Two stories hit me back-to-back this week. One was about a congregant’s son who died. The other was a complete stranger who chose life…a life sentence, instead of release from prison. Both stories pointed to the failure of a system by whatever standards we use to judge it.
The stranger was a young man convicted of doing some pretty awful stuff, possibly to some people I know in the neighborhood he targeted. The part of the article that struck me, though, had to do with the sentencing. He and his friend rejected a plea bargain that would have released them at about age 50. The article read as follows: ‘Malbrough said earlier this year that he rejected the deal because he would rather die in prison than be released when he was about 50 years old. “It’s a long time, and the thing that scares me the most is not the time but what am I going to do when I get out,” Malbrough said. “I’d rather die in prison.”‘
The son of a congregant was beaten to death in prison by his cellmate. Two things are striking: 1) It was sad but certainly not unheard of that in the criminal justice system, a man could be killed before anyone intervened, and 2) the coverage of this story focused almost entirely on the reason the man was incarcerated. (As an aside, this was particularly crushing to the man’s mother, who was not allowed to mourn the unexpected loss of her son because instead, people pointed at her 15 years after her son’s crimes and said, “Are you the mother of that killer?” instead of “are you the mother of that man who was killed in prison without the intervention of prison officials?”)
During this season of Lent, I am working hard to take on complex issues that inhabit the grey area that public policy often ignores. The people in these stories are no heroes. People were hurt or killed by them. A community became a place of fear and anxiety because of them.
And our justice system was created with the intent of increasing safety, meting out justice rather than vengeance or arbitrary punishment, and (some would argue) to foster up rehabilitation. Instead we have people choosing to remain locked in prison until they die because they know that what awaits them outside of prison is a future with no real possibilities. Instead we have a man assigned a jail sentence and instead killed, while our community is told not to mourn this unjust death because of the crime for which he had been given a term of imprisonment, not a death sentence.
Huey Newton is famous for saying something to the effect of, “I kept hearing about justice, justice, and when I got in here (prison), that’s what I found: just us.” What feels sad and true about that quip is that increasingly there are two worlds, one world in which release from prison offers no better alternative than staying in, and one world in which it does not make sense to mourn for people who “have brought this upon themselves.” In one group there is no hope, in the other no mercy.
And then there are the people living between those worlds: Books Not Bars, who seek to create a system of rehabilitation, safety and transformation instead of retribution and streamlining of youth from juvenile justice into adult criminal communities; Restorative Justice for Youth in Oakland and McCullum Youth Court, which create alternative means of creating justice and healing for victims and perpetrators starting at a young age; and countless organizations seeking to change the culture of our criminal justice system so it better serves victims of crime and also the whole community by addressing sentencing injustices, the “school to prison pipeline” in some communities, and access to opportunities in order to reduce the need for youth to turn to crime out of a sense of desperation.
I don’t have a lot of answers this evening. I have only a heart that aches at how broken our system is and a desire to hear from others how to transform it.