Life and death in California prisons

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.

3 thoughts on “Life and death in California prisons

  1. Reading this expecially saddens me, because a friend of mine was recently severely beaten in prison the day he arrived for assessment. He had four hematomas in his brain, and is not responding after nearly two weeks. I am afraid he will not recover. What people will probably focus on, though, was he was a four-time sex offender. His last offense was exposing himself to a kid in a Wal-Mart bathroom. But instead of forgiveness, he gets what may be a death sentence.

    When this happened, I realized something. I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, having been molested at different times by a stranger and by a neighbor. It never once occurred to me to wish ill to those who had molested me. I never thought of them even going to prison, let alone being beaten or killed for what they did to me. What they did to me was clearly wrong, and realistically, they probably did owe a debt to society. But what good is revenge? In the end, it only hurts the victim, not the perpetrator. I pray that people who are victims of crime learn to forgive, to know the difference between seeking justice and seeking revenge. I also pray for the families of my friends, and yours, that they find peace and comfort from God and others during this time, and that those who beat them receive what is just, but do not become victims of revenge, and that they may be forgiven, just as we’d want our loved ones forgiven.


  2. I have been thinking and praying a lot recently about the use of our criminal justice system to warehouse those on the margins of society. It is of course a very complicated issue. I think also about the story of the young man with schitzophrenia who, unable to get treatment and falling between the cracks of society, wound up killing someone he thought was out to get him, and is now in Santa Rita jail. Rather than spend less money to create systems of mental health and rehabilitation for those trapped in economicly disadvantaged populations, our country has returned to a pattern of incarcerating the poor, with no rehabilitation in sight.

    Then I heard author and CAL sociologist Loic Wacquant on KPFA the other day, talking about his book “Punishing the Poor”, and it made so much sense to me. He recounts the history of our prison system as a means of controlling and “rehabilitating” the poor in the time period following fuedalism and moving into capitalism. Worth a read. And a prayer.
    Love and Peace, Joyce


  3. We need to add a frame from which to think about what goes on in prisons. We are very used to an Us-Them framing that creates the illusion of distinction between Us–good, law-abiding citizens; and Them–the wretched of society who may deserve whatever befalls them. Us-Them framing reduces the issue to whether or not someone who has committed atrocities deserves atrocities perpetrated or abetted by our penal institutions. Certainly, this is a critically important debate, but one that, for all practical intents and purposes, comes down to differences of opinion and will ultimately be decided by majority will.

    We-Me framing, on the other hand, suggests that this issue is about more than Us and Them. It is also about our own culpability in failing to hold our public institutions accountable to the moral and ethical standards that define we, the people. We need to think about who we are as a people and how we are represented and reflected by our public institutions. And we are not looking too good or too deserving, it seems to me, when our institutions heinously and systemically violate the rights or the inherent human dignity of so many.

    Atrocities like the ones mentioned here happen in prisons every single day. Our hearts should break … wide open; and we need to pray … for perpetrators, for victims, and for ourselves because none of us lives outside the cycle of causes and effects that perpetuates the social disease that fuels the vicious things human beings do to each other. We need to change, and that change begins when we recognize that, on one level at least, there is no “them.”

    Shalom, Salaam, Shanti, Peace,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: