother told us he had driven to Shiprock to take Nancy and her husband Henry (not their real names) to the hospital. When my dad came home in time to take us to Beclabito to church, he was visibly crushed. He told us Nancy had died on the way to the hospital and Henry was in jail. I don't think I felt grief; I was too stunned for that.


Henry and Nancy had been part of our everyday lives for what seemed like years in my child mind. He had worked as an interpreter for my father, and they lived a few hundred yards from us. Their three children were my younger siblings' playmates. When my father and Henry went deer hunting, Nancy and the children came over for supper and to play games. A few months before this tragedy, Henry had stopped working with my dad; no one said why, not to us kids. The family had moved to live on Nancy's mother's farm, in the traditional Navajo matrilocal arrangement.


As that Sunday and the following days progressed, facts of the disaster and perhaps some fiction came out. Henry had beaten and strangled Nancy. My father said it was because he had taken peyote. Knowing what I know now about how peyote is used and generally affects people, I doubt that was the substance involved, at least not causativly; in fact, I have a vague recollection that alcohol was also mentioned, but peyote was emphasized, as it was seen as more nefarious because it was used in Native American Church ceremonies.
My father, on the day he took me to my first stay at the mission boarding school, went on to Prescott, Arizona, to testify in Henry's trial. Henry was sentenced to ten years in the Federal penitentiary in La Tuna, Texas. What happened afterwards probably led more to my interest in Doing Life, than the murder. One spring vacation, our family piled into the turquoise and white Chevy station wagon and drove all the way to La Tuna so my father could visit Henry, while we sat in the car for what seemed like hours. As long as we lived in Teec Nos Pos, when his children had birthdays, my mother baked a cake, and we went down to Nancy's family farm to celebrate with them. Henry sent gifts of tooled leather to my dad—a wallet and a cover for his Bible––part of his prison rehabilitation program, I guess. Henry was released early for good behavior, and my parents' relationship with him and his children continued sporadically over the years. This was an outsize event in the happening, its aftermath, and its impact, and my mother and father modeled Jesus' words that visiting people in prison was the same as visiting him.
When I was in high school, our youth group was taken every Sunday afternoon to the Gallup Detention Center, which consisted mostly of two overfilled drunk tanks. I'm so sorry now for those poor men with pounding hangovers, who had no choice but to endure our cheerful singing of gospel hymns and our naïve preaching of messages we thought could change their lives, something I wrote about in To Drink from the Silver Cup.
As an adult, I visited people in prison, in ways I like to think were more beneficial than our efforts in the drunk tanks. When I lived in the Bay Area, I was the Youth and Parent Program Coordinator at Cambodian New Generation, a refugee NGO. Like so many first generation immigrants, the youth we worked with had gotten involved in gang activity and then with the legal system. I sat through many sessions with teens and their parole officers, jointly making treatment plans. The day the Loma Prieta Earthquake struck the San Francisco Bay Area, I was driving back up Interstate 580 from the Alameda County Juvenile Detention Center in San Leandro, when I felt the highway tremble under my wheels. I had been visiting Ban, whose mother had begged me to help him. I think she thought I might be able to get him out of jail, but my kind of help was the counseling kind.
Later, when I lived in Cuba, New Mexico, I did substance abuse assessments for the court when using had played a part in landing women and men in the justice system. Sometimes they were in jail, awaiting trial, and I went there to conduct the assessments. I know those visits were actually meaningful to the clients, because after a two-hour session in which I asked very personal questions, there was never a person who did not thank me. Those meetings were also meaningful to me because genuine connection happened, even though we might never see each other again, and I always experience a rush when I truly connect with someone, truly touch their humanity and have mine touched by them.
These experiences and my work over many years with high-risk youth and their families have brought with them a lasting interest in how the justice system works and how it fails victims, offenders, and society. When I was doing research for my essay, "The Obligation," I found an article by Fania Davis (Angela Davis's sister) in Yes! Magazine about the restorative justice work she does with youth in Oakland, CA. It might not have been the first time I came across the concept of justice that takes into account the real needs of victims, offenders, and society, but my interest was piqued, and recently I purchased Howard Howard Zehr's, The Little Book of Restorative Justice, which is where I learned about Doing Life.


Not to overwhelm you with too much reading at one time, I will let a few of the voices from Doing Life speak for themselves later this week. Please tune in again for PART II.

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