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.
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.