Light from the Cage: 25 Years in a prison Classroom…is published!

Light from the Cage can be purchased from:

From the back cover:

For 25 years, Judy Patterson Wenzel taught high school completion classes in prison in the only program beyond GED in the federal system. In Light from the Cage, she spins out stories of and by her students about their journeys toward the treasured accomplishment of earning a high school diploma Weaving in her own unexpected journey, she learns as much as she teaches, changing the perception of the men she taught and the country we live in. Arranged by themes of place, identity, community and the spiritual values of inclusion, gratitude and caring, these moving and funny stories illuminate age-old truths: Lines and fences cannot be drawn between good people on one side and bad people on the other. And often, the people we cast out and lock away become sources of great wisdom and uncommon grace–of light and love in a dark world.

Prison Break: Can We Be Like Norway?

North Dakota’s Norway Experiment

I love this article from Mother Jones, August 2107. Two women prison administrators from North Dakota toured the famously humane prison in Norway and were profoundly moved. “We are hurting people,” said Leann Bertch, the warden. On their return, they made a huge shift from punitive policies to treatment that was more positive and compassionate. Staff members were willing to try new ways of relating to inmates, like being “social workers, friends and mentors.” Karianne Jackson, a deputy who was also in Norway, said, “When the environment feels less aggressive and contentious, you’re safer.” In Norway, violence is rare and assaults against guards do not happen.

With over two million people in prisons and jails across the country living in harsh and crowded conditions, we should not be surprised that recidivism, according to this article, is shockingly high. 77% of people across the country are rearrested within five years. I have never understood why people think that severe punishment and long sentences without any treatment programs prepare people adequately for living on the outside. These policies are “ineffective, costly and cruel.” I would add that they not only hurt people who need treatment and healing, but they hurt the families, especially children, in the their communities. And, they hurt the rest of us by damaging our national moral identity.

In my last years as a teacher in a federal prison, I taught a class called Educational and Employment Opportunities. I hoped there were opportunities, because having a prison record makes employers jittery. It is very hard in some places to even get an interview, according to men I knew who had come back to prison. Even my most competent students were very worried about going home—to children some hadn’t seen for decades, to families who had gotten along without them, and to being able to cope with a world they hadn’t seen in years.  Almost every man I knew worried about gettting a job. My high school completion program was and is the only one of its kind in the federal system, offering a diploma beyond the GED program. Even my good students had to take time to brush up on school skills. Going to college would have been difficult without building confidence and skill levels.

The article talks about a gradual release so that people have day passes home, shopping trips and a chance to wear their own clothes. Many of the men I knew yearned to see their children, and I know they would have benefitted from a more gradual release. I heard them talk about missing regular clothing. We need to do a lot with sentencing reforms, drug laws, and releasing people who’ve committed violent crimes but have outgrown their violent tendencies. If people do need to be incarcerated, I wish facilities would all add not only college classes, but rigorous and comprehensive high school completion programs. The Bureau of Prisons has an annual budget of 7.3 billion dollars annually. For that amount of tax money, the general public deserves to have the people who are released return as  healthy and self-sufficient citizens.

We could do so much better! Norway shows us how.

Inspiration from ER

Democracy falls apart when people are not informed, engaged and invested in its success. Our own democracy feels fragile right now, and requires us to be brave and move out of our comfort zone. We need to listen carefully to views different than our own, make our voices heard and put our gifts to work for the greater good.

It would be hard to find a more engaged and caring citizen than Eleanor Roosevelt. She just never gave up—on fighting for people who were less fortunate, on caring for people who needed her (including wounded soldiers in the Pacific during WW II) and telling her truth in whatever way she could. I just heard this quote from her, and because it is helping me get out of my comfort zone, I want to share it. She said,

“Courage is more exhilarating than fear, and in the long run, it is easier. We do not have to become heroes overnight, just a step at a time, meeting each thing as it comes, seeing it’s not as dreadful as it appears, discovering we have the strength to stare it down.”


Is it Government or Democracy?


In the first years of finding my way in my prison classroom, I had to teach a class called Government, always at 9:30 in the morning, making knots in my stomach as my students filed in. They were very eager to articulate the many ways they hated the government. They labeled it corrupt, evil, and racist. Given their long sentences for non-violent drug offenses, I understood. Given the fact that many of them were earning 11 cents/hour in the prison factory (going up to $1.25/hour), they felt used. Many called it slave labor. One of my first lessons was not to discuss the 13th Amendment:

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, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Seeing that the Constitution permitted slave labor in prisons only fanned their anger. Some men sent their meager wages home.

Seeing so many people of color in prison for drug offenses made it easy to see why my students labeled the system racist. It was and it is. Michelle Alexander says in the The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness:

“People of all races use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than people of color.” 1

She goes on to say:

“Nevertheless, black men have been admitted to state prison on drug charges at a rate that is more than thirteen times higher than white men.” 2

All of these realities led to a profound sense of powerlessness. I could see it, hear it, feel it as I struggled along with the standard high school government textbook. We had few really good days. However, when I began to slip in other subjects like the Civil Rights Movement and non-violence, my students perked up, started listening and having lively discussions in class. As I watched them treat each other and me with courtesy and kindness, I created a short unit on civility. As they wrestled with what they valued and what is right, we talked about integrity. Discussions were lively with both of these subjects. Finally, with the help of Mr. C, my classroom assistant or “tutor,” we re-did the whole course and called it Civics.

Talking about and becoming good citizens proved successful as we wrestled with how to do the right thing, and they discussed how to live in together peacefully in prison, how to deal with the staff and rules. But, it took a while for us to figure out how my students could become empowered behind bars where so much power is taken away. Eating lunch one day with an assistant warden, he said, “One of our goals is to take responsibility away from them.” I thought about that a lot, realizing that being in school made them as responsible every day.

We decided together that the first duty—or level—of a citizen is to stay informed about how the system works and about the issues with as much unbiased, accurate information as possible. Citizens need to talk together about the issues important to them. Using a student’s idea to have students read and respond to a news article every week, the men then formed a circle to discuss everyone’s article. I’ve written about the success of this Round Table idea before. Nothing we ever did was as valued or successful as this was. The students loved the circle discussions, but it was being able to articulate their own reactions to the news they loved most. Finally, in a place that essentially silenced them, they had a voice—and it gave them a vital sense of their own power. People want and need to be heard.

The second level was to make their voices heard over the fence to the outside. I wrote about their correspondence with Dick Cheney in my January 25th blog called “Power to the People!” My students wrote to people in the state government and welcomed a state representative, himself an adult education graduate, to class one day. We were all evolving from the dreaded idea of a class in government to a class in democracy. Civics is a study in the ways we become good citizens. In a healthy democracy, the people vote for and create the government—on local, county, state and federal levels. We the people hold the power. If we simply call it government, we fail to take responsibility for allowing that particular government to be there—and nothing changes. Being good citizens means we are the current government’s watchdogs, holding elected officials accountable. Competent, responsible officials want and need to hear from their constituents.

Even people behind bars can make a difference. Mr. Glenning, incarcerated for a drug offense for many years, spent every day writing letters about the injustice of the drug wars. He learned who was interested in reform in his state legislature and in Congress and wrote them letters. Occasionally, they wrote back to him. He wrote letters to the editor. He was an active member of FAMM, Families Against Mandatory Minimums.  If I had a question, he was in the library every day, and I went to him. He worked tirelessly every day for years.

Mr. Walls, also incarcerated with a long sentence, was a tireless advocate for the abolition of capital punishment. He too did research, talked to any group that would listen and wrote letter after letter.

A third level was to engage each other. The point of a democracy is to disagree, but my students were thoughtful and courteous when they argued. They listened carefully and respectfully to people from different cultural and religious backgrounds. They laughed together.

I cannot remember a time in this country when our fractures have been so painful and our divisions so deep and misunderstood. I want to engage people who don’t hold the same views and values as I do. I want to learn to listen carefully, ask questions and stay calm. I want to remember that that a lot of anger springs from people’s anxieties and fears about changes in the country’s demographics and growing wealth divides. I want to hear and understand the alarms about the future. I would like to find common ground. Within the radical changes we are experiencing, I need to remember my remarkable students. In spite of their anger, frustration and feelings of powerlessness, they managed to be exemplary citizens. I need them as role models of courage and wisdom.

  1. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, The New Press, New York, 2012, p. 99.
  2. Ibid., p. 100.

Bryan Stevenson, Great Spirit


On March 7, 2017, along with 1,100 other people, I heard Bryan Stevenson speak and saw him accept the 25th Wallenberg award. The University of Michigan has designated this honor for people “whose courageous actions call to mind Wallenberg’s extraordinary accomplishments and values.” Raoul Wallenberg attended the University of Michigan to study architecture in the 1930’s. During WW II, the Swedish government sent him to Budapest to save the lives of Hungarian Jews, trapped in the last months of the war. Cleverly and courageously, Wallenberg saved thousands of Jews before he was captured by the Soviets in 1947.

Stevenson opened his remarks about the “great spirits” among us and advised us all to go out and “change the world.” He gave us four ways to move forward. The crowd rose to its feet several times and gave him a long standing ovation at the end.

First, we must get proximate to people who are marginalized, in our prisons, in places of poverty and oppression—wherever people are “disfavored.” He told us about being unable to attend an integrated high school, in spite of the Supreme Court ruling that separate was not equal in the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954.  Some lawyers appeared in Stevenson’s community and made it possible for him to go to high school. “They got proximate,” he said, “and I wouldn’t be standing here tonight without their actions.”

Second, he often talks about “the politics of fear and anger” as weapons against justice and progress. He talked about the need to change the narratives that drive injustice, oppression and disadvantage. He talked about the injustice in the criminal justice system, citing dismal statistics: 2.3 million people in prison in the United States, the huge rise of incarcerated women, and the tragedies of incarcerating children for life. He told us that Michigan has one of the worst records for treating juveniles unfairly. He talked about the need to change the “great evil in the narrative of racial difference,” the idea that white people are somehow better than people of color.

Third, he said we must stay hopeful, as hard as it can be at times. He explained how even people on death row have hope, and he explained his mission to erect monuments about lynching as giving him hope. His work with people given life sentences as children gives him hope. “Hopelessness is the enemy of justice,” he declared.

Fourth, we need to do “uncomfortable things.” Getting out of our comfort zones isn’t easy, but it is also the only way forward. Stevenson has done the painful, hard and sometimes tragic work with condemned people on Death Row for decades, providing us with a model of extraordinary heart and courage.

He also addressed the problem of America’s unwillingness to face the ugliness in our past. “We are living in a post-genocidal society,” he said as he talked about the millions of Native Americans who have died in the name of American progress. As Americans, we have a very hard time talking about slavery. The Equal Justice Initiative that Stevenson founded is housed in Montgomery, Alabama, and it has undertaken a project to put monuments and markers in places where slaves were sold. EJI is also planning a memorial to the people who were lynched, so “we can begin to heal,” he said. The video on Proposed National Lynching Memorial is very moving.

Americans don’t like to look at these wrongdoings, because we are so punitive. But, he said people in Alabama are beginning to see the merits of doing these uncomfortable things, such as learning the awful realities of slavery, segregation and lynching. It is the only way we will get beyond our divisions of race and class. “The Germans have markers everywhere to mark what happened in the Holocaust. They want to remind people what was done so that it doesn’t ever happen again,” he said. He reminded us of how burdened we are by our history and how important it is to have the uncomfortable conversations to understand all of our history. Those efforts are the only way to get beyond bigotry and injustice.

Stevenson’s book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption is a must read for all Americans. I smiled to myself as I listened, feeling so honored to hear him. As he talked about other people with courage and great spirit, especially people in prisons, I could not think of anyone who could wear the label of Great Spirit more than this man. We are living in such troubling times. How lucky we are to have Stevenson’s tenacious courage in the face of persistent injustice and the good humor and grace to inspire the rest of us. No wonder he is called “America’s Nelson Mandela.”

That’s How the Light Gets In


Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in

A long list of losses define 2016—nationally for progressives with an election that proves ever more ominous as the president-elect appoints people on the extremes of issues. All kinds of communities: LGBT, African-Americans, Muslims, immigrants, government workers, women and others are facing new fears and harassment. The country seems more divided than ever.

Leonard Cohen, Canadian poet, songwriter and singer, died on November 7. Beloved by many, his music and lyrics live on. The above is the chorus from Anthem, one of my favorites, and these lines speak to me of the particular hard space we find ourselves in at the end of this tumultuous year.

The most important question to me is how we heal the wounds between Republicans and Democrats—and stop demonizing each other. Cohen’s line “forget your perfect offering” speaks to me again about the value of mistakes. My students in prison taught me that nothing is perfect. No one is perfect. We all make mistakes.There is a crack in everything. Everyone suffers and feels some brokenness. Everyone feels vulnerable. But, that is how we find our common humanity. Dialogue means that we listen, acknowledge, and respect not only our differences, but each others’ vulnerabilities. If we reveal ourselves to each other—our hopes and fears, our hurts and vulnerabilities, it should not be impossible to stand on common ground—even make new friends. We could start with working together on projects that matter to everyone.

I am taking heart from all the people fighting the pipeline at Standing Rock in North Dakota. I am so impressed by  the number of veterans who have shown up to provide support and by the perseverance of all the people who endure the cold and provide solidarity. Louise Erdrich, Native American author and activist, wrote this piece in the New York Times on December 11: How to Stop a Black Snake.  She says we need to form new coalitions, become more powerful together and realize that we must fight for our land, our water and this “precious democracy.” If any group knows about long struggles simply to survive it is Native Americans. They’re not trying to be perfect. They know there are cracks in the world, and they also know they need to reach out in love, not hate. That’s how the light gets in.

Voting is…Falling in Love!


Voting is…Falling in Love!

“When people asked me what it felt like to vote for the first time, I answered, “What does it feel like to fall in love?” said Desmond Tutu, social rights activist and retired Episcopal archbishop of South Africa. America is supposed to be the world’s beacon of democracy, so we should never take voting for granted—nor should we deny it to anyone who can legally vote.  It is no small thing—nor is voting responsibly easy.

2016 is a year filled with chatter about both rigged elections and voter suppression. Any search of voter fraud issues brings up lots of fact checks about how rare it is: Trump’s Bogus Fraud Claims.

Voter suppression is the other far more important story. People of color and women have endured all kinds of tactics since our beginnings. Abigail Adams cried to husband John, “Remember the ladies!” Though black men were given the vote after the Civil War, all kinds of tactics from poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses ensured they could not vote. (Black grandfathers had been enslaved, therefore black people could not vote, but the grandfather clause protected poor whites from literacy tests and poll taxes.) More modern kinds of intimidation continue from purging voter rolls; from flyers, billboards and robocalls that give false information; from tactics that make voting more difficult like ID laws, difficult procedures to register, cutting back on early voting and polling places that favor people of color.

I am interested in the disenfranchisement of many of our returning citizens coming out of prison, who face huge obstacles in voting in many states. The chart is this article: State Felon Voting Laws shows current laws and regulations: 20% of states may take people’s right to vote away permanently, once again saying, “We will never stop punishing you if you’ve served time in prison.” Only two states, Maine and Vermont, have unrestricted laws allowing people behind bars to vote.

I have fond memories of my students in prison organizing and carrying out presidential elections. As an election inspector in Michigan, I had access to the authentic forms and procedures needed to register, to vote and to count the votes. My students elected two co-chairmen each time, who took everything very seriously and followed the rules to the letter. It was painful to talk to my students about the importance of voting, because some of them were people going home to states that would make it very hard for them to vote—if ever. As an election inspector, I watched people voting for the first time look very nervous. Those of us who have voted comfortably need to recognize how intimidating it can be. I was moved by this man’s story from the Marshall Project and how much pride he takes in voting after being in prison.

A Former Prisoner on Voting for the First Time in his Life

Voting is no small thing. It says so much about taking charge of our lives in concert with other citizens. It says, “I count too.” It’s like falling in love to know you have a stake and a voice in your future and the future of your family and community. All of that makes it sacred. To make it difficult to vote, to make such a fundamental part of our democracy intimidating or to take it away completely is to deny someone their humanity. It should never happen.

Prison Stories: A Good Apology


A Good Apology

One of the most important lessons I learned from my students in prison was the value—the necessity—of making mistakes. We all make mistakes. All the time. We are not designed to be perfect. In fact, I’ve noticed that perfect people—and people who have all the answers—seldom win popularity contests or find many close friends. Being open, vulnerable and willing to admit what we do wrong does connect us in far more genuine ways.

I learned to ask my students,”Who made a good mistake?” We defined that as one that teaches us something. Learning requires confidence, but a healthy dose of humility is required too. Mistakes help us learn more than doing things perfectly. Lessons learned from mistakes stick with us longer. People in prison are intimately aware of their own mistakes—and, I might add, fairly observant of other people’s missteps, especially those of elected officials. People who live behind bars develop a sharp sense of justice, often because justice has been denied them.

My students and I tossed a lot of these issues around in civics class as we were all learning how to be better citizens by resolving conflicts, shoring up relationships and building community. Many of the men I knew had been hurt—and had hurt others. Many felt betrayed by people who were supposed to care about them:  their school systems, the police and the larger community. Questions about forgiveness and apologies rose up. At a particularly difficult, painful and contentious time in our American life together, I’ve watched people in power apologize. They could have used some lessons from the men I knew behind bars.

We talked about what makes “a good apology,” what to do and what not to do. My students roll played, talked in small groups and thought about the apologies they had experienced. We concluded that most people usually know when they’ve hurt someone else. Together, my students and I came up with a few basics:

      1. Be careful of timing. Don’t wait too long, but avoid trying to apologize when people are still angry and not able to hear clearly.
      2. Some soul searching is sometimes necessary to figure out what we’ve done wrong. Asking the person you’ve hurt how they feel helps too. Validate their feelings. For example: “When I shared something after you told me not to, you must feel hurt and betrayed.”
      3. Acknowledge your regret for your behavior and ask if the other person can think of a way to repair the damage.
      4. Announce that you will try very hard to never repeat the behavior.
      5. Recognize that it often takes time to re-establish trust.

Behaviors that make things even worse are:

      1. Not apologizing directly to the person you’ve hurt.
      2. Saying “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
      3. Pulling in a 3rd person without permission from the person you’ve wronged. “Triangles” usually complicate things.
      4. Saying, “So and so does it too!” or “So and so does it far worse than me!”

Ironically, owning our own behavior and apologizing gives us more freedom. It makes us human. It connects us to people. It can go a long way toward healing the brokenness between and among us.

Erick Erickson: The GOP After Donald Trump, an article and a video from the New York Times on October 14, 2016 about a RedState gathering of Never Trump Republicans, shows how upset and unsure people are about the future of the GOP. I’m a lifelong Democrat, and I don’t agree with most of their stances on issues, but I wish I could sit down and talk to people who do not agree with me.  No one party has all the answers. I know that for a healthy democracy to work well, we need a healthy party (or parties) on the other side. I love the idea that truth—and often the solution to problems—comes out of both sides listening carefully. Compromise is essential. Our elected officials used to do this in the chambers of Congress, but our deep divisions and the demonizing that is happening in our current politics is poisoning the air and making progress almost impossible.

As citizens in what is supposed to be a participatory democratic system, we cannot let ourselves off the hook by pointing at “corrupt politicians” or constantly demonize people on the other side. Both liberals and conservatives do it, along with shouting and name calling. Our elected officials reflect who we are, and we need to do the work of mending and moving forward. We also need to realize that there are 535 people in Congress, and many still try hard to reach across the aisle and work things out with creative, respectful,  bi-partisan cooperation. They need our support.

I am so moved and impressed by the Republicans in this video who are stopping to ask what responsibility they’ve had in creating the deep divisions. Katie Pavlich from Fox News says she feels demonized by the left for her beliefs. She also says we care about the same issues. I think so too. Glenn Beck says he has been doing some painful soul searching about his part in the great divides. He is wanting to do more listening and says we must start talking to each other and chart a new course. We can all do that! We can listen and own our part in the brokenness and bitterness.

Krista Tippett’s Civil Conversations Project on has a place to start. With two people holding opposing views, her questions are: 1) What in your own position makes you uncomfortable? 2) What do you admire about the people and positions on the other side?

Part of the problem is our geographic divisions and the difficulty of meeting and knowing people who are different and hold very different ideas. After growing up in northern Michigan with people very much like me, one of my life’s greatest gifts was having the privilege of teaching in a federal prison. Almost no one shared a background like mine. My students challenged me, made me squirm, and made me change my mind about the country I live in. They also nurtured me for twenty-five years. I owe them, and writing my book is one way to give them a voice. Now in this painful and difficult time, I want to meet and talk to people on the other side of the political fence—listen carefully and own my part of the problem. Good apologies are a good place to start and go a long way toward pulling us together again.



Changing Minds, Changing Hearts


Changing Minds, Changing Hearts

YouTube: Shaka Senghor

Recently I had the great privilege of hearing Shaka Senghor speak. He has written Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison. Shaka Senghor committed murder. His story of pain, struggle and transformation moved me profoundly. I was particularly interested in his accounts of being in solitary confinement and discovering books—from ancient classics to modern stories of black men. He writes this about one if his first experiences:

“When I got back to my cell, it was nearing time for count, so I sat down and opened up the dog-eared pages of Eldorado Red. From the first page, I was hooked. Goines’s vivid tale of inner-city life and the underground lottery had me in its spell, and his ability to articulate the pain of the streets validated the anger, frustration and disappointment I felt toward life in the ‘hood. Goines placed me back on the streets of Detroit; he made me feel alive again. I read the whole thing that night.” 1

All of us need our experiences to be validated. What do most of us living outside the fence in nice neighborhoods know about the traumas young black people experience in the streets and neighborhoods?

Senghor goes on about reading The Autobiography of Malcom X, “Without question, it was one of the best and most important decisions I have ever made.”2 This made me remember a statement from more than one of my students, “If I’d learned this stuff about my people in school, I don’t think I would have dropped out.”

Senghor echoes the power of black people learning black history when he writes, “My reading of Black history gave me a sense of pride and dignity that I didn’t have prior to coming to prison.”3

Books were an important part of his changing identity, as was learning to write and journal. When he figured out that writing in a journal was a method for learning about himself and a way to manage his anger, it all became a powerful tool for transformation. He writes:

“It’s hard to express how much this process of examination began to change me. Within the lined pages of my notepads, I got in touch with a part of me that didn’t feel fear whenever something didn’t go my way—a part of me that was capable of feeling compassion for the men around me.

For the first time I could remember, I began to recognize my true self.”4

There it is: the recognition of one’s true self. People are not born criminals. People with severe damage or psychological illnesses are in a separate category. I did not want to know about or discuss my students’ crimes. I learned that crucial lesson early on when I looked at a difficult student’s file and discovered what he’d done. It did not help the already tenuous relationship between us, and it was not my job. I did have the privilege of watching people being transformed by education as they learned to read and write, as they learned and articulated what was important to them as they thoughtfully figured out what their futures might look like outside the fence. As they worked and learned, as they figured out how smart and capable they were, they were discovering their own compassion and goodness, their true selves.

When I heard Shaka Senghor speak, he read the letter he wrote to his victim and talked about the letter from the victim’s godmother, who forgave him. He talked about the long road to forgiving himself. When asked about forgiving his mother who had abused him as a child, he said the lesson he learned was that forgiveness did not mean that the other person automatically changes their behavior.

It was an amazing evening. When he finished his speech, the audience gave him a standing ovation. All the proceeds from that evening’s book sales went to the Children’s Literacy Network, which sponsors Staying in Touch in the county’s prisons. Inmates choose books for their children and read the books into a recorder. Their children then receive the books, recordings and cards from their parents. Senghor praised the program, noting just how important those connections are for both parents and children.

I taught many remarkable men in my prison classroom. Early in my twenty-five year career, I had two men in a history class. (To protect them, I’ve changed their names.) Mr. Hamden was supremely organized in whatever he did, including his school work. A dream student, every assignment was done perfectly. He never missed a class and came in early every day. At a time when the Jaycees, an organization for leadership training and civic organization for people 18-40, had a chapter in the prison, Mr. Hamden found a program that would take store coupons and turn them into a charitable project. Under his leadership, other inmates and both federal and contract staff collected coupons and turned them in.

Mr. Engling was in the same class and another excellent student. He and his classmates wrote a play about a man experiencing events in the 20th Century. I don’t remember a single hitch in the whole process. Mr. Engling was warm and fun as he crafted the script to include everyone in the class. They then loved rehearsing—and the performance turned into a huge hit.

Years later I had Mr. Walls. He was at the end of a long sentence, delighted to be able to earn his high school diploma. He was a joy in class as he sat in the front row asking good questions and keeping discussions lively, interesting and focused. His assignments were typed (no easy task with very few typewriters available in the library), and he earned straight A’s. One of his papers was the story of his teenage years, including what he described as the terrible decision to drop out of school. He went on to write about his re-awakening when he discovered books and school. After he was released, he wrote letters back to our program’s Pre-Release class, encouraging people who were ready to go home and warning them about pitfalls outside the fence.

All three of these men were self-reflective, centered and focused on successful futures. They were kind, compassionate, helpful and courteous. All three helped me enormously by being perfect role models for newer students who were struggling. I found them charming and lovely to be around.

All three had committed murder.

Much of the discussion around prison reform centers around non-violent offenders. If those people are released, that would be progress, but it leaves many more people locked away who have, at an earlier time in their lives—often as teenagers—committed violent crimes like murder. People DO outgrow bad behavior and take responsibility for the crimes they commit. Those people who do not need to be kept behind bars. One of the missing pieces in our broken criminal justice system is any attention on the victims and survivors of violent crimes. When asked, people have amazing capacities to forgive.

I think about the people, especially those in power in the criminal justice system, who cannot look beyond a single, awful event—and see whole people. This article from the New York Times tells of someone who committed a murder and spent over forty years behind bars: False Hope and a Needless Death Behind BarsHe became one of the most respected inmates in the state’s system, took total responsibility for his crime, earned degrees and started a program in which victims and offenders could communicate. He had support from prison guards, judges, clergy and prosecutors. After he was denied parole ten times, he committed suicide at age 70.

Another compelling reason to release people who’ve served long sentences, may have committed violent crimes and are doing good work behind bars, is that the world needs them! Formerly-incarcerated people are organizing across the country to work for prison reform and to work with vulnerable young people. No one can do it like they do. They know. They have the answers, the solutions and the commitment. Many of the men I knew expressed their needs to “give back” to their communities.

“Our worst deeds to not define us,” says Senghor. Prison is tough. In America we don’t simply lock people up and take away their freedom—we add further punishment like the use of solitary confinement. Our current system allows life inside to be miserable and dangerous. It is not easy to admit and atone for crimes committed. But, if people serve their sentences for many years and become valuable citizens behind bars, we should at least consider releasing them. If they can change their hearts and minds, we should be able to do the same. We need to start imagining a world where we matter to one another. Part of the blaming and shaming has to do with how cut off we all are to the people who live in prisons. Media images of “those animals,” as one person described them, abound.

Mr. Walls wrote this, “I have thought a lot about this in the quarter of a century I’ve been locked up. When it is their loved one who is charged with a crime and convicted, people always want leniency, mercy and humane treatment for the person they love. But, when it happens to people you feel no connection with, it is common to hear cries of “3 Strikes and you’re out!” and “Execute him!” He also wrote, “I wish citizens would demand that prisoners be treated as they would want their beloved sons and daughters to be treated, because that is who we are. We are your brothers and sisters who have made mistakes and lost our way from the right path. Only through education will we find our way back.”

Mr. Walls wrote this, “I have thought a lot about this in the quarter of a century I’ve been locked up. When it is their loved one who is charged with a crime and convicted, people always want leniency, mercy and humane treatment for the person they love. But, when it happens to people you feel no connection with, it is common to hear cries of “3 Strikes and you’re out!” and “Execute him!” He also wrote, “I wish citizens would demand that prisoners be treated as they would want their beloved sons and daughters to be treated, because that is who we are. We are your brothers and sisters who have made mistakes and lost our way from the right path. Only through education will we find our way back.”

  1. Shaka Senghor, Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison, (New York, Convergent Books, 2013, 2106), p. 99.
  2. Ibid., p. 101
  3. Ibid. p. 101
  4. Ibid. p. 192

Stories about Island Prisons

Stories about Island Prisons

Abuse continues on Rikers Island, the notorious prison sitting in the East River of New York City. Reading about the sordid record at Rikers prompts me to investigate other island prisons. Turns out, island prisons dot the waters all over the world in places like Venezuela, Italy, France and Panama. Alcatraz, America’s other infamous island, stands with its high imposing fortress rising up from San Fransisco Bay. Alcatraz was a maximum security federal prison from 1934-1963, It now functions as a tourist attraction as part of the U.S. National Park Service. Island prisons create a fitting metaphor for the way we regard and treat people who are incarcerated. Islands not only make it difficult to escape, but they create a natural barrier for the rest of us so that we are completely cut off and immune from the realties of lives inside. A prison on an island creates a more powerful sense of exile. more “Stories about Island Prisons”