A Judge Should Be Judged By His Prisoners

08-38191+20scalia021416Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died on Saturday, was a fierce and traditional Catholic. He and his wife Maureen attended St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Great Falls, Va. Scalia was said to favor it because it was one of the few Catholic parishes in the Washington, D.C., area that still offered a Latin Mass.

His brilliance on the Court and throughout his career due no doubt in part to the rigorous Jesuit education he received prior to Harvard Law school. On Sunday in Mass, we prayed for the repose of his soul. And I was glad for that.

His most noted opponent and “BFF” on the Court was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The two were famous as judicial fencing partners. According to NPR’s Nina Totenberg, “The Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., is about to open a new play about Scalia called The Originalist. There’s a best-selling line of T-shirts featuring a robed Ginsburg over the jibe, “Notorious R.B.G.” And both are the subjects of a new comic opera called Scalia/Ginsburg, based on their famous legal feud.”

But in remembering Judge Antonin Scalia I turned to Mumia Abu-Jamal, perhaps America’s most insightful political prisoner sentenced to life without parole, to provide Scalia’s memorial. A judge of the highest court in the most powerful land should, in the end, be judged by his prisoners.–Rose Marie Berger

From In Prison Nation, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal:

Justice Antonin Scalia of the US Supreme Court, famous for his quips and his judicial opinions is no more. The Associate Justice, appointed to the courts by President Reagan in 1986, was coming up on his 30th year this September on the bench. He was a controversial figure, and arguably the most intellectually gifted of his colleagues. But it must be said that his brilliance was not at the service of the many but the few.

Law professor Cass Sunstein, in his 2005 book Radicals in Robes, criticized both Scalia and perhaps his closest colleague, Justice Clarence Thomas, for their ‘original intent’ theories. Generally the theory holds anything not explicitly originally written into the constitution was not legitimate law. Such they call both jurists ‘false fundamentalists’ especially for their opposition to affirmative action, on the theory that government could never take race into account. Sunstein argued wasn’t the 13th amendment specifically about race? Wasn’t the Civil War? And didn’t the Reconstruction Congress create institutions specifically for black ex-slaves, like the Freedmen’s Bureau, a financial institution? “To ignore such history” he said, “was disingenuous.”

Writer and scholar Chris Hedges, in his 2006 book American Fascist, identified Scalia as a “dominionist jurist,” or one who used his religious views, not his legal ones to decided cases. Scalia may have lost his greatest ally in the 1992 Planned Parenthood vs. Casey decision when he critiqued O’Connor decision to uphold the abortions. O’Connor, a stickler for decorum, didn’t take kindly to his attack and thereafter moved perceptibly to the left, often becoming the fifth vote for a liberal majority, especially on criminal justice and women’s issues. Scalia, brilliant, opinionated, outspoken and in-your-face was never boring. He knew where he stood and planted his flag there for arch-conservatives. Antonin ‘Nino’ Scalia was in his 79th year of life.–Mumia Abu-Jamal

John Kiriakou and ‘Cut Loose The Body’

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn 2007 Joseph Ross and I edited a collection of poems titled Cut Loose the Body: An Anthology of Poems on Torture and Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib Paintings and hosted a reading when Botero’s collection was on display in  Washington, D.C.

That same year, CIA officer John Kiriakou became the first CIA official to publicly confirm and detail the agency’s use of waterboarding as well as other torture. In January 2013, he was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison in Pennsylvania. Kiriakou was recently released to house arrest. He’s now living in the D.C.-area and has made appearances at the Institute for Policy Studies at Dupont Circle.

This week my friend Sarah, who directs Split This Rock, a collective of poetry and protest with an office at IPS, related this story:

I met John Kiriakou at IPS on Friday … I told him about Split This Rock and gave him a copy of Cut Loose the Body. Here’s what he wrote me yesterday: “Thank you very much for Cut Loose the Body, which I read on the way home.  It was absolutely wonderful, and I hope there will be many more.  My wife also read it and said the poems were wonderful and the two Botero sketches were breathtaking.  Thanks again.”

It’s so gratifying to know that work done in good faith makes its way out into the world and finds the people it needs to find. Thank you Sarah — and thank you John for your service to your country. John Kiriakou, who is Greek Orthodox, spent his two-and-a-half years in prison serving in the chapel. And, in a total quirk of fate, the federal prison where Kiriakou spent his time was called FCI Loretto. It used to be a Catholic monastery. The Bureau of Prisons turned it into a “low-security prison” and converted the “monks’ bedrooms” into “prisoners’ rooms.”
Continue reading “John Kiriakou and ‘Cut Loose The Body’”

Trans Justice: Learning and Listening

BsgtQy0IcAARFzcThis morning I attended a workshop at the Friends Meeting of Washington D.C. on Transgender organizing “Against Police Profiling, Better Jail Conditions, and Against Over-Incarceration” hosted by TransEquality as part of their 2014 Lobby Days. I went at the invitation of some of the young organizers there and was glad to be included.

The two primary speakers were Trans Equality policy expert Harper Jean Tobin (see her HuffPo piece here) and Houston-based Lou Weaver, who is working to launch a model program with sheriff’s department in Texas.

I went to listen and learn and to see where Trans issues cross into other justice avenues, such as protecting civil rights for Transfolks, addressing Trans issues in homelessness work, and especially in suicide prevention, as well as making sure we are including and advocating for and with Transfolks in Mass Incarceration work – especially since the majority of Trans people in the prison system are people of color, primarily African Americans.

One important part of the conversation focused on the history that much of the current Trans organizing and policy work came out of Gay and Lesbian organizing that has been primarily from white leadership groups and white leadership is who gets the primary funding. But, like in many situations, the vast majority of Transfolks who end up in the prison system are people of color. So once again, policy is being created by white leaders without the leadership and expertise of people of color who are disproportionately impacted.

There were some specific resources mentioned that I want to share with others:

A good Bible study here:
TransEpiscopal http://blog.transepiscopal.com/2014/03/transfiguration-transformation-to.html

Community Organizations:
Black Transmen/BTMI
Trans People of Color Coalition

Best practices for supporting LGBT prisoners:
STANDING WITH LGBT PRISONERS: An Advocate’s Guide to Ending Abuse and Combating Imprisonment  (For community-based advocacy)
Policy Review and Development Guide: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex Persons in Custodial Settings  (for those working within the corrections system)

Also, in case you missed it, Patti Shaw just won an important case in D.C. that will change (hopefully) police policies.

And Calvary Baptist in D.C. has called its first Trans pastor, Rev. Allyson Robinson. She’s serving as interim in the wake of Rev. Amy Butler moving up to the big pulpit at Riverside Church in NY. See their lovely liturgy here.

For Tim DeChristopher, Civil Disobedience is a Duty of Love

Tim DeChristopher by Robert Shetterly
Tim DeChristopher, co-founder of the environmental group Peaceful Uprising, protested an highly contested oil and gas lease auction of 116 parcels of public land in Utah’s redrock country by signing a Bidder Registration Form and placing bids to obtain 14 parcels of land (totaling 22,500 acres) for $1.8 million. He didn’t have the money. DeChristopher was removed from the auction by federal agents and taken into custody.

On March 2, 2011, DeChristopher was found guilty on two felony charges for violation of the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act and for making false statements. He refused any type of plea bargain. On July 26, 2011, he was sentenced to two years in a federal prison with a $10,000 fine, followed by three years of supervised probation. After several transfers from three states, he is now serving the remainder of his time in the Herlong Federal Correctional Institution in California.

His courtroom statement, reminiscent of Thoreau’s On The Duty of Civil Disobedience, was a deeply inspiring call to action. Author Terry Tempest William interviewed DeChristopher in May 2011. Below is an excerpt from Orion magazine:

TIM: I think what I was really trying to get across was the idea of not backing down. Because it’s important to make sure that the government doesn’t win in their quest to intimidate people into obedience. They’re trying to make an example out of me to scare other people into obedience. I mean, they’re looking for people to back down.

TERRY: Right. And I think democracy requires participation. Democracy also requires numbers. It is about showing up. And we do need leadership. And I think what your actions say to us as your community is, “How are we going to respond so you are not forgotten? So that this isn’t in vain?” And I think that brings up another question: we know what we’re against, but what are we for? Our friend Ben Cromwell asked this question. What are you for? What do you love?

TIM: I’m for a humane world. A world that values humanity. I’m for a world where we meet our emotional needs not through the consumption of material goods, but through human relationships. A world where we measure our progress not through how much stuff we produce, but through our quality of life—whether or not we’re actually promoting a higher quality of life for human beings. I don’t think we have that in any shape or form now. I mean, we have a world where, in order to place a value on human beings, we monetize it—and say that the value of a human life is $3 million if you’re an American, $100,000 if you’re an Indian, or something like that. And I’m for a world where we would say that money has value because it can make human lives better, rather than saying that money is the thing with value.

TERRY: I think about the boulder that hit the child in Coal River Valley. What was that child’s life worth—$14,000? The life of a pelican. What was it—$233? A being that has existed for 60 million years. What do you love?

TIM: I love people. [Very long pause.] I think that’s it.

Read Terry Tempest Williams’ complete interview with Tim DeChristopher.

‘I Was a Prisoner and You Visited Me’: Summer Camp Behind Bars

In May 2010, I was honored to serve as resident humanities scholar for an inmate writing program initiated by Hope House DC. I spent a week at two prisons in Maryland facilitating writing workshops on Ernest Gaines’ classic A Lesson Before Dying.

The writing program was all part of a year-long preparation for summer camp behind bars – where the men finally get to spend a week with their kids. For many it’s the only time all year they get to see each other.

Below is great article on Hope House‘s summer camp at the North Branch maximum security prison. Also check out the news video.

CUMBERLAND, MD – A group of kids spent the week at a summer camp behind bars at the North Branch Correctional Institution. They get to spend precious time with their dads, who are inmates.

11-year-old Shawn Harris’s dad is his hero. That’s what he drew in the mural they made together.

“We’re superheros, standing on top of buildings, looking for crime,” explains Shawn.

Kids doing arts and crafts, telling jokes and singing songs. These kids are making typical summer memories with their dads, but this camp isn’t typical, because all of the dads are serving time behind bars.

“It helps me out a lot because I worry about him a lot,” says his dad, Juvon Harris. “A lot of things I want to tell him and show him and teach him.”

It’s a one-week camp organized by the nonprofit Hope House. They bring kids from across the state to visit their parents behind bars. Shawn lives in Baltimore and this is the one time he sees his dad each year.

“He’s grown a lot in size and maturity,” says his father. “Last year he was here, we had to have a big talk. So he stepped up his game in school.”

“I think it’s tough a lot of times at the end of the week,” says North Branch case manager Gary Sindy. “But I think it can only be beneficial and hopefully it works for the future.”

Support Hope House.

Read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander to learn about the effect mass incarceration has upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, Alexander reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarceration.

E. Ethelbert Miller: ‘In the Beloved Community, there are no prison bars.’

Mier Wolf, former mayor of Chevy Chase, MD, and a board member of The Writer’s Center (both are in Metro-D.C. area) has started a poetry in prison program at the Montgomery County jail, near Clarksburg, MD. An early presenter was friend and mentor E. Ethelbert Miller (see the video below).

Poet extraordinaire Joseph Ross will be joining this project in the next few weeks. As Ethelbert says, “In the Beloved Community, there are no bars.”

Louis Templeman: State-Issue Blues

Louis Templeman was incarcerated in Florida and was released within the last year. He has written a number of essays and poetry about his experience. The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world.

Here is an excerpt from Templeman’s essay “I Have A Face“:

Standing on a concrete pad where a large diesel tank had been removed, I stared out through the 12′ security fence, topped with razor wire. I saw the parade of men in blue going to lunch. It was very cold, windy, at most 45 degrees. It was so cold in the dorms that morning that one of our guards did the 7:00 a.m. count wearing gloves, insulated jacket, ear muffs and a hat. The living, moving swatch of blue shivered under cloth caps (if they were lucky) and cotton jackets. A fortunate few had long johns.

One man stood out. Octavio. I felt proud I finally remembered his name. He speaks almost no English. He is always enthusiastic in his greeting to me. Of the fifty or so men who flow by he is the only one I think I know. The way he walks. His posture. His face causes him to stand out against the river of men draped in state issue blue.

All prisoners dress alike. We live under strict dress codes. It is an attempt by the Florida Department of Corrections to separate us from our identities. This discourages staff from seeing us as individuals.

Separating us from our individuality facilitates the on-going negativism, condescension, cursing and regular issuance of suffering from F. D. C. staff. In some camps this allotment of trauma and fear comes from other state employees such as medical personnel clerks, classification and work supervisors. When this culture of fear is strong in correctional officers the non-security employees often buy into it and look for opportunity to taunt and torment the inmates.

Judges hand down our sentences. F. D. C. staff, primarily correctional officers, put the sting to it. The state employees who embrace this culture of hate do not appreciate the depth of suffering endured in the inmates’ loss of family and friends, children becoming fatherless, wives falling into poverty and promiscuity, removal from satisfying work and a pressing into an absurd counter-culture that forces an institutionalization that robs a man of his maturity, self-worth, and works to mold him into a childlike dependence on the state.

Read Louis Templeman’s full essay here.

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. …

Joan Chittister: A Story on Beauty

by Rima
There was a special prison In Uruguay for political prisoners. Here they were not allowed to talk without permission or whistle, smile, sing, walk fast, or greet other prisoners; nor could they make or receive drawings of pregnant women, couples, butterflies, stars or birds. One Sunday afternoon, Didako Perez, a school teacher who was tortured and jailed “for having ideological ideas,” is visited by his five-year-old daughter Milay. She brings him a drawing of birds. The guards destroy it at the entrance of the jail.

On the following Sunday, Milay brings him a drawing of trees. Trees are not forbidden, and the drawing gets through.

Her father praises her work and asks about the colored circles scattered in the treetops, many small circles half-hidden among the branches: “Are they oranges? What fruit is it?”

The child puts her finger to her mouth, “Shh.” And she whispers in her father’s ear, “Don’t you see they are eyes? They’re the eyes of the birds that I’ve smuggled in for you.”Eduardo Galeano

Beauty, we’re told, is a basic human instinct, the kind of thing that separates us from the animals, a kind of intrinsic quality of the human soul, the irrepressible expression of contemplative insight. It has something to do with what it means to be alive. But is this true? And how do we know that?

I remember being shocked into a new sense of what it means to be human in an inhuman environment in the worst slum in Haiti. Here people live in one room hovels made of corrugated steel over mud floors. They bear and raise one child after another here. They eat the leftovers of society. They scrounge for wood to cook with. They sleep in filth and live in rags and barely smile and cannot read. But in the middle of such human degradation they paint bright colors and brilliant scenes of a laughing, loving, wholesome community. They carve faces. They paint strident colors on bowls made out of coconuts. They play singing drums across the bare mountains that raise the cry of the human heart. They manufacture beauty in defiance of what it means to live an ugly, forgotten life on the fringe of the United States, the wealthiest nation the world has ever known. They are a sign that a society that can make such beauty is capable of endless human potential, however much struggle it takes to come to fullness. They are a sign of possibility and aspiration and humanity that no amount of huts or guns or poverty or starvation can ever squelch. –Sr. Joan Chittister

From 40 Stories to Stir the Soul by Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB

Dispatch from Prison: “There, but Not There”

Hope House families with Carol Fennelly (center)

The final day of A Lesson Before Dying workshops at the federal prison went really well. I was more relaxed than yesterday and the writing that the guys came in with this morning from yesterday’s assignments was just phenomenal. I was really moved by it and more importantly they “moved” each other with what they’d written.

The homework assignment was based on the opening line of the book we are using (Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying), which is: “I was there, but not there.” Some wrote about missing – because they were in jail – the deaths of their parents, friends, or grandparents. A few wrote about missing the births of their children. One wrote about the Southern Freedom Riders who integrated the bus system making it possible for this man to travel where ever he wanted to go — even though he wasn’t there during the time, he “was there” and was grateful for the impact it had in his life. Another wrote about how proud he was when President Obama was elected and how mad he was at himself that he couldn’t go to the inauguration because he was incarcerated. “There, but not there.”

In the afternoon, I asked them write a riff off another line from the book, “My Gray ’46 Ford was parked in front of the house.” It was so wonderful to hear these guys read of litanies to the cars they loved — all the intricate technical detail that some guys carry around in their heads about their favorite cars!

Finally, I asked them to write a letter to one of the characters in Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying. Someone who they’d like to have dinner with and interview. I thought most of them would write to Jefferson, the guy on death row. But only a few wrote to him. Some wrote to Tante Lou, one of the lead women characters. Others wrote to the minister, interrogating him about his “pie-in-the-sky” theology. A couple wrote to the shopkeeper who was murdered in a robbery at the beginning of the book — some of those letters contained some very personal reflections.

This assignment is a set up for them to work on a 1000-word essay to be completed by the end of the summer that is a letter to their children or family on the topic of their own lessons from life or lessons before dying.

As for me, it was a really excellent experience. I was genuinely honored to meet these guys. And I was impressed by the staff also – especially in the education department. They are tough as nails, but also show a genuine interest in working with the inmates to give them as many skills as possible before they are turned back out. The staff was really grateful for us being there. One person thanked me for giving the guys something that he couldn’t give them herself — a certain knowledge and skill about writing and a safe environment to really build community in vulnerability. I know it must be crazy-making and hard to work inside the prisons for years and years – and also, a few times, rewarding.

Tomorrow we head to the Maryland state prison to offer the same program, though I think the class and dynamics will be entirely different.

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?

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.

After today’s workshop, Carol posted some comments on Facebook about her experience. See below:

Carol Fennelly: Just thinking about the prison writing classes this week. The depth of the conversation that emerged yesterday was so profound. In my old age I have become a cynic, I think. But the genuine probing of self and give and take in that process got to me.

Responder: Proving, yet again, that we should not jump to conclusions or pigeon-hole people and that redemption is, indeed, possible?

Carol Fennelly: Yes. that is true. but we also had great material to spur this conversation, a great facilitator, a first class group of guys ALL of whom had read the book before class, and there was real magic. in stark contrast to the absolute civility in the room, outside on the compound competing gangs got into a fight with several guys locked up as a result. looking back it was almost surreal.