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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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Forty Autumns: A Family's Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall. Nina Willner. William Morrow, 2016 (reprint edition).


"None who have always been free can understand the terrible fascinating power of the hope of freedom to those who are not free." ~ Pearl S. Buck (epigraph to one of the book's chapters)


Forty Autumns is a meticulously researched story of the desperate human desire, even need, for freedom. The text weaves back and forth between the 40-year history of East Germany and the very personal history of the author's family during that period. In the first few pages, I wasn't sure how well that structure was going to work, but Willner crafted it masterfully. I stayed engaged the entire time and learned a great deal about a period of Germany's history I knew very little about. The country's history provided a profoundly graphic context for what was happening within the family. And the family story made the country's history starkly real.


Briefly, East Germany came under Soviet rule after WWII, whereas West Germany was under the control of the US, Britain, and France. In East Germany, the totalitarian government took draconian measures, among them Stasi, the secret police rivalling the Gestapo, to enforce adherence to hardline Communist principles. The regime did away with more and more freedoms, both physical and mental, indoctrinating the populace from an early age into the approved way to think and act. As a result, thousands of East Germans tried to flee the country, which reflected poorly on the government, which then reacted by enacting more and more measures to keep their citizens contained. When people failed in their attempts to escape, they could be shot, imprisoned, or have the few freedoms left to them taken away.   


As I read, I realized with some embarrassment that I had traveled three times in West Germany while the country was divided, and I had given no thought to the tragedies occuring on on the other side of the wall. As far as I was concerned, I was in a country called Germany, using my college-girl German. Period. Of course I knew that that East and West Germany existed, but there was so much I didn't know. I'm sure, unbeknownst to me, I blindly encountered people who were excruciatingly separated from people and places they loved, now on the other side of what was known worldwide as the Iron Curtain.


Nina Willner's book was published after her time as a US intelligence officer in East and West Berlin. She had to have spent years among documents and in interviews to thoroughly research the family story and the broader one. Her mother was the only one of nine children in her family of origin who had been able to escape and then was cut off from her grandparents, parents and siblings for the next forty years. Few letters or packages she sent to them or letters they sent to her, ever made it through. The family's intent to remain connected was steadfast and courageous. And within East Germany, the mother of the family built what she called the "Family Wall," which allowed members to maintain integrity at home while surviving outside by going along with what was required of them, with as much truthfulness as possible. How this family held together was a stark reminder of how my own family, with the freedom to choose unity, has allowed much smaller things to divide us.


Having written a biography of Viktor Frankl, I was necessarily very familiar with pre- and post-WWII history, as well as the events of the war itself, but Forty Autumns made me realize how little I knew about the Cold War and its dire effects on people's lives. I had a personal interest in this story because I knew a man, when we were both in our early twenties, whose father had carried him, as an infrant, out of East Berlin on his shoulders through the sewers to West Berlin. I see now, what a remarkable lack of curiosity I had then about Rudi's story.


The intense desire for freedom that causes people to risk their lives does seem, as Pearl Buck wrote, incomprehensible to those of us who have always lived free. I've been guilty of internally scoffing when people praise the freedom we have in the US, conscious of the many restrictions marginalized people in this country face on a daily basis. Forty Autumns reminded me of my own time living illegally in Denmark and how that restricted my freedom but to such a lesser degree as to seem inconsequential. My ability to think my own thoughts was never impacted, and I appreciate after reading this book how much more cruicial it is to have freedom of thought than freedom of movement, although we would wish for both.


The book also reminded me of my work with students and families who were undocumented immigrants in the US. These families live in constant fear of deportation. They don't dare to contact police when they are victims of some of the most violent crimes. Life is so difficult, so marginal for them here, that I often marvel that they choose to stay. It makes me aware, without knowing details, of how horrific things must have been for them in their home countries. My own experience and theirs influence my belief that we should be free to move among countries, free to live where we choose. My friend Suzanne once said I would make a good anarchist. I think her basis for saying it was because of this sort of thinking and because she sees me as having a moral compass, which of course is essential if an anarchist society is not to fall into chaos.  


Forty Autumns moved me far more deeply that I had expected, bringing me to tears several times, and it, too, contributes to my belief that we should all be able to simply be citizens of the world. To paraphrase Buck, If we have always been free, we do not begin to fathom the power that the hope for freedom holds for those who are not free.






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The Five Wounds. Kirstin Valdez Quade. W. W. Norton & Company, 2021.


I used to live in a village in Northern New Mexico that had a morada. On Good Friday, which is today, April 15, 2022, in the church year, I would witness streams of people, people I knew, from the surrounding villages making their way on foot up to the little  stone and clay Oratorio de Jesus Nazareno. There were the old and bent with their worn canes, young women pushing strollers, my propane man in his dark green coveralls, teenagers with their gang tattoos, all making holy pilgrimage.


Historically a morada was a meeting place for Penitentes, a Catholic male lay sect that included in its worship a Good Friday reinactment of the crucifiction. The Five Wounds takes place in a fictional Northern New Mexico town near the real town of Española, which has a role in the book. Its main character is a perpetual screw-up––a loveable, irresponsible alcoholic, whose mother presses her uncle to give him the honored role of Jesus in the Good Friday reinactment, hoping it will inspire change in him. Amadeo, wanting to be admired, chooses to have nails driven through his hands, rather than being roped to the cross. Spoiler: there is a character arc. Amadeo grows. His teen, unmarried, pregnant daughter, who comes to live with him after years of estrangement and is more responsible than he, grows.


There was a lot I loved about the book. I had read a short story collection by the author, which was good, but Five Wounds is several cuts above; Valdez Quade comes into her own in this complex story. Because I spent seven years living in Northern New Mexico, my funny bone was frequently tickled, and tears of empathy flowed. Because I taught high risk youth for so long (in Northern New Mexico and places far-flung), I knew the authenticity of the young women in the school for pregnant and parenting teens. I recommend the book to New Mexicans especially, to anyone who wants to know New Mexico better, and really to anyone who loves a well crafted, all too human story. 


There are surpassing realizations to be gleaned and gems of quotes. Maybe most significant to me, because I have long had difficulty with the meaning the church gives to Good Friday, was Amadeo's epiphany, a year after being Jesus. It has a ring of truth to me: "To feel a little of what Christ felt, Tío Tíve said over a year ago. And what Christ felt was love. Amadeo doesn't know how he lost track of this. Love: both gift and challenge." The revelation that more than sorrow, more than pain, more even than sacrifice, it was love.


One of the main characters is moving toward death through a good portion of the book, and I will leave you with this: "This is death, then, a brief spot of light on earth extinguished, a rippling point of energy swept clear. A kiss, a song, the warm circle of a stranger's arms––these things and others––the whole crush of memory and hope, the constant babble of the mind, everything that composes a person––gone. 

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