The cover story of the January 15, 2012, New York Times Magazine describes the life of former Weather Underground member Judith Clark, who has been incarcerated by the New York Department of Corrections since 1983. Clark is serving a seventy-five year sentence, and according to writer Tom Robbins’ account in the Times as well as many prison officials who know Clark personally, she has changed dramatically during the decades of her incarceration. In fact, in every statement I have ever read from someone who actually knows or has spent time with Clark in recent years, she is not only a model prisoner but a peacekeeper and a caretaker within Bedford Hills (the prison where she has lived for most of her incarceration). She has a long record of teaching other prisoners and of volunteering in service programs at Bedford Hills–including the infant care program, the HIV/AIDS program, and the program which trains service dogs which are eventually given to disabled people outside the prison–which drastically improve the quality of other people’s lives. Judith Clark has managed far more effectively than most people, in or out of prisons, to give back to those around her and to be a positive and sustaining force in the lives of others.
The passing of time changes people, often drastically, and the youth we lock up today will not be the same people in twenty or thirty years. This is a critique that anti-death penalty activists often make; the person being executed is more often than not a very different human being than the one who committed the crime or sat before a judge at sentencing. Is it just to continue to punish someone who is not only repentant but who has a great deal to contribute to the world outside prisons? Is this the most useful way to spend New York taxpayers’ money or a deterrent to crime? Decidedly not.
The bigger question here is one about the purpose that prisons serve and whether or not they adequately fulfill their function in our society. As criminologist Stephen Richards declared, “A successful corrections system doesn’t grow. If they were correcting anybody, they’d shrink.” Yet incarceration rates continue to soar. We are warehousing 2.3 million people in the U.S. and making no feasible plans to reintegrate this huge population safely back into our homes and neighborhoods, though the vast majority of them will be released from prison someday. We supposedly believe that prisoners pay a debt to society by serving time and by thoughtfully contemplating their wrongdoings, which was the expressed purpose of the Quaker penitentiaries–our nation’s first prisons. No amount of time served can undo past crimes, so the best use of our penal system would be to help shape those who committed prior offenses into law-abiding citizens who understand their past transgressions and commit themselves to living peacefully and productively in the future. Judith Clark exemplifies the sort of transformation that can occur when a prisoner understands in meaningful ways how the actions that landed her behind bars had a negative impact on the lives of others. We are no safer because she continues to live behind bars today.
Judith Clark is one of a great many U.S. prisoners who have served multiple decades behind bars. We are locking up so many elderly prisoners that nursing home and hospice care programs, like the one in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, are becoming necessary. Angola actually has a prisoner-run organization for a group they call “longtermers”–men who have served twenty-five or more years. Since Louisiana has some of the harshest sentencing laws in the U.S. and a natural life without parole sentence, the longtermer population has grown to over 500 men. The Human Rights Club–another prisoner organization at Angola–helps indigent prisoners, the elderly, and longtermers. As you can imagine, these club members stay very busy trying to tend to the needs of such a large population with so many urgent needs. The Human Rights Club aims to bring dignity and a measure of comfort and recognition to men who have survived for so long in such an inhospitable environment. Every other year the Human Rights Club sponsors a celebration called Longtermers Day where the men enduring these interminable sentences can gather together. Many of them, even old friends and family members living in the same prison, have no opportunity to see one another during the rest of the year because of the ways in which the prison segregates groups of men based on where they are housed. Volunteers from the free world and prisoners’ family members are invited to spend the day inside the prison, mingling with the longtermers and enjoying the food and performances that brighten the occasion. I was twenty-five years old the first time that my mother and I attended Longtermers Day. Several members of the Angolite prison news magazine staff had invited us, and we found ourselves in a chow hall densely filled with men who had been in prison longer than I had been alive. Few family members attended the event, and many men told us how the years in prison had eroded their relationships with their families entirely. We saw quite a few very frail, elderly men, several of them in wheelchairs. One man explained to my mother that he had a life sentence for stealing a toaster–the result of a harsh mandatory sentencing law for repeat offenders. Many of these longtermers were too ill or weak to have harmed anyone even if they wanted to. Many were children when they entered prison and had never had the opportunity to live as responsible adults. Others had stories more like Judith Clark’s; they had entered prison angry and over the long years had come to understand their crimes and their lives very differently. I see no utility in such prolonged detention. If any of these longtermers remain unfit to return to free society, it is because we have not adequately helped them to prepare. Locking up so many people for multiple decades makes no sense financially, morally, or practically, and in doing so we irreparably damage many lives beyond the thousands of people serving these long sentences. In a different way, their families serve this time with them.
Judith Clark has a daughter. Harriet Clark was so young at the time that her mother went to prison that she likely cannot remember a time when her mother was free. As Nell Bernstein has argued in her book All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated, prisons punish children who have not been convicted of any offense alongside their imprisoned parents. Much legal and popular rhetoric condemns the incarcerated as having lost their rights to spend time with their loved ones because of the behavior that sent them to prison. The law fails, as Bernstein so rightly asserts, to examine the rights of prisoners’ children and to even engage the question of whether or not having access to their parents should be protected. Prisons focus solely on punishing those deemed unfit to live among us, and we rarely examine the impact that mass incarceration has on those who are not convicted of any crime, those who do not live in prisons but whose family lives, economic and emotional stability, and self-preservation are tied to prisons, courts, and police. Harriet Clark and I have both fared far better–in terms of economic stability, access to education, and the avoidance of our own incarceration–than the average prisoner’s child, undoubtedly because we were each left in the capable hands of other responsible adults who were able to provide and care for us. I do not know Harriet Clark and cannot speak for her, but if the Times article accurately represents her, she loves her mother dearly and remains very connected to her. Though she is now an adult, I believe that she deserves–indeed she is owed by the state which sentenced Judith Clark with the outrageous and impractical sentence of seventy-five years–time with her mother in the free world.
A number of progressive organizations throughout the U.S. are working to implement programs to help maintain the bonds between incarcerated parents and their children. The most ambitious of these initiatives enable mothers and young children to live together in a facility which provides parenting classes, substance abuse treatment, and early childhood education all under the same roof. The Texas Observer‘s January 2012 cover story profiles the Baby and Mother Bonding Initiative (also known as BAMBI). Opening this facility in April 2010 is perhaps the only sensible thing that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has done in decades. Thus far, not a single graduate of the BAMBI program has been sent back to prison since her release–a significant victory considering that the last Bureau of Justice National Recidivism Study (published in 1994 and rather out of date now) showed that around 67% of those release from prison ended up behind bars again within three years. BAMBI and other programs like it are very likely to help prevent the future incarceration of prisoners’ children as well.
It’s time for Judith Clark and many, many others who have served decades in prison to be allowed to live a better life, to actively give back to the world outside prisons, to spend time with the children and families who have waited these many years for the simple pleasure of a conversation held without guard supervision. If we believe that our corrections system is in any way functional, we must grant longtermers the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities to live better than they did before their time in prison.