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.