“It’s Easy”

Like many people, I was shocked to hear about the death of Justice Scalia. After several days, I realized how complicated his death is from a legal standpoint, and the more I read and hear about him, the more contradictions I find. It has been heartening to hear about his friendship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and how it has endured across a huge political divide. I keep hearing about his charm, his wit, his humor, his writing ability and his legal brilliance. He served on the court with distinction for decades. I am sorry about his death, but I am relieved that he will no longer negatively effect so many people, particularly people on death row with his vociferous defense of the death penalty. Asked about what it was like to rule on death penalty cases, he responded, “The death penalty? Give me a break. It’s easy.” Given our horribly broken criminal justice system and its accompanying racist policies, I do not understand how anyone could be so cavalier about anything as serious and tragic as capital punishment. In my last blog, I wrote about people in the “tall tower” and how often they are disconnected from the world of impoverished communities and people of color. Wealth, power and privilege create these disconnections. Misinformation, prejudice and judgment often follow. It seems to me that Antonin Scalia lived in the tall tower—far removed from the realities of people in prisons and on death row.

Two of my heroes are Bryan Stevenson and Michelle Alexander. Stevenson wrote Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, and he created The Equal Justice Initiative where he represents people in Alabama on death row, many who are innocent. He represents children who are incarcerated, sometimes as young as nine or ten, and who have been sentenced to life without parole. Many of his stories are chilling. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, gives us new language and understanding about the tragedy of the United States becoming the world’s biggest jailor, and how our prison populations reflect the new form of racial control. She sheds light on how our prison system is creating an American caste system. They both work tirelessly for justice.

Bill Moyers interviewed Stevenson and Alexander together.  

Moyers asked Stevenson, “Why is it that capital punishment has become so symbolic of what you see as the crisis in American justice and American life?”  Stevenson replied,

“It shapes all of criminal justice policy. It’s in the only country where you have the death penalty that you can have life without parole for someone who writes bad checks. Somebody else who steals a bicycle. And so it shapes the way we think about punishment. You know, we’ve gotten very comfortable with really harsh and excessive sentences. And I think the death penalty permits that. But I also think it really challenges us, if we will really execute innocent people. We’ve had 130 people in this country who’ve been exonerated, proven innocent while on death row. For every 8 people who have been executed, we’ve identified one innocent person. If we will tolerate that kind of error rate in the death penalty context, it reveals a whole lot about the rest of our criminal justice system and about the rest of our society.”

Allowing the death penalty makes our society more punitive. Our prison policies are not based on the assumption that people are basically good and make mistakes. We don’t use prisons for the sole purpose of rehabilitation. We punish. We punish severely. We still have more than 80,000 people in solitary confinement, many of them children. Women and children are especially vulnerable to rape, and pregnant women are treated horribly in many cases. At this point, we make it very hard for people to put their lives back together when they are released by restricting access to federal housing and food subsidies, restricting licenses and student loans and by providing inadequate support for finding sustainable jobs. There is talk of reinstating Pell grants for people behind bars, but far more needs to be done about more comprehensive education. I taught in the only high school completion program beyond GED in the federal system. Without the right kind of support, returning citizens are vulnerable to homelessness, unemployment, debtor’s prison and what Michelle Alexander calls “a lifelong underclass.” Many states prohibit these citizens from serving on juries or even voting. They are vulnerable to recidivism.

When I was writing a blog about one of my students on June 15, 2015 called A Ruling Passion: Abolishing the Death Penalty, I learned about a national organization called Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. It was reassuring to read about their concern and political action. Helen Prejean wrote in Dead Man Walking, “Government…can’t be trusted to control its own bureaucrats or collect taxes equitably or fill a pothole, much less decide with of its citizens to kill.” The death penalty  is not only complicated, but it results in tragedies of immense proportions, especially among minorities. It is devastating to the families of people who are killed. It provides a slippery slope into more and more damaging and punitive policies, and it should never be described as easy in any context.

The Well-Traveled Path

Our future doesn’t lie in the towers of power but in the well-traveled path from house to house.

Sometimes deep and sturdy wisdom comes in just a few words. This quote comes from NPR’s program OnBeing with David Stendl-Rast, a Benedictine monk known for his work with interfaith dialogue. This simple sentence speaks volumes to the people of Michigan right now as we grapple with the unbelievable crisis of poisoned water in Flint. Democracy has taken a huge hit, and the people in Flint and in Michigan feel that government has failed them.  

I taught the state-required course in government with my incarcerated students. They didn’t trust the government either.  In fact, the mere word put them in the red zone. Most of them, imprisoned for drug offenses with very long sentences—and most of them people of color—had just cause to distrust the system they labeled as racist, corrupt and unfair. In the early years as I was finding my way, I got a knot in my stomach at 9:30 when my students filed in and took their seats in their least favorite class. Let me simply say we had some miserably bad days. We stumbled along. My first mistake was in thinking that I had to be in charge.

While teaching the course for several years out of the standard high school textbook, I added subjects, watched  and listened carefully. My students were very interested in ideas like non-violence. They were fascinated with The Civil Rights Movement. Because they represented so many cultural backgrounds, mainly African, Hispanic, and Native American, discussions around diversity came up all the time. I had students of all ages and from several religious backgrounds, which made discussions lively and rich. I saw people all over the prison treat each other with remarkable civility and caring. They were interested in issues of integrity.

So, one summer I completely changed the course. At its heart, government is learning how to live together. My students were learning this lesson under some of the worst possible conditions in the country. I decided to focus on good citizenship, knowing they had much to teach each other—and me. Re-naming the course Civics helped a lot. I realized how much they already knew from their lives at home, and by then I knew how well they got along in class.

Prisons have towers, both real and symbolic. They have a top-down, military chain of command with a heavy focus on rules and regulations. Prisons are designed to take control away from inmates. But, I was hearing and seeing how much my students wanted to determine the course of their lives, and being in school gave them that opportunity. Whenever I asked for ideas about class structure and what we should discuss, I got wonderful feedback. I learned to ask each class at the end of every semester what they would add or change for the next group. One man suggested that students read a news article every week and then discuss them together. Nothing we ever did was as popular or successful as their beloved Round Table. I insisted on a circle so that everyone would feel a part of it, but it was their time together and I stayed at my desk where I listened carefully to make sure they were on track. We agreed together that no one was ever left out. If the facilitator didn’t get all the way around the circle, the class insisted on time the next day to finish. The Round Table gave them a voice in a place where they had almost no voice at all.

Being in school, and especially participating in the Round Table, created community and the men said that often. “It’s cool to greet a fellow student around the compound,” one man wrote, “because I know that without school, I never would know the guy.” They were making connections in class, in the Chow Hall, on the yard and in their housing units. They were creating “well-worn paths.” I was seeing many of them take exquisite care of each other. In a communications class one semester, a white man wrote me a note at the end of it voicing his gratitude for the opportunity to get to know black men. He regretted that it was so much harder in the community he had grown up in.

That’s how democracy functions best: when people create community, go door-to-door, sit in a circle and make sure no one is left out. It functions when people have a voice and are heard. It works best when there is a diversity of people and opinions. It functions when people feel important and when elected officials regard every single person as important as anyone else. It functions when the people living in poor communities of color are as important as the people living in middle class or wealthy neighborhoods. It functions best when we try to get to know and understand people who are far different than we are. Democracy flourishes when we  care about each other.

People don’t like to be fixed. It’s patronizing to be told you cannot solve your own problems.  The citizens of Flint are angry about being told they had no voice and no power when emergency managers were installed by the governor. Our emergency managers in Michigan take local control away from communities and school districts. The roots of the water crisis lie in the stripping of power from Flint citizens. From their towers of power, the elected officials in Lansing, our state capital, did not listen. Though the people of Flint went to Lansing and to local meetings with their bottles of brown water, they were not heard. Even when Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha tested her pediatric patients and found dangerous levels of lead, she was ridiculed and attacked.

“Children are routinely screened for lead poisoning at ages 1 and 2, Hanna-Attisha said. “So we had the data. It was the easiest research project I have ever done.” She found that levels of lead poisoning among children tested for lead poisoning had increased dramatically between 2013 and 2015, the year after the water supply started drawing from the Flint River. She immediately held a press conference, telling Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman:

“[T]hat evening, we were attacked. So I was called an ‘unfortunate researcher,’ that I was causing near hysteria, that I was splicing and dicing numbers, and that the state data was not consistent with my data. And as a scientist, as a researcher, as a professional, you double-check and you triple-check, and the numbers didn’t lie.”

–MintPress News, January 30, 2016

Things are tough in Michigan right now, and the nation grieves with us about the damage done to children. I can get bogged down and cynical if I don’t look for hope. There is hope, however. On February 1, 2016, Dr. Laura Sullivan, a global expert on water issues and a native of Flint, was a guest on NPR’s All Things Considered. She said she feels like she is helping her family and that jobs may open up to fix the broken pipes. She said it was their city. She said, “Light is shining so brightly on Flint right now, and we’re going to help you heal your city.”  People from all over the country are donating bottled water. 300 union plumbers showed up to install donated faucets and other plumbing supplies. The 300 plumbers are from local unions from across the country. 1 They’re going house to house.

more “The Well-Traveled Path”