Is death the answer?

This past year has been troublesome for me personally so I have not written much here even though my plan was to constantly highlight social justice matters. I am going through old boxes to downsize and organize and part of what I find is that for decades I have argued to abolish the death penalty. For a brief time in the U.S., the death penalty was found to be unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, but it revived itself fairly quickly.

For so many reasons, this is not the answer to the crime problem. First, research shows it does not result in reduced crime. In fact, some research suggests that crime increases when government condones death as a remedy to a problem. Next, while victims’ families and friends may be satisfied by vengeance, in the end their loss is still tragic and does not end. Instead, another family suffers the same consequence. Third, it costs millions above and beyond costs of imprisonment to incarcerate on death row and for all of the appeals. Fourth, can’t society learn from those on death row in order to understand those who commit capital offenses – and move toward prevention? And most significant to me, the death penalty primarily affects the poor and people of color. This type of lawful discrimination is unconscionable.

It’s not just me. Here are other thoughts.


FILM REVIEW: “13TH” shocks, disturbs

13th-documentary-trailer-poster.jpgThe Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution reads:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”

America has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of its prisoners.

Since the 1980s, seven times as many people are now behind bars.

For African American males without a high school diploma, around 80% will end up in jail or prison. Why aren’t the alternatives chosen more often: drug court, mental health treatment, house arrest, community service, restorative justice, close supervision by parole and probation, halfway houses, fines, restitution?

These facts alone should provoke thought. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay (“Selma”) explores these disturbing truths in her eye-opener documentary, “13TH” (2016, 100 minutes).

Nominated for Best Documentary Feature for an Oscar, it is a film that compels the viewer to dig deep and realize why there is a connection between mass incarceration and poverty, and in particular why the impact is so forceful on people of color.

Many of you know that I rode my bicycle from Albuquerque to Baltimore to raise awareness of the value of re-entry programs and how they reduce crime, benefit families and result in of course fewer crime victims. They also save the taxpayers so much money since programs cost around $20,000 a year on average and incarceration is more in the $80,000 range (and much higher for federal prisons and facilities for juveniles).

I’m still working on this issue, and one way is to encourage you to see this film. It’s on Netflix and from time to time is screened in local theaters around the country, often in the film festival context. Perhaps after the Oscars, it will find a larger audience.

“13TH” explores the link between slavery, the Thirteenth Amendment and today’s massive system of incarceration. DuVernay has succinctly pieced together historical events, archival news footage and imagery along with expert opinions establishing an unexpected link: the link between an amendment intended to guarantee freedom and the utter lack of free movement of those incarcerated.

I winced as I watched the deconstruction of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, “The Birth of a Nation.” Filled with disturbing and terrifying images of black men, the film predicted the rise of racism, injustice, the torture and death of people like Emmett Til and Medgar Evers and the lack of balance in the criminal justice system when race and poverty are factored in.

Post-civil war freedom came with a price: more incarceration for petty matters requiring involuntary servitude identical to slave conditions, restrictions on voting, the rise of the KKK just as the black middle class was gaining strength and the demonizing of African American males. The murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, the early civil rights movement leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the later so-called wars on crime and drugs, including Clinton’s promotion of Three Strikes laws and mandatory sentencing, are all connected in this film to the end result: mass incarceration.

Think about this: why were penalties for possessing and dealing crack so much more severe than the same for cocaine until the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010?

When states and the federal government turn over to for-profit companies the detention and monitoring of inmates and former offenders, are there any “for profit” incentives for those businesses to ensure successful re-entries and reduce recidivism? This documentary explains what ALEC is and shows its influence on lawmakers that results in increased incarceration and corporate earnings rising at the same time.

Contemporary opinions are sought from many, including U.S. Representative Charles Rangel, New Gingrich, professor Henry Louis Gates, Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist, professor and political activist Angela Davis, civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander and writer (“The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”) and others.
It is beyond chilling just hearing the words of George Zimmerman when he calls the police about teenager Trayvon Martin, heading home after buying candy: “He’s got his hand in his waistband….and he’s a black male.”

Ponder all of the meaning and the consequences of this mindset.  Wonder why we still are not having open, honest discussions about race.

Here’s a link to the trailer.

Sources: Next America: Criminal Justice Project, IMDb, “13TH”

Prison release


We wait in the prison visitors parking lot after checking in at the main gate. We have to show ID which is examined carefully and explain tediously who we are picking up and our relationship to the person.

I am a mentor to the young man I am picking up. I will take him to a re-entry program after checking him in with the county parole and probation office. He, of course, will enjoy his first lunch as a free man and a phone call to his mother who is several hundred miles away in another state before I drop him at the program’s residence.

A mother and her two nephews sit in a battered old Chevy while I pace the lot. A father is in a nearby older SUV, dozing while his mixed-breed dog (appears mostly collie) stares at my nervous walking back-and-forth across the lot.

A third car, a modest sedan, is quite a distance away and I can’t see who is in the car at first.

I was told to arrive at 9.30 am sharp. The mother with the nephews was told 8.30 am. I learn later that all four of the groups there were given different times to arrive: 8 am, 8.30 am, 9 am, 9:30 am. I guess it depends on whom we talked to.

Eventually, a man and woman get out of the distant car and begin their own pacing in the lot, but at a distance from us.

Each has different concerns and worries. Eventually we coalesce into an awaiting group as the clock ticks and it is now close to 12:00 pm. We are becoming impatient and the two young boys are hungry.

I walk up to the guard gate with one of the mothers, Beverly, to ask what the delay is. We learn that the prison is doing a second count since they thought someone had escaped when their count indicated they were one person short. He was in the library but after they found him there they have to count again.

I hope my face doesn’t show how ridiculous that sounds to me. Can’t they just add one to the previous count and see that all inmates are present and accounted for?

There is a tiny public bathroom in the front of the guard building. I use it first while Beverly waits. As I exit the bathroom I hear my phone ringing in my blue jeans pocket. I must have “pocket-dialed” so I pull out my phone to quickly hang it up before whomever I dialed answers.

A guard comes out of the building, approaching me. “Ma’am. No phone calls allowed except in the parking lot.” I respond, “I’m sorry. I pocket-dialed my phone so I was just hanging up the phone. I wasn’t making a call.” The phone is already back in my pocket. “Ma’am. No phone calls allowed here.”

Again – I put on my poker face. Arbitrary and unfair decisions of correctional officers and administrators abound. I do not want to be the cause of this young man losing his early release because I want to point out another absurdity.

I head slowly back to the parking lot so that Beverly doesn’t think I abandoned her when I told her I’d wait for her outside the bathroom. The guard, arms crossed, continues to stare at me for my ignorance of a rule, telling me, “Move, on, ma’am.”

When we get back to the visitors lot, I tell the mother/aunt that we have probably another hour to wait so she takes her nephews to the McDonalds that is about a 15-minute drive from the prison. They get back a bit before 1 pm.

She, the walking couple, even the dad with the dog and I are all now talking together since we have been relegated to waiting close to 4 hours (close to 5 hours for two of the families). I learn their stories.

The son of the mother with the nephews has been in for a decade for drug crimes. He was to get out six months ago after he completed a drug program but was told to go back to his old housing unit for a few weeks. He refused since he believed his successful rehabilitation would now make him a target; authorities told him he disobeyed an order and had to be punished another half year. Meanwhile, though, he didn’t know he had six months added on to his sentence so six months ago his mom was there waiting for his release for a few hours before she was told, “Not today, ma’am.” Her drive is several hours each direction.

The pacing couple’s son has a complex background of psychological issues and despair and addiction and they are unsure he will have success on the outside. They are unwilling to take him in to their home so will drive him to the other side of the state where a sister is tentatively agreeing to give him a chance.

The elderly dad (with his dog) has a look of trepidation and doesn’t share much information. He seems beaten down, as if perhaps he has followed the same trail as his son. He does say that his son has served day-for-day so has no parole and can leave the state. They are heading to Georgia.

A guard drives out to the visitor’s lot. “The second count is over. Maybe another half hour.” It is 1.30 pm.

Finally, nearing 2.30 pm, four smiling men come out of the front gates, each carrying a satchel, all wearing flip flops. I see that the young man whom I am picking up has lost a lot of weight but otherwise looks fairly well. Each of us in this briefly bonded group introduces our freed men to the others and wishes good luck to all. Then, we all head out on our separate ways.