Lessons from Behind Bars

In 2010, Hope House DC received a grant from the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. to support participation in the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read project.  Hope House placed about 100 copies of Earnest J. Gaines’ classic A Lesson Before Dying in two prisons that have high concentrations of District of Columbia inmates.

After reading the book, I led inmates through a two-day writing workshops at each facility, as their Humanities Scholar.  During this time, participants worked with the study guide materials provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as creating unique writing exercises. You can read more about my experience in Dispatch from Prison: How Strong is Hope?

Using A Lesson Before Dying as a springboard, workshop participants documented their own lessons as essays, which are curated and  published on a new web site Lessons From Behind Bars.  The writings give powerful voice to the unique legacies that many individuals otherwise silenced by incarceration wish to leave for their children and communities.  They have been a catalyst to expand this project to include incarcerated voices from around the country.

This project hopes to help bring home the voices and experiences of residents who have been removed from our neighborhoods and communities, and to keep us mindful of the many ways incarceration affects each and every one of us. For example, James Malone writes:

If I knew that my death was days away, beyond my control, I would pray for a  peaceful death, knowing that I have fulfilled my duties on Earth.  I would cherish each moment knowing that my existence in this world was not in vain. …

I would change my way of thinking, and apply the wisdom “as a man thinketh in his heat, so is he,” therefore I would understand when no one else would that it’s the mental attitude that determines how we die.  I would cherish creative thoughts of courage and calmness.  The Bible, in the book of Genesis, says that “God gave man dominion over the whole Earth.  I would each day pray and ask for dominion over myself, dominion over my fears, dominion over my mind and over my spirit to face each moment that I have left to live. …

The “Green” Issue of Birth Control?

Much has been said about Pope Benedict’s comments regarding selective condom use as a possible minor first step in taking personal responsibility for one’s actions. Below is a very thoughtful Letter to the Editor of the Washington Post from a member of a local Catholic parish:

The clarifications of Pope Benedict XVI’s comment on condoms [“Theologians debate meaning of pope’s condom remark,” news story, Nov. 24] are suggestive, given the oft-stated concern of this “green pope” for the environment.

Incongruously, he remains in denial about the reality of global overpopulation, even while accepting the scientific evidence of human-caused climate change.

But the view ascribed to him by his spokesman – of the moral imperative of “taking into consideration the risk of the life of another” and “avoiding passing a grave risk onto another” – applies as much to the ravaged world that we are leaving to posterity as it does to the AIDS epidemic.

Might not a sophisticated thinker such as Benedict eventually come to see that the ecological harm done by overpopulation is the strongest argument of all for birth control?–Daryl P. Domning, Silver Spring

In part, the issue Domning raises is whether principles of moral discernment can be applied in a variety of situations that require moral decisions or do certain virtue ethics apply in cases of sexuality but not in other equally dire situations.

Dispatch from Prison: How Strong Is Hope?

In my daily prayer book, the morning antiphon for today said: “The Lord chose these holy men for their unfeigned love …” The men referred to are Saints Phillip and James, whose feast day it is today. But as I return from a writing workshop at one of Maryland’s federal men’s prisons, the phrase takes on a fresher meaning.

This week I’m the visiting humanities scholar inside the “big house.” There were about 20 men in class today. I think they are all from Washington, D.C. When the federal prison at Lorton, VA, closed in the late 1990s and early 2000s, D.C. federal prisoners were shipped all over the U.S.– sometimes very far from their families.

Hope House DC was established by Carol Fennelly in 1998 to help keep those D.C. families with someone in prison together and keep incarcerated fathers active in the lives of their kids. Hope House also works to reduce the isolation, stigma, and risk families experience when fathers and husbands are imprisoned and raises public awareness about prison issues and this at-risk population.

Carol Fennelly invited me to participate in this program – funded by the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. – and made it possible for me to come teach these classes as part of the National Endowment for the Arts “Big Read” program. The book that D.C. has chosen to read and that we are discussing in these workshops is Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying, which takes on the question: Knowing we are going to day, how should we live?

The guys are discussing the book and writing about their own experiences. I was impressed that every single man had read the book in advance. From the depth of our discussion I think some had read it multiple times. One man quoted sections from memory and cited the page numbers.

We talked about the characters, their motivations, the setting in rural Louisiana in the 1940s. We talked about what makes a character — and whether a character always has to be a person or can it be the landscape or even an experience that looms large in the story line. The men struggled with each other over whether the main character “Jefferson” was a “victim of circumstance” or “did he make a bad choice” that ended with him on death row.

We talked about the preacher that peddles hope on Sunday mornings, but the hope fades by sunset and never leads to changing the systems of oppressions. Just how strong is hope? And how weak is optimism? We discussed how very small acts or things can be used to dismantle an overarching system — the weapons of the weak can take apart dehumanizing systems. But they only work if they force the oppressors and the oppressed to recognize their shared humanity.

At one point our conversation shifted. One man said, “We keep saying that Jefferson was simple or retarded or slow or stupid and that’s why he did those things that ended him up in jail. But WE did the same things! We made the same choices. And WE aren’t stupid or simple or slow.” Then each one began to wrestle with who he was in the story and the choices that he had made and how hard it is to build up enough strength to make new choices when the same old situations arise on the outside.

I won’t say that anyone in the workshop – myself included – is “holy” in a morally righteous sense. But instead “the Lord called these holy men” in the sense that holiness also means moving toward becoming a whole and healed human being. And even in this first day, I can stand as a witness to their “unfeigned love” – especially when they talk about their kids or show pictures of their families. Tomorrow we’ll work on a number of writing exercises and end with a reading from their work and a graduation certificate.

On another note, it turns out that “Casino Jack” Abramoff was also at this facility, on the minimum security side. He’s getting released to a half-way house this month just in time to see Alex Gibney’s newly released documentary about his life called Casino Jack and the United States of Money. Suffice it to say, the range of “bad choices” made by men in Washington, D.C., is wide-ranging.

Waxing the Waterboard?

There’s an important conversation happening now at the tail end of the Bush-Cheney administration about whether or not to prosecute President Bush and Vice President Cheney on criminal charges for illegal acts they committed during their administration.

Abu Ghraib series by Fernando Botero
Abu Ghraib series by Fernando Botero

Democratic Congressman Jerrold Nadler of New York has urged Attorney General Michael Mukasey to appoint an independent counsel to investigate Vice President Dick Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and other senior Bush administration officials for violations of the law relating to the torture of prisoners in US custody. Nadler is the chair of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. Read his letter to the Attorney General here.

Over at JosephRoss.net, my compatriot Joe is raising similar questions. He writes:

George W. Bush is a president who approved torture, allowed the CIA to fly prisoners to other countries for torture, who repeatedly stated that the U.S. does not torture and then it was proven that we do. We just didn’t call it that. As long as it’s called “enhanced interrogation techniques” and “stress positions” it’s alright and legal. This is also a president whose vice-president, just last week, admitted that he approved of “waterboarding” which is against the law. Recall that the U.S. has actually prosecuted other countries for “waterboarding.” Now we’re suddenly not sure it’s torture?

We have  all been looking on as our president romantically remembers all the good times he had as president. He is photographed looking reflectively out windows, goes on talk shows describing what he will miss, gives interviews like an entertainer whose concert tour has come to an end. This politeness ought to be more than Americans will tolerate.

I’m certain the last thing the Obama Administration wants is to investigate a former U.S. president and perhaps find him or others in the Bush Administration guilty of breaking both U.S. law and international law. Yet, what is to stop a future U.S. president from doing equally immoral and illegal acts if we do not hold the present one accountable?

Read the whole post here.

There’s always an argument made to “let by-gones be by-gones” at the end of a presidency. The incoming administration doesn’t want the next one to turn around and investigate them! Understandable, but WRONG when it comes to preserving the Constitution and now allowing laws to be broken with impunity.

“This shocking admission by Vice President [Cheney that he was aware of the waterboarding program and “helped get the process cleared”] demands at a minimum a federal investigation and,” Congressman Nadler says, “if necessary, the pursuit of criminal charges. No one is above the law and, if the Vice President admits he broke the law, then he must be held responsible.”

In one of the first acts of the 111th Congress, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers proposed legislation to create a blue-ribbon panel of outside experts – National Commission on Presidential War Powers and Civil Liberties- to probe the “broad range” of policies pursued by the Bush administration “under claims of unreviewable war powers,” including torture of detainees and warrantless wiretaps.

Lest any of think that “warrantless wiretaps” only happen to “other people,” I suggest reading the story Spying on Pacifists, Environmentalists, and Nuns (LA Times, December 7, 2008) about the Maryland State Police sending undercover agents to infiltrate the Baltimore Pledge of Resistance and Marylanders Against the Death Penalty. It’s a prime example of how “them” is now “us.”