Torture in America’s Supermax Prisons

Writing last year in Boston Review, a well-regarded magazine of literature and politics, reporter Lance Tapley shines a spotlight on the routine physical and mental degradation that inmates endure in America’s supermax prisons. The article was adapted from his contribution to Marjorie Cohn’s anthology The United States and Torture, published this past January by NYU Press. Tapley notes that the types of abuses we rightly decried at Guantanamo are actually common in the regular prison system, but these receive far less press attention, even though the victims are American citizens. (My pen pal Conway resides in a supermax facility in California.)

An excerpt from the article follows. Tapley is discussing Mike James, an inmate at a Maine supermax:

James, who is in his twenties, has been beaten all his life, first by family members: “I was punched, kicked, slapped, bitten, thrown against the wall.” He began seeing mental-health workers at four and taking psychiatric medication at seven. He said he was bipolar and had many other disorders. When a doctor took him off his meds at age eighteen, he got into “selling drugs, robbing people, fighting, burglaries.” He received a twelve-year sentence for robbery. Of the four years James had been in prison when I met him, he had spent all but five months in solitary confinement. The isolation is “mental torture, even for people who are able to control themselves,” he said. It included periods alone in a cell “with no blankets, no clothes, butt-naked, mace covering me.” Everything James told me was confirmed by other inmates and prison employees.

James’s story illustrates an irony in the negative reaction of many Americans to the mistreatment of “war on terrorism” prisoners at Guantánamo. To little public outcry, tens of thousands of American citizens are being held in equivalent or worse conditions in this country’s super-harsh, super-maximum security, solitary-confinement prisons, or in comparable units of traditional prisons. The Obama administration— somewhat unsteadily—plans to shut down the Guantánamo detention center and ship its inmates to one or more supermaxes in the United States, as though this would mark a substantive change. In the supermaxes inmates suffer weeks, months, years, or even decades of mind-destroying isolation, usually without meaningful recourse to challenge the conditions of their captivity. Prisoners may be regularly beaten in cell extractions, and they receive meager health services. The isolation frequently leads to insane behavior including self-injury and suicide attempts.

In 2004, state-run supermaxes in 44 states held about 25,000 people, according to Daniel Mears, a Florida State University criminologist who has done the most careful count. Mears told me his number was conservative. In addition the federal system has a big supermax in Colorado, ADX Florence, and a total of about 11,000 inmates in solitary in all its lockups, according to the Bureau of Prisons. Some researchers peg the state and federal supermax total as high as a hundred thousand; their studies sometimes include more broadly defined “control units”—for example, those in which men spend all day in a cell with another prisoner. (Nationally, 91 percent of prison and jail inmates are men, so overwhelmingly men fill the supermaxes. Women also are kept in supermax conditions, but apparently no one has estimated how many.) Then there are the county and city jails, the most sizable of which have large solitary-confinement sections. Although the roughness in what prisoners call “the hole” varies from prison to prison and jail to jail, isolation is the overwhelming, defining punishment in this vast network of what critics have begun to call mass torture.

James experienced frequent cell extractions—on one occasion, five of them in a single day. In this procedure, five hollering guards wearing helmets and body armor charge into the cell. The point man smashes a big shield into the prisoner. The others spray mace into his face, push him onto the bed, and twist his arms behind his back to handcuff him, connecting the cuffs by a chain to leg irons. As they continue to mace him, the guards carry him screaming to an observation room, where they bind him to a special chair. He remains there for hours.

A scene such as this might have taken place at supposedly aberrant Abu Ghraib, where American soldiers tormented captured Iraqis. But as described by prisoners and guards and vividly revealed in a leaked video (the Maine prison records these events to ensure that inmates are not mistreated), an extraction is the supermax’s normal, zero-tolerance reaction to prisoner disobedience, which may be as minor as protesting bad food by covering the cell door’s tiny window with a piece of paper. Such extractions occur all the time, not just in Maine but throughout the country. The principle applied is total control of a prisoner’s actions. Even if the inmate has no history of violence, when he leaves the cell he’s in handcuffs and ankle shackles, with a guard on either side.

But he doesn’t often leave the cell. In Maine’s supermax, which is typical, an inmate spends 23 hours a day alone in a 6.5-by-14-foot space. When the weather is good, he’ll spend an hour a day, five days a week, usually alone, in a small dog run outdoors. Radios and TVs are forbidden. Cell lights are on night and day. When the cold food is shoved through the door slot, prisoners fear it is contaminated by the feces, urine, and blood splattered on the cell door and corridor surfaces by the many mentally ill or enraged inmates. The prisoner is not allowed a toothbrush but is provided a plastic nub to use on a fingertip. Mental-health care usually amounts to a five-minute, through-the-steel-door conversation with a social worker once or twice a week. The prisoner gets a shower a few times a week, a brief telephone call every week or two, and occasional “no-contact” access to a visitor. Variations in these conditions exist: for example, in some states TVs or radios are allowed.

When supermaxes were built across the country in the 1980s and 1990s, they were theoretically for “the worst of the worst,” the most violent prisoners. But an inmate may be put in one for possession of contraband such as marijuana, if accused by another inmate of being a gang member, for hesitating to follow a guard’s order, and even for protection from other inmates. Several prisoners are in the Maine supermax because they got themselves tattooed. By many accounts mental illness is the most common denominator; mentally ill inmates have a hard time following prison rules. A Wisconsin study found that three-quarters of the prisoners in one solitary-confinement unit were mentally ill. In Maine, over half of supermax inmates are classified as having a serious mental illness.

Prison officials have extraordinary discretion in extending the stay of supermax inmates. Their decisions hit the mentally ill the hardest. Administrators can add time as a disciplinary measure, and often they will charge prisoners with criminal offenses that can add years to their sentences.

In 2007 James was tried on ten assault charges for biting and kicking guards and throwing feces at them. Most were felony charges, and if convicted he could have served decades more in prison. Inmates almost never beat such charges, but James’s court-appointed lawyer, Joseph Steinberger, a scrappy ex-New Yorker, succeeded with a defense rare in cases of Maine prisoners accused of crimes: he convinced a jury in Rockland, the nearby county seat, to find James “not criminally responsible” by reason of insanity. Steinberger thought the verdict was a landmark because it called into question the state’s standard practice of keeping mentally ill individuals in isolation and then punishing them with yet more isolation when their conditions worsen. After the verdict, as the law required, the judge committed James to a state mental hospital.

But prison officials and the state attorney general’s office saw the verdict as another kind of landmark: never before in Maine had a convict been committed to the mental hospital after being tried for assault on guards. In the view of the corrections establishment, James would be escaping his deserved punishment, and this would send the wrong signal to prisoners. Officials refused to send him to the hospital, arguing he first had to serve the remaining nine years of his sentence.

Steinberger wrote to Maine’s governor—John Baldacci, a Democrat—begging him to intervene and send James to the hospital:

He continually slits open his arms and legs with chips of paint and concrete, smears himself and his cell with feces, strangles himself to unconsciousness with his clothing. . . . He also bites, hits, kicks, spits at, and throws urine and feces on his guards.

This behavior was never in dispute, but the governor declined to intervene.

After a year of court battles, Steinberger finally succeeded in getting James into the hospital, though the judge conceded to the Department of Corrections that his time there would not count against his sentence. So James faces nine years in prison after however long it takes to bring him to a sane mental state.

Why is the richest, most powerful nation in the world still using punishment methods that Europe abandoned 150 years ago as too brutal? Our prison system is an international scandal.

I wish I could end this article with an “action item” to mitigate the helplessness you may feel after reading this. Can’t we click on something, donate something, sign a petition? I don’t have a quick fix, but my advice is: Get informed. Feel your common humanity with those who seem alien and frightening. Look behind the “tough on crime” rhetoric in your next election. Write to a prisoner in SHU. Your letters and books could save someone’s sanity.

Sign the NAACP Pledge to End the Death Penalty

We couldn’t stop the execution of Troy Davis, but we can honor his final wish by abolishing the death penalty. It doesn’t deter crime, it costs the government a lot of money in appeals, it’s applied disproportionately to poor and minority defendants who can’t afford good lawyers, and most importantly, there’s no second chance when you execute an innocent person.

I signed this pledge on the NAACP website and hope you will too:

In the Name of Troy Davis: Pledge to End the Death Penalty in the United States

I pledge to fight to end the death penalty in the United States because Troy Anthony Davis was executed despite extreme and well-known doubts about his guilt.

I pledge to fight to end the death penalty in the United States because the system failed Troy, even though the system is supposed to be fail-proof.

I pledge to fight to end the death penalty in the United States because these failures are the result of a system that gives the power of life and death to humans, who are prone to error and susceptible to bias.

I pledge to fight to end the death penalty in the United States because 130 people have been exonerated from death row since 1973, and we have no way of knowing how many innocent people have been killed.

I pledge to fight to end the death penalty in the United States because death is permanent and mistakes are uncorrectable.

I pledge to fight to end the death penalty in the United States because we know that race and class disproportionately determine who lives and who dies.

I pledge to fight to end the death penalty in the United States because Troy Davis often said, “This movement began before I was born … it must continue and grow stronger…until we abolish the death penalty once and for all.”

I pledge to fight to end the death penalty in the United States because it was Troy’s final wish.
In the Name of Troy Anthony Davis, I pledge to fight to end the death penalty in the United States to ensure that what happened to Troy never happens to another person in our criminal justice system.

Not convinced? Read this shocking report about a 14-year-old African-American who was sent to the electric chair in 1944. (The URL is in case the hyperlink is not working right in this blog template.)

Bluffton Today – ‘Crusaders look to right Jim Crow justice wrongs’ by Jeffrey Collins

He was 14 yrs. 6mos. and 5 days old — and the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th Century

George Junius Stinney, Jr., [b. 1929 – d. 1944]

In a South Carolina prison sixty-six years ago, guards walked a 14-year-old boy, bible tucked under his arm, to the electric chair. At 5′ 1″ and 95 pounds, the straps didn’t fit, and an electrode was too big for his leg.

The switch was pulled and the adult sized death mask fell from George Stinney’s face. Tears streamed from his eyes. Witnesses recoiled in horror as they watched the youngest person executed in the United States in the past century die.

Now, a community activist is fighting to clear Stinney’s name, saying the young boy couldn’t have killed two girls. George Frierson, a school board member and textile inspector, believes Stinney’s confession was coerced, and that his execution was just another injustice blacks suffered in Southern courtrooms in the first half of the 1900s.

In a couple of cases like Stinney’s, petitions are being made before parole boards and courts are being asked to overturn decisions made when society’s thumb was weighing the scales of justice against blacks. These requests are buoyed for the first time in generations by money, college degrees and sometimes clout.

“I hope we see more cases like this because it help brings a sense of closure. It’s symbolic,” said Howard University law professor Frank Wu. “It’s not just important for the individuals and their families. It’s important for the entire community. Not just for African Americans, but for whites and for our democracy as a whole. What these cases show is that it is possible to achieve justice.”

Some have already achieved justice. Earlier this year, syndicated radio host Tom Joyner successfully won a posthumous pardon for two great uncles who were executed in South Carolina.

A few years ago Lena Baker, a black Georgia maid sent to the electric chair for killing a white man, received a pardon after her family pointed out she likely killed the man because he was holding her against her will.

In the Stinney case, supporters want the state to admit that officials executed the wrong person in June 1944.

Stinney was accused of killing two white girls, 11 year old Betty June Binnicker and 8 year old
Mary Emma Thames, by beating them with a railroad spike then dragging their bodies to a ditch near Acolu, about five miles from Manning in central South Carolina. The girls were found a day after they disappeared following a massive manhunt. Stinney was arrested a few hours later, white men in suits taking him away. Because of the risk of a lynching, Stinney was kept at a jail 50 miles away in Columbia.

Stinney’s father, who had helped look for the girls, was fired immediately and ordered to leave his home and the sawmill where he worked. His family was told to leave town prior to the trial to avoid further retribution. An atmosphere of lynch mob hysteria hung over the courthouse. Without family visits, the 14 year old had to endure the trial and death alone.

Frierson hasn’t been able to get the case out of his head since, carrying around a thick binder of old newspaper stories and documents, including an account from an execution witness.

The sheriff at the time said Stinney admitted to the killings, but there is only his word — no written record of the confession has been found. A lawyer helping Frierson with the case figures threats of mob violence and not being able to see his parents rattled the seventh- grader.

Attorney Steve McKenzie said he has even heard one account that says detectives offered the boy ice cream once they were done.

“You’ve got to know he was going to say whatever they wanted him to say,” McKenzie said.

The court appointed Stinney an attorney — a tax commissioner preparing for a Statehouse run. In all, the trial — from jury selection to a sentence of death — lasted one day. Records indicate 1,000 people crammed the courthouse. Blacks weren’t allowed inside.

The defense called no witnesses and never filed an appeal. No one challenged the sheriff’s recollection of the confession.

“As an attorney, it just kind of haunted me, just the way the judicial system worked to this boy’s disadvantage or disfavor. It did not protect him,” said McKenzie, who is preparing court papers to ask a judge to reopen the case.

Stinney’s official court record contains less than two dozen pages, several of them arrest warrants. There is no transcript of the trial.

The lack of records, while not unusual, makes it harder for people trying to get these old convictions overturned, Wu said.

But these old cases also can have a common thread.

“Some of these cases are so egregious, so extreme that when you look at it, the prosecution really has no case either,” Wu said. “It’s apparent from what you can see that someone was railroaded.”

And sometimes, police under pressure by frightened citizens jumped to conclusions rather than conducting a thorough investigation, Wu said.

Justice Starts With Being Heard

Sometimes it feels like words are impotent, so long as power is held by a few people who choose to be deaf to truth and compassion. Despite millions of petition signatures and years of advocacy by such respected human-rights organizations as Amnesty International and the NAACP, the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis this week for a murder that he may not have committed. Whether or not you oppose the death penalty in general, as I do, the problems with the evidence in this case underscore the perils of allowing fallible human beings to impose a punishment that can’t be undone.

It was timely, then, to receive a message from poet and expressive writing facilitator Margot Van Sluytman, with a link to her guest post at Justice With a Crunch. Margot heads the Sawbonna Project, which promotes healing and reconciliation for crime victims and perpetrators. She says of herself:

Because of reading about an award I received from The Foundation for the National Association for Poetry Therapy in April 2007, for my work creating and facilitating growth experiences through experiential workshops in writing and healing voice in North America, the man, Glen Flett, who murdered my Father, Theodore Van Sluytman, March 27, 1978 contacted me. I chose to share dialogue with him and we have shared encounter with forgiveness.

The phrase that is used for what occurred between Glen Flett and I is: Restorative Justice. I did not know about this before I was offered the gift of opportunity to dialogue with the human being who ended the life of a human being I loved so deeply. Now I know of this phrase, and I know as well, that Restorative Justice happens in very different ways for each individual who is involved in it. What has happened for me, is only one of a myriad of possibilities for those who have been harmed by crime, or have caused the harm, to find ways to navigate their lives.

Justice With a Crunch is the website of Prof. Judah Oudshoorn at the University of Waterloo. In her guest post, Margot explains the links between voice, justice, and recognition of the other’s humanity:

…The word I myself use for what is widely known as Restorative Justice is, Sawbonna. I learned it from Glen. It is a Zulu greeting, and further, it means, “I see you.” Being seen, being heard, being felt, are each ingrained in this meaning. Sawbonna speaks from a place of inclusivity, from the flesh and the bone of victim and offender. It is about people not processes. It speaks from the foundational value of Restorative Justice, one I sense can be swept away in research papers and abundant studies. No victim, no offender is merely a study. Not merely an object to be observed….

…Justice is to be heard. Justice is to listen. Justice is to find, create, and belong within communities of those who truly want to know your voice, to support you in a time of deep and savage ache and ennui, accompanying you to learn to trust that you are more that the crime committed against you, or the crime you have committed; and, justice is about coming to a place where you too, can be support. Where are the places and the spaces within academia, within government, within our communities where Sawbonna is present for victims and for offenders. Victims and offenders will not always, if ever, meet in the those same places, however, those places must become as ubiquitous as gas stations. I do not want anyone to speak my needs of and for healing. Both victims and offenders warrant the respect of telling their own story. That is justice. That is voice. That is being heard.

For an example of this process, read this brief and compelling series of vignettes posted by Judah on the blog earlier this month. The news and the legal system give us a single snapshot in time, but what was the whole narrative of this person’s life before the crime? Where are the venues where this can be told?

(1) A middle-aged man overdoses on crack cocaine and is found dead in a rooming house by the landlord.

what is justice in this situation?

(2) A young man is caught breaking into a house in a suburban part of a city by the police, who have been tailing him because of a long record of similar offences.

what is justice in this situation?

(3) A young boy is repeatedly mocked and beaten by his father when he scores less than a “B” on his report card during his elementary school days. No one ever finds out.

what is justice in this situation?

(4) Each of these vignettes is about the same person.

what is justice for this human being?

New Poem by Conway: “Tree of Uncertainty”

My prison pen pal “Conway” sent this poem in his Aug. 31 letter, written on the back of a disciplinary notice he received for participating in a hunger strike to end inhumane conditions in California prisons. Sign the online petition to support their protest.

Tree of Uncertainty

Begin with a gallery
  hung up high.
     Who was I, was I not
        a lost thought,
         or shattered thinker?

Fingers point, look closer
  in-out at everywhere.
    Full-blown kaleidoscopes
      show new-views
        if hopes dare.

Paint chips, in the musical time
  of crackling things, tripping
    over too many, themed questions.

How many more designs, laws
  years, flaws, locked-up tiers?

Stacked absence, bad dreams
  muffled screams, slipping
    while existence’s sad smile
      silently cracks;
      Like the sidewalk, Avenue
    you used to skip
      on the way to school; Now
      A void, now a prison
      no win, deep end,
  as chain-bound sleep
    blankly yanks away
    another dusty,
      day plus day.

  I miss, what nothing needs.
    (Excepting maybe weeds,)
      That feed upon, another caustic dawn
    which was lost again
       when I was found, gone.

So, escort mere mourning
  that drove time here
    minds migrating
      to counts we cleared.

Leaf through these pages
  like History, or listen
    to leaves, fall off this tree
      burdens of, uncertainty…

Torah: Sacred Object, Living Word, Challenging Legacy

As I’ve mentioned on this blog, my husband and I both come from a Reform Jewish background, though we’ve taken other spiritual paths since then. This weekend we attended Shabbat and Bar Mitzvah services for one of his relatives at a temple in New York City. The service leaders’ joyful reverence for the Torah, coupled with their apparent comfort at reinterpreting it to emphasize modern progressive values, made me think that Christians who wrestle with the question of Biblical authority could learn something from our Jewish heritage.

In synagogues, the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures), handwritten in Hebrew on a scroll of parchment, is kept in a sanctuary behind closed doors or curtains at the front of the worship space. The scroll is covered with a fancy cloth casing and sometimes also adorned with ornaments. At a certain point in the liturgy, the clergy open up the sanctuary, and everyone bows and sings songs of reverence to the Torah. During Saturday morning services, the rabbi takes out the scroll and parades it around the sanctuary for the people to touch with their prayerbook or the hem of their prayer shawl. It’s not unlike the Catholics’ display of the Host in the monstrance. The object itself is beloved, physically transmitting the presence of God and connecting today’s worshippers to past and future generations.

As the service leaders dressed and undressed the Torah in its velvet wrapper and necklaces of silver crowns, I was reminded of Hindus presenting jewelry, clothing, and food to the statues of their gods. This tender relationship with inanimate objects, sincere as a child with a doll, could be called idolatrous by purists and delusional by skeptics, but to me it appears as an opportunity to re-enchant the world, taking the risk of saying that we perceive the unseen God immanent in all things.

The Jews love the Torah in part because it represents their improbable survival. The Torah has been the center of a distinctive identity that resisted thousands of years of persecution and temptation to assimilate.

But what about the Torah is most meaningful and relevant today? For this congregation, the emphasis was on the ethical ideals of caring for the stranger, the orphan, the poor, and the natural resources that we share. Unselfishness, humility, empathy, responsibility for one another: these were the qualities that Jesus, too, chose to foreground from his own Jewish heritage.

The thing is, though, you have to do some pretty heavy interpreting to play up the universal and rational aspects of the Torah to the exclusion of the tribal and ritual ones. I didn’t sense that anyone was agonizing about the delicious crabcakes and shrimp sushi that we enjoyed at the bar mitzvah boy’s reception. Nor do I think we should. Still, it was hard to reconcile that freedom with the day’s parsha (weekly Torah portion) from Deuteronomy 26-29, in which God warns of the horrifying atrocities the Hebrews will experience at the hands of foreign invaders if they don’t keep the Law of Moses.

The key may be that Jews have always been more comfortable than Protestants with admitting — even celebrating — the role of interpretation in our relationship with the sacred text. One theory retroactively confers divinely inspired status on all future rabbinic interpretations (Talmud and so forth); these too were given at Sinai, the legend goes, but only revealed to us in stages. After all, we have to exist in linear time, but God transcends it. The Torah and its interpretations could be considered the “still point” (in T.S. Eliot’s words) where time and timelessness meet.

As someone who had no Jewish education, I have found the centrality of Hebrew in Jewish worship services to be a barrier to full engagement. I can see how this set-up could also lead people to compartmentalize Torah, not seeing it as a relevant standard for their weekday behavior. On the other hand, being continually presented with the foreignness of the text, Jews have to be more honest about the role of interpretation in every reading. Contrast this to Protestant fundamentalists who behave as if the King James Version had been handed to them by God in leather-bound volumes.

I welcome commentary from readers who are more familiar with Jewish theological practices. Have you found rabbinic styles of interpretation to be freeing and illuminating? Have you seen the Torah updated for modern values in a convincing way?

The Beatitudes in Prison: My Pen Pal’s Response

Earlier this summer, Richard Beck at Experimental Theology posted about the challenges of studying the Beatitudes with the Bible study group he leads in a men’s prison. Considering the risks of nonviolent compassion in a place ruled by the law of the jungle, he realized afresh how much it can really cost to be a follower of Christ. An excerpt:

…Week to week, as you lead a bible study with prisoners, you can come to believe that this is the most holy, devout, and saintly bunch of Christians you’ve ever seen. This is, incidentally, one of the joys of prison ministry, how nice, grateful and cooperative the men are. You’ll never have a better audience.

But I know that this is a bit of an illusion. To be sure, the men are grateful. The time they have with us is, perhaps, the only non-coercive, relaxed and egalitarian interaction they have during the week. So they are truly grateful and happy to be a part of the bible study. And many have become committed followers of Jesus.

Still, for the most part I know that the devoutness on display during the bible study is hiding a great deal of darkness. And we don’t talk much about that darkness. At least not in our bible study. But I knew it was there and I wanted to try to talk about it a bit before reading the Beatitudes.

So I waited. And asked again, “Inside the prison, who is blessed?”

Finally, a man answered:

“The violent.”

I nodded. “So that is Beatitude #1. ‘Blessed are the violent.’ What else?” The floodgates opened.

The thieves.
The liars.
The manipulators.
The hypocrites.
The wealthy. (There is an underground black market economy.)
The strong.

On and on it went. These were the “virtues” that got “blessed” and rewarded inside the prison. These were the “virtues” that helped you get ahead, survive, and thrive. And I wondered, is it any different on the outside where I live?

Not much.

After creating this list we then turned to Matthew 5 and we read aloud:

Blessed are the poor in spirit…

Blessed are those who mourn…

Blessed are the meek…

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…

Blessed are the merciful…

Blessed are the pure in heart…

Blessed are the peacemakers…

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness…

As we read these words the room became very somber. In light of what we’d just been talking about the radical call of Jesus shone like a white hot light. It burned. When you read the Beatitudes on the outside it all sounds so nice and happy. But read inside a prison you suddenly see just how crazy you have to be to be a follower of Jesus. How the Beatitudes really are a matter of life and death.

I asked the prisoners, can you be meek, poor in spirit, or merciful in prison? Finally opening up, they said no, you can’t. You’d get hurt, taken advantage of, raped, killed. Your days would be numbered if you tried to live out the Beatitudes.

And suddenly, I didn’t know what to say. For it became very clear to me what it would mean for me to preach the Beatitudes to these men. I’d be asking them to give their lives to Jesus. I’d be asking them to die.

So I hesitated. For one simple reason. I didn’t know if I was ready to make that commitment. And sensing hesitancy in my own heart, my own fear of Jesus, I couldn’t ask these men to do something that I myself lacked the courage to do.

None of this was verbalized. After the men described how it would be suicidal to live out the Beatitudes inside the prison we started to talk about how, in small moments here and there, they could let their defenses down to show a little meekness, to show a little mercy. We started to figure out ways they could fit Jesus into the gaps and margins of prison life. Where their shell of violence and toughness could be dropped for a moment.

Basically, we talked about compromise. How to accommodate Jesus to the ruling ethic of prison life. And like I said, I couldn’t ask for anything more. Who was I to push them for more mercy and meekness when I’d be walking out of the prison gates in less than an hour? I didn’t know what I was asking them to do. Nor was I confident about what I would do if I was in their shoes….

I printed out this post and mailed it to my pen pal “Conway”, whose poetry and letters I have shared on this blog. Conway responded with one of the most inspiring stories of Christian love that I have read in a long time. Let me also add that when he wrote this, he was in the middle of a three-week hunger strike to demand more humane conditions in California prisons. Here is an excerpt from his July 4 letter:

I can see some prisoners feeling relaxed inside of the chapel setting in prison. I have only entered the chapel for religious service on one occasion in prison. That was for a friend who had died of AIDS at Vacaville. I was there for maybe two years recovering from being paralyzed by L.A. County sheriffs. (In L.A. County Jail.) It took about eighteen months to be able to walk again.

I was pissed off that it took several months before the service was held for Johnny. He and four others had died from AIDS in that time.

I was listening to the priest or what they call chaplain speak on each man’s life that had passed. And it just seemed so weak to be waiting this long to be approved for a decent ceremony. He’d already been cremated months before. Why now? and why pack them all into one ceremony?

But I do recognize that the blanket patch had to be sewn together with others. It was large.

Still why wait to leave this soul roaming along the halls of that place? It had me mad and I stood up to confront the chaplain. He called me up to the podium and asked me to say a few words of what Johnny was about. The funny thing is even though he was gay and had caught his sentence for protecting himself, this was not what I talked about. It didn’t matter to me what preferences he had. He was just a good dude and I wanted everyone to know it.

All of those cons were crying like babies when I’d finished my tirade. And of course I was too. But the point I make is that the label of holy or devout, what the hell is that, if we are to become righteous in our lifetime. Like I said that was the only one time I went to a religious service. But it amazes me. So many of those guys later on thanked me for standing up and speaking on that day….

…I’m sure I got off track on that subject, but the comments [on the blog post] brought back memories of my connection with their discussion. But I disagree with one point they said you can’t be merciful in prison. Actually you can. It’s not as ruthless a crowd as everyone makes out. Nevertheless it is a harsh environment that one must prove themself everyday. But we all are tested daily.

Visit the website of California Prison Focus to find out more about the hunger strikers’ demands and track the progress of the reforms. Their five core demands were as follows: (1) Eliminate group punishments for prisoners of the same race when one breaks a rule; (2) Reform the criteria for declaring a prisoner to be active in a gang (currently prisoners like my friend Conway are sent to long-term isolation on dubious evidence); (3) Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to longterm solitary confinement; (4) Provide adequate food; (5) Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates. (Conway was mentoring at-risk youth until he was transferred to the Segregated Housing Unit on false evidence of gang activity.) The California state legislature held hearings on these issues in August.

Related resources:; TGI Justice Project (advocate for transgender, genderqueer, and intersex inmates).

Ten Years After 9/11: Poetry and Some Thoughts

This weekend marks the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Back then, our family was still living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. At 9 AM, I came upstairs to my office at a publishing company in the West 30s to find everyone peering out the window at smoke billowing from the WTC. We could only see the top floors in the distance so we were not sure what had happened. We saw the flash that was the second plane hitting, but only found out later what had caused it. After that, the grey cloud of smoke and ash was all we could see. Shortly thereafter we learned from the radio that the towers had collapsed and another plane hit the Pentagon. It was then that I became really scared: this was not an accident, it was an attack, and anything could happen now. I don’t remember how we evacuated from the 21st floor, but I assume we must have taken the stairs. Fortunately my husband worked in midtown too and I could email him to come meet me, since the phones were not working.

We walked about three miles downtown to our apartment, part of a stunned crowd. The funereal silence and slowness of these typically high-adrenalin New Yorkers really brought home to us that our world had changed. (I am so proud of the residents of my birth city for not panicking and responding with such courage.) My moms lived across the street from us so we went up to their place to let them know we were all right. One of them was there and the other was making her way downtown from West 96th St., driving her co-workers home, as far as the emergency personnel would allow cars to go. Like everyone that day, we obsessively watched the televised footage of the disaster, hoping for information that would make sense of it all, although it was clear that only speculation and tragedy were on offer.

We were spared the pain that thousands of our fellow New Yorkers endured, in that we did not know anyone who was in those buildings. Our upstairs neighbor lost his brother, Robert Foti, a firefighter. We went to his funeral a few weeks later. Rest in peace, Robert. I will never forget his mother’s words when we paid her a condolence call. “They’ll never find their bodies,” she said, wiping her hand along the table. “See this dust? We’re breathing them in right now.”

What I remember most from those early days was the fear of what might be demanded of us. What sacrifices would we have to make? Would it be like World War II, when the homefront was part of the battle? I was worried that Adam would feel a sense of duty to enlist. Though I am the least bureaucratic person in the world and had just escaped from my legal career, I sent away for a pamphlet about joining the Judge Advocate General’s Corps.

Our preoccupations of the week before were tinged with tragic irony. Walking home from dinner, in a rush to watch the U.S. Open, Adam and I got sidetracked into an argument about his wish for children. Newly independent of my parents, I was afraid I wouldn’t get to experience life and make progress in my writing career before being submerged in someone else’s needs. After 9/11, I felt keenly the truth that “no one knows the day nor the hour”. Plans are uncertain; family matters most in a crisis. (Double irony since we still haven’t been able to make this happen…)

There was something beautiful about the mindfulness and tenderness with which New Yorkers went about their business in the following weeks. On a crowded midtown bus at rush hour, truly one of the more unpleasant aspects of New York life, I noticed that people gave way to one another instead of jostling and taking offense. We were suddenly grateful that each person next to us was still alive.

And simultaneously there was the crassness of the “Fight Back New York: Go Shopping!” campaign, the alarming speed with which the sidewalk vendors cranked out death-to-Osama T-shirts and flag-festooned junk. The mutual contempt of the pro- and anti-war camps, everyone desperate for a simple narrative, as if death always came to people with a reason and a forewarning, visible if we looked hard enough.

It was supposed to be the end of irony. Even if that had been true, I don’t think it would be a good idea. We need all possible interpretive tools to make our way in a world where 9/11’s happen. What it was, instead, was a collective moment of appreciation that life is precious and mysterious, and that no one is really a stranger. That consciousness was too painful, though, and too unprofitable, to keep up for long. “Go, go, go, said the bird; humankind/Cannot bear very much reality.”

But for that little while, we cried at baseball games, we wore our flag lapel pins and bootleg NYPD and FDNY caps, we prayed over the names in the newspaper and asked forgiveness for being unable to read one more obituary, and we wrote poetry about crashing planes and falling towers and heroes.

Adam and I had just started Winning Writers that summer, and we were putting together the rules for our first annual contest. Distressed by the simplistic verses being written by both the blame-America liberals and the kill-the-Muslims conservatives, we decided that our contest should solicit high-quality and nuanced poetry about war. (2011 will be this topic’s tenth and final year, to be replaced by the Sports Poetry Contest.)

These poems from Israeli author Atar Hadari, honorable mention winner in our 2003 contest, best express how New York felt to me in the aftermath. The “two lights” are the memorial Tribute in Light that represented the lost towers with spotlight beams.

Read more 9/11 reminiscences at the WNET-Channel 13 public television website.


by Atar Hadari

This is the season people die here,
she said, Death comes for them now.
Sometime between the end of winter
and the rains, the rains of summer.

And the funerals followed that summer
like social engagements, a ball, then another ball
one by one, like debutantes
uncles and cousins were presented to the great hall

and bowed and went up to tender
their family credentials to the monarch
who smiled and opened the great doors
and threw their engraved invitations onto the ice

and dancing they threw their grey cufflinks
across each others’ shoulders, they crossed the floor
and circles on circles of Horas
filled the sky silently with clouds, that chilled the flowers.

And funeral trains got much shorter
and people chose to which they went
and into the earth the flowers
went and no one remembered their names

only that they died that summer
when rains came late and the streets emptied
and flags flying on car roof tops
waved like women welcoming the army
into a small, abandoned city.

by Atar Hadari

Two lights were fixed over the town
high up, higher than any star had business being
and yet they shone, not like helicopter beams,
like flames, like something burning and not being consumed.

I stepped two steps toward the fence
to see, to try to see, the fire –
they stayed two gold balls in the sky
and I trod on some stones and smelled dog piles.

Whenever I tried to hear roar
of propellers’ wings, the milk trucks
would careen by in their floats
and commuters late home whizzed by in droves
like ice cream vendors.

Eventually one went out
then the other and suddenly
way above them both
another lit, preternaturally still,
an emptying cinema’s white bulb.

A jogger came out of the dark
my side of the fence
I waved, “Do you know what that is?”
“It’s light to find the terrorists,” he said

and ran and I walked away
looking thru at darkness
and left one bulb in the middle
of the empty cinema

like traces of a flame
after you’ve closed your hand
and clenched your lids
and walked out of the shot

and lights still burn in that sky
and I translate the word of God
out of Hebrew. And wanderers in that dark
mistake those lights for guides through the ruins.

Love the “Sinner”…or the Person?

Pastor Romell Weekly, founder of the Gay Christian Fellowship discussion forum, has a new blog, Affirming Theology. These sites occupy a unique niche in that they are theologically evangelical and grounded in Biblical studies, yet gay-affirming. Below, an eloquent passage from Pastor Weekly’s recent post about the “love the sinner, hate the sin” catchphrase that’s so popular with anti-gay Christians:

…[H]ow realistic is it to identify a specific sin that we despise, yet draw a clear line of distinction between that sin and the ones committing it, so as not to allow our disgust to seep onto people? I submit that when we narrow our hatred of sin to a specific list, we make it near impossible to draw this distinction. In fact, something in us causes us to look more favorably upon those who don’t commit those particular sins, while harboring some degree of disappointment or even indignation toward those who do.

The phrase itself calls attention to the “fallenness” of the one being judged. “Love the sinner” refuses to lift the person supposedly being loved from the profession of “sinner.” It ever-reminds people that while they’re loving someone, they’re loving them “in their sin.” But, Scripture’s description of love says that we aren’t to keep a record of wrongs (1Co. 13:5). So, why does it suffice us to classify, relate to, and even love people on the basis of their status as sinners? Why can we not love on the basis of a person’s quintessential human quality—the inestimable value of their being created as an expression of God’s image and likeness (even though we all fall short of that wonderful intent).

It doesn’t seem to occur to us that every Christian sins, which means that this saying applies equally to the entire human race. In being so broad in its application, the phrase loses all potency and purpose, and becomes nothing more than a self-righteous way to justify the negative feelings we have toward people.

I submit that Jesus didn’t love “the sinner”, while hating their sin. I believe He simply loved people. He saw all of us as falling short of His grace, and simply loved us. He loved the adulterous woman, the Gadarene demoniac, and even the self-righteous Pharisees who were so busy pointing out the sin in the lives of others that they neglected to deal with their own.

So, I think the phrase needs to be completely retired from Christian vernacular. Since we all sin, yet should all be loved, let’s just take it as a general rule that we should hate sin, while fiercely loving everyone. Let’s not perceive or relate to people on the basis of their sin, and just worry about our own sins, while encouraging those around us to strive, along with us, to be the best servants of God that we can be!

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