Archive | March, 2013

Good Friday, Medical Care in Prison, & the Anniversary of Pepper Ramirez’s Death

29 Mar

The following post was originally delivered as a reflection on Good Friday as part of a service at St. Titus Episcopal Church in Durham, North Carolina, in 2011.  My husband and I had been asked to write reflections based on Bible verses connected to Good Friday, and this was mine.  A dear friend of my father’s died in prison shortly before Good Friday the year that I wrote this, and I post this here today to honor his memory and to remark upon the sad state of medical care in Texas prisons, which only appears to have gotten worse since I wrote this. –Ashley Lucas

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Luke 23:34

                  We tend to think of forgiveness as something personal—a thing we ask of those whom we have wronged directly: the person whose car we rear-ended, the loved one to whom we spoke in anger, the acquaintance about whom we thought unkind things.  This sort of forgiveness gets us through each day by helping to mend our relationships with those around us, repairing and strengthening our ties to those with whom we interact each day.  Without it we would be in shambles, but God’s forgiveness is much larger than we can imagine.

When Jesus said, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.  He was not addressing his executioners, who had just nailed him to the cross.  He was speaking to God, his Father, asking a parent to forgive not just those who were there that terrible day at Calvary.  Jesus asked God to forgive each of us throughout the millennia that would follow his death because he knew we would continue to harm one another and that we would need to be forgiven for an enormity of offenses.

As the child of a prisoner and a scholar who studies incarceration, I think often about the fact that Jesus was a prisoner executed by a government with the approval—indeed the zealous insistence—of the populous.  We in North Carolina are subject to both state and federal governments which execute those around us, and the majority of our fellow citizens are in favor of this practice, though few of us know much about life on death row or the individuals who are being killed.  However we personally feel about the death penalty, the fact that it is part of our culture and our system of government is well-known and at times hotly debated.  We know that this is a thing we do, even if we don’t fully understand it.

I awoke this morning wanting to speak about offenses that we almost never realize we have committed.  Just before last night’s Maundy Thursday service, I learned that my father’s best friend had died.  My father has been held captive in Texas prisons since 1994, and over the years he has grown close to a fellow prisoner named Pepper Ramirez.  I never got to meet Pepper, and all I know of him is what my father has told me in letters and in visits.  From what I understand, Pepper ended up in prison because he killed a man who was harming his sister.  Though I do not know the length of his sentence, I am sure he served well over a decade, perhaps two.  Pepper was a good friend to my father, told funny stories, and made big plans for what he would do when he got out of prison.  He had a large and loving family who desperately wanted him home and who remained steadfast throughout the many years of his incarceration.

In the last few years, my father’s news about Pepper always had to do with his health.  Pepper suffered from severe glaucoma which required medical treatment.  Medical care in Texas prisons is a terrifying thing.  In order for a prisoner who is held in a rural area to receive treatment, he or she must be handcuffed, shackled, and chained around the waist to another prisoner.  These patients are then loaded onto a bus and driven to another prison where they may spend a week waiting to be transported to the medical prison.  For men on my father’s unit, the Robertson Unit where the men wait before they are taken to the medical unit is one of the most violent prisons in the state.  Several years ago when my father’s friend Pepper was on his way back from the medical unit where he had been treated for his glaucoma, he was held at Robertson for several days.  The violence surrounding him at Robertson was so stressful that he had a heart attack and was taken back to the medical unit for open heart surgery.  Pepper never received even one doctor’s visit for follow up treatment after his open heart surgery.  He would not risk enduring the trip back to the medical prison.  My father tells me that many men would rather die from their ailments than have to take that trip.  It is widely believed by both prisoners and staff that the process of receiving medical care in Texas prisons is deliberately constructed to discourage the ill from seeking treatment.  It costs the state less to let the elderly and infirm die of their own accord.

Earlier this week my father’s prison was undergoing a shake down.  Pepper has been very frail in the years since his heart surgery, and he collapsed after carrying his possessions either to or from the gym.  I do not know if an emergency response team could have saved his life, but there was not one on hand.  The only doctor on staff is the elderly country doctor who delivered most of the guards who work in that prison, and even he is not on duty every day.  Pepper Ramirez died this week on a cement floor far from his family, and I feel responsible for his passing.

We live in a country where we think we know what justice is, where we are told that get-tough-on-crime legislation makes us safer, where we are encouraged not to think of prisoners as people but as beings not like us who have forfeited their civil and human rights by being irredeemably bad.  The jury that convicted Pepper Ramirez likely did not know that he would not be given adequate health care.  They may not have considered what his family would endure year after year as they watched him deteriorate.  Even if they had thought about these things, they may have felt that he, and perhaps also his family, deserved what they were getting.  I am not a witness to Pepper’s crime, but I am a secondary witness to his character and his suffering.  He was a good friend to my father, and for this I will be forever grateful.  Please pray today for Pepper’s family.  Pray for my father and the other men who lost a friend and who saw too well the fate that might await each of them.  Pray for all of us that we might not forget the lives and struggles of those who are deliberately hidden from us.  Pray that we find ways to end violence, addiction, and suffering through compassion, treatment, and forgiveness.  Pray for guidance to stop cycles of institutional violence.  Pray that we may learn not to be passive bystanders to the suffering of others.

Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.

Solitary Confinement for Children in Prison

27 Mar

Rock Center with Brian Williams recently aired a story about the terrible things that minors–some as young as nine years old–endure in solitary confinement in United States prisons.  Watch a clip of this story aired on the Today Show here.

If criminal justice administrators routinely agree that minors are so much at risk in adult prisons that they must be kept in solitary confinement to protect them, shouldn’t we rethink our decisions to send children to prison?

Pope Francis to Wash the Feet of Prisoners

26 Mar

The new pope has sworn to dedicate much of his papacy to serving the poor–an admirable goal and one which will be very difficult to uphold in the long run as the demands of administration at the Vatican settle in.  However, Pope Francis is off to an auspicious start.  When he emerged on the Vatican balcony in his first appearance as pope and asked the people to bless him, he displayed a level of humility seldom seen in a world leader.  What’s more, he appears genuine in his efforts to live in close contact with the poor and to serve them directly.  He never lived in the auspicious residence reserved for the bishop of Argentina, and on Thursday, March 28, 2013, he will wash the feet of twelve prisoners in Rome, as Jesus washed his disciple’s feet the night before his crucifixion.

For Christians, the act of washing another person’s feet engenders a mix of humility and honor.  The person washing the feet humbles herself in cleansing what in Jesus’ day would have been the dirtiest part of a person’s body–rough and covered in the day’s dust.  The person who allows her feet to be washed is simultaneously honored by the act of another person’s service but also humbled in having another person care for her in this intimate way.

Regardless of our systems of belief, we could all learn from what the pope will do this Thursday.  This act is a public reminder that we should remember those whom we have shut away from our sight.  We should honor them with human dignity, concern, and care, as we should all people.  We should not be afraid to lay compassionate hands on those whom we have been taught to fear.

Thank you, Pope Francis, for remembering the incarcerated.  May this act inspire people around the world to treat prisoners with kindness.

Call for Submissions of Writing by Prisoners’ Families

25 Mar

Journal of Prisoners on Prisons

Call for Papers

Special Issue on Prisoners,

Their Families and Loved Ones

General Information

The Journal of Prisoners on Prisons (JPP) is a prisoner written, academically oriented

and peer reviewed, non-profit journal, based on the tradition of the penal press. It brings

the knowledge produced by prison writers together with academic arguments to

enlighten public discourse about the current state of carceral institutions. This is

particularly important because with few exceptions, definitions of deviance and

constructions of those participating in these defined acts are incompletely created by

social ‘scientists’, media representatives, politicians, and legal and justice industrialists.

These analyses most often promote self-serving interests, omit the voices of those most

affected, and facilitate repressive and reactionary penal policies and practices. As a

result, the JPP attempts to acknowledge the accounts, experiences, and criticisms of the

criminalized by providing an educational forum that allows women and men to participate

in the development of research that concerns them directly. In an age where `crime` has

become lucrative and exploitable, the JPP exists as an important alternate source of

information that competes with popularly held stereotypes and misconceptions about

those who are currently, or those who have in the past, faced the deprivation of liberty.

Prisoners, Their Families and Loved Ones

While imprisonment has been the focus of a number of important studies, the impacts of

imprisonment on the families and loved ones of prisoners has rarely surfaced in

academic discussions. The difficulties faced by prisoners who wish to maintain links to

those outside prison walls has also been under-researched. The Journal of Prisoners on

Prisons invites prisoners, their families and loved ones to contribute articles that discuss

their experiences of enforced separation including the challenges and negotiations of

maintaining relationships affected by imprisonment.

This issue will offer prisoners, their families and loved ones the opportunity to voice their

concerns so their life experiences can be acknowledged and their insights appreciated.

In doing, so it will shed light on the struggles of population that has traditionally been

overlooked in society and to a greater extent within criminology.

Submission Guidelines

Prisoners and former prisoners are encouraged to submit papers, collaborative essays,

discussions transcribed from tape, book reviews, and photo or graphic essays.

The journal also encourages submissions of illustrations, drawings, and paintings to

appear within the special issue or as cover art. Artistic work should also include a short

description of the inspiration for the work.

The journal does not usually publish fiction, and does not generally publish poetry.

The journal does not publish material that focuses on the writer’s own legal case,

although the use of the writer’s personal experiences as an illustration of a broader topic

is encouraged.

The journal will not publish any subject matter that advocates hatred, sexism, racism,

violence, or that supports the death penalty.

Articles should be between 1,000 and 10, 000 words, and maybe handwritten (legibly) or

typed, in English, French or Spanish. The author may elect to write anonymously or

under a pseudonym.

Editors look for developed pieces that address topics substantially. Manuscripts go

through a preliminary reading and then are sent to review by the board, and those of

suitable interest are returned to the author with comments or suggestions. Editors work

with writers on composition and form, and where necessary may help the author with

referencing and bibliographic information, not readily available in prisons.

If your submission is not accepted for publication in the special issue, the Editorial board

will consider it for a later publication.

Submission Process

If you are interested in contributing to the JPP please your writing and/or art to:

Journal of Prisoners on Prisons

c/o University of Ottawa Press

542 King Edward,

Ottawa, Ontario

K1N 6N5


Please include: a clear and accurate contact details for the author, and a brief

description of the work. Once your work has been received and reviewed you will be

notified by the JPP.

Additional Information

For more information regarding this project or the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, feel

free contact the editors of the special issue through mail at the JPP office or at the e-mail

addresses listed below:

Stacey Hannem

Assistant Professor

Wilfrid Laurier University

Erin McCuaig
PhD Candidate
Queen’s University Belfast

We look forward to hearing from you,

Stacey and Erin

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