One of RWW’s contributors Simone Weil Davis brought the Inside-Out program to Canada, and the Canadian press has recently picked up the story. I visited the women’s prison in Canada which hosts that country’s first Inside-Out classes and met both inside and outside students who are participating in the program. All gave the program rave reviews. Congratulations to Simone and the rest of the folks working with Inside-Out in Canada, and thank you for the important work that you do!
Some good news arrived on the morning of my departure from North Carolina for my holiday trip. Governor Bev Purdue vetoed the repeal of the Racial Justice Act. This means that prisoners on death row in North Carolina will still be able to file appeals of their sentences on the grounds that the death penalty is applied in a racist fashion. To read an earlier post on this blog about the Racial Justice Act, click here. Thank you, Governor Purdue, for upholding this landmark law which makes a significant step toward addressing the legacies of racism and lynching in our Southern state.
Carrying this Christmas present in my heart, I flew to Texas to visit my parents for the holidays. I spent a full day to flying from North Carolina to my mother’s hometown. The next day my mom and I went into her office and worked until 2 PM before we drove the eight hours to the small west Texas town where my father’s prison sits surrounded by cotton fields and endless sky. We arrived after 10 PM and pulled up to the local Holiday Inn. Since the parking lot was only a third full, we assumed that they had plenty of available rooms. As luck would have it, a pipe had burst in the hotel, flooding several rooms. Since another section of the hotel was being renovated, less than half of the rooms in the hotel were habitable, and all of those were booked. We got back in the car and drove down the road to another hotel called the Baymont Inn. We got a room, but when we put our key card in the door, we realized that the room was dead bolted from the inside. The teenager at the desk had given us the key to an already occupied room. We probably startled a sleeping person, perhaps another prisoner’s family member or a weary workman who had spent all day laboring in the nearby oil fields. We went back down to the front desk, got the key to a different room, and finally managed to settle in for the night, exhausted and grateful for sleep.
I couldn’t help thinking throughout our travels and frustrations of how many families would be journeying down country roads to the places where we hide our prisons from public view. Some of them will find shelter through a charity organization, like the Good Samaritan Hospitality House in Colorado City, Texas, which provides free lodging for families visiting loved ones in nearby prisons. Other families will spend a night or two in their cars on the side of the road because they have no other place to stay on their way to and from the prison. A great many of the adults in these families will, like my mother, have worked a full week and begun their sojourns with no rest. The children may have started off toward the prison directly from school, as we used to do when I was younger. Their journeys home will have to be just as hurried so that they can avoid the expense and difficulty of finding lodging for an extra night.
We arrived at the prison on Saturday morning and were told there would be a forty-five minute wait to get into the visiting room because all of the visiting tables were already occupied. We had the good fortune of arriving at an opportune moment when two of the only three chairs in the gate house at the prison’s entrance were available. The families ahead of us on the waiting list to get into the visiting room were sitting in their cars in the cold until they saw other families leaving the prison, vacating the much-desired tables where each family could for a moment celebrate the holidays. Because this particular prison recently instituted a rule that no long visits–or special visits, as they are called–would be allowed on holiday weekends, the weekend prior to Christmas is now experiencing the overcrowding that used to occur on the holiday itself. We all adjusted our travel schedules to make sure we would be allowed to visit for eight hours rather than the scant two permitted on short visits. The families who had waited in their cars had to be searched twice on their way into the prison–once upon arrival when they came into the gate house to get on the waiting list to enter the prison and again when they returned from their cars to the gatehouse so that they could begin their visits. All of us had been searched by a guard at the entrance to the parking lot when we drove into the prison, so some visitors had actually endured three searches by the time they saw their loved ones in the visiting room. Prisoners, of course, face searches far more invasive; they are strip searched as they enter and leave the visiting room.
Despite the challenges we face on the way in and out of visits, our time together as a family is the best and most cherished present we receive each Christmas. The insensitive comments made by guards, the stiffness in our joints from so many hours of sitting on airplanes and in cars, the fears that some new terror might have worn away yet another aspect of our loved one’s physical or mental health since we last saw one another–all fades away in the warmth and joy created by the simple act of gathering our family around a table for a few precious hours. May every family find the peace and love amongst them this holiday season. My family’s Christmas came a week early this year.
On Trial During the Holidays: Laurence Lovette, Eve Carson, and Lost Stories, a post by Ashley Lucas14 Dec
As someone who teaches at UNC Chapel Hill, I, like the rest of our campus community, was stunned, grief-stricken, and profoundly disturbed by the murder of our student body president Eve Carson who was abducted and shot on March 5, 2008. I did not know Carson personally, but many of my students and colleagues adored her and have recounted many, many stories about what a remarkable, loving, intelligent person she was. I wish that the media coverage about Carson told more about these aspects of her life.
In the Fall of 2009, I began teaching a freshman seminar on the subject of Documentary Theatre. In this class, my students collectively choose a topic to investigate and create a play based on research and interviews they conduct throughout the semester. In the first two weeks of class, we spent a lot of time mulling over a variety of possible topics which might serve as the subject of our play. The students narrowed their interests down to two topics fairly quickly: Eve Carson’s murder and health care (which was a big news story at the time because of the Obama Administration’s controversial plans for health care reform).
My students in this course were all freshmen, so none of them had been UNC students during Carson’s tenure as student body president nor at the time of her murder. However, since most of them were from North Carolina, they had seen a great deal of news about the crime, and the shadow of loss cast across the campus had significantly colored their first days as college students. Some had misgivings about whether our class might cause greater pain to those who knew and loved Carson by conducting research about her life and death and portraying traumatic events on stage. We spent much time discussing the ethical questions surrounding the idea of creating such a play and how we might go about it.
One of my students approached me after class one day and said that she had gone to high school with one of the young men accused of Carson’s murder, and she did not feel comfortable working on a play about this subject matter. She had not been close to the accused but had known him well enough to think he was a regular kid, like so many other boys in high school. She was bewildered and frightened by Carson’s death and the implication of someone she knew in such a brutal crime. We discussed the possibility of this student completing an alternate assignment for the course if our class chose to put on a play about the Carson murder.
The class was divided fairly evenly on whether to do a play about the murder or one about health care. The tide shifted in favor of a play about health care when a particularly impassioned student told a moving story about her family’s struggles with health insurance while her mother was being treated for cancer. We produced a thoughtful and compelling series of monologues about health care that semester, and though we no longer discussed Eve Carson or the circumstances of her death, our earlier discussions stayed with me, as did my student’s concern for and confusion surrounding her high school classmate who was accused of having killed someone.
The investigations in the Carson case quickly led to two prime suspects. Demario Atwater pleaded guilty to kidnapping and murder and is now serving two consecutive life sentences in a federal prison in California. The other suspect, Laurence Alvin Lovette, now stands trial in Orange County Criminal Superior Court. Because Atwater took a plea deal, Lovette’s trial offers the general public a great deal of information about the night of Carson’s death which was never before released in such detail. My local newspaper, The Durham Herald-Sun–and likely all other major news outlets in our area–is providing a blow-by-blow accounting of each day’s courtroom testimony. In most cases I try not to read this kind of news coverage because those who covered my father’s trial said such misleading things about our case and our family when we endured what Lovette and his loved ones now face. However, I have been unable to stop myself from following the news of Lovette’s trial because I am so struck by what the testimony recounted in the news reveals about his life at the time of the crime.
Lovette is now twenty-one years old, which means he was only seventeen or eighteen at the time of the murder. An African American raised in poverty in what sounds like a pretty tough neighborhood in Durham, Lovette lived surrounded by guns and drugs. He is accused of a terrible crime, and his personality, his hopes for his life, indeed his very humanity have been left out of the news coverage and perhaps the trial itself. He is very young, and if he is convicted, he will likely never have the chance to discover a better way to live. If a jury finds him guilty, Lovette will likely never be able to explain to others, perhaps even to himself, that he is more than the worst thing he ever did. If he is guilty, I do not believe that he should go unpunished or that it is safe for him to live among us in the present moment. I also am not ready to mark him (or Demario Atwater) as irredeemable, to decide that someone just entering his twenties can never evolve or become a better person. I am unconvinced that keeping him in prison for life either makes us safer or benefits our society in the long run.
Eve Carson’s humanity has been lost in the news reports, too, and her family also fares poorly in the public descriptions of their current grief. The trial and the news are about the terrifying and gruesome events of the last night of Carson’s life, overshadowing the complexity and richness of who she was and what her loved ones endure as they continue to live. A friend of mine who came to a recent reading of Razor Wire Women remarked that he worries that both prisoners’ and victims’ stories are not told frequently enough or well enough. I concur. We know a great deal about how to tell stories about crime, but we know very little about how to understand or talk about what makes crime possible–the living and ever-shifting contexts of people’s lives, the complicated process of decision making, the vulnerabilities of victims and perpetrators.
During this holiday season, my thoughts are with the Carson, Atwater, and Lovette families and those who love them. In a time of year when we are urged to reflect on peace, good will, and the dawning of a new year of possibilities, the weight of loss, fear, and sadness stand in sharp relief to holiday celebrations. Perhaps in the days and years ahead of us, we can work together to prevent tragedies like murder and the devastation that follows incarceration.
This profoundly moving glimpse at what both mothers and daughters endure as a result of incarceration will now have a sequel, providing viewers with a sense of the long term effects of separation and prisons on two generations of women. Click here to read an article by filmmaker Ellen Spiro about the upcoming sequel, which should not be missed.
My friend Margarita Mooney, who writes brilliantly about the sociology of religion, recently pointed me toward a post by Bradley Wright on a blog called Black, White and Gray and a response to this post by a woman named Holly. Wright tells “A Story of Turning the Other Cheek” about a man who offers his coat to the thief who has just stolen his wallet. The would-be mugger is so surprised that he joins his near-victim at a local restaurant where they dine together. Crime averted, and potential violence and incarceration halted in their tracks. It’s a revolutionary response to an assault. The man being accosted at knife-point sees beyond the attack itself and realizes that the man who has come to rob him is something more than this ugly and dangerous action. The man who threatens another is so struck by the revelation of his own humanity in his victim’s eyes that he ceases to be a threat in this moment and instead sits down peacefully to dinner. This may seem like an easy solution, but in fact it’s not at all easy to look beyond what threatens and frightens us to search for the humanity in an aggressor.
In her comment on Wright’s blog post, a woman named Holly describes the day that her fourteen year-old son was attacked by a group of boys. He was beaten and needed stitches, and a year of legal battles finally sent a young man to prison. Holly was not only upset about the harm done to her son but also concerned about the fate of the youth who would likely become more hardened by life in prison rather than finding a way to live a different kind of life and cease hurting others. Holly’s sentiment is one not often expressed publicly. We are trained not to feel compassion for people who have committed acts of violence, urged not to search for ways to prevent such acts by understanding what motivates them but rather to label some people irredeemable and never again welcome them into society.
When I heard Sister Helen Prejean speak last week, she told a story which she also wrote in her acclaimed book Dead Man Walking about the father of a murder victim expressing his grief over the idea of the death penalty. His child had been killed by a man whom Sister Helen would later accompany to his execution, and this father–a Catholic–objected to the death penalty but felt pressured by family and friends to call for the death of the man who killed his child. People told this father that he owed it to his child to demand the killer’s death; they said that anything less would be a sign that this father did not truly love his child. This brand of retribution ran counter to the father’s religious beliefs and also did not seem logical to him. How could another death in any way alleviate the loss of his child? How could executing someone else’s son be just or righteous? Nevertheless, the people surrounding this grieving father tried to make him feel like he was wrong to have compassion and concern for the person who killed his child and the mother of the condemned man.
Our popular culture and criminal justice system are so wedded to the notion of punishment that we often lose sight of what will actually make all of us safer and less violent. Youth who enter the criminal justice system rarely escape it permanently. Most folks who spend any time in juvenile detention will cycle through jails and prisons for the majority of their adult lives. This is not because these individuals are inherently criminal or because their first offenses were particularly grave; rather, our system of punishing people in this country tends to mark them with a lasting social stigma. Prisons, for youth and adults, teach more lessons about how to commit crime than about how to build better lives, avoid breaking laws, and exhibit concern for the well-being of others. If we really want prisons to protect us, then they should train incarcerated people how to be useful, productive citizens and community members.
When I express this sentiment, skeptics are quick to return to the idea of punishment, saying that we need to be focused on making sure that people suffer for the fact that they have broken laws. As the child of a prisoner and someone who has come to care about many other incarcerated individuals, I can tell you from close observation of incarcerated people that being separated from your loved ones, unable to contribute your time or financial assistance to your family’s well-being, stripped of the ability to make even simple decisions for yourself, and forced to live among people who might harm you takes its toll on a person. We do not lack for punishment in prisons, but often we do lack compassion and foresight about how our ill treatment of prisoners ultimately makes all of us less safe. If people come home from prison–and the vast majority of the 2.3 million people we incarcerate will one day return to live among us–without hope, a job, a place to live, or family connections, then they will likely turn to crime as a means to survive and as a way to vent the anger they feel at having been held against their will under dangerous and unsavory conditions. Is it logical for us to expect anything different?
What if prisons were places where people learned how to be better versions of themselves? What if the folks who ran prisons taught those who live in prisons what safety can mean in its fullest sense? That would require that we demand an end to rape and other forms of violence inside prisons. We would need to accord guards and prisoners alike with respect and human dignity and to encourage an environment in which the logic of violence could be unraveled. We would have to stop locking up thousands of people for nonviolent offenses and seek appropriate alternatives to incarceration which focus on accountability to victims and the respect that each of should have for those who live and work in our communities.
Thank you, Holly, for being thoughtful enough to care about what happens to the young man who harmed your son and for being brave enough to speak this unpopular thought aloud. We have a great deal to learn from you.
On December 6, I was interviewed by Adam Hayes from Loyal Citie Network Media about my research and advocacy work around women’s incarceration. Loyal Citie is interested in doing some work that highlights women’s incarceration. My interview will appear on a DVD with an interview by John Carlos, and Razor Wire Women will be featured on the site. We are looking forward to some collaborative work to bring increased awareness about, and social change around, mass incarceration in the United States. Thanks, Adam!!
On Tuesday December 6, I led a discussion on women in prison that particularly focused on women who kill their abusers in self defense. This discussion was organized by Raihana Siddiq of the Women’s Center at CSU San Marcos (Thank you, Raihana!!). There are an estimated 2,000 – 4,000 women in prison for killing their abusers in self defense, with about 600 of those women incarcerated in California (see Kathleen Ferraro’s Neither Angels Nor Demons and Elizabeth Leonard’s Convicted Survivors for more on this). California is one of the first states to have enacted laws around intimate partner violence in murder cases: In 1991, California began to permit expert testimony about intimate partner violence in murder cases, and in 2001, parole boards were directed to take into account histories of intimate partner violence during hearings (Silja Talvi has an excellent overview of this from 2002, here). The group Convicted Women Against Abuse (CWAA), originally created by Brenda Clubine, was instrumental in increasing awareness about women who kill their abusers. The film Sin By Silence, directed by Olivia Klaus, is an excellent and highly recommended resource for understanding how women who have experienced violence and abuse are then treated by the criminal justice system. It importantly features the women of CWAA so viewers begin to get an understanding of their situations and their incredible resiliency.
During the discussion, people asked what they can do to help. I’ll reiterate here that educating ourselves in the first step, and then engaging in prisoner support work, or becoming involved with organizations that are already doing this work–at whatever level you are able–helps to make a difference (check out the organizations we have listed on this site, as a start).