The following opinion piece was submitted to a number of newspapers in the summer of 1997. To my surprise, both men described were released from prison in the next 8 months.

A Different View on Violent Offenders

 

We live in a time when the accepted response to the chaotic violence in our society is to imprison more people and to keep them incarcerated for longer periods of time. The most recent figures reveal that some 1.7 million people are now in our nation's prisons and jails. In the extreme, we are ready to kill those convicted of the most heinous crimes.

While I have long believed this approach to be misguided, my perspective was reinforced by recent correspondence from two men who are imprisoned, both serving lengthy sentences in New York State for violent crimes.

I met Dave and Juan* through my work with the Alternatives to Violence Project in New York State prisons--a volunteer program designed to help participants learn to solve conflicts nonviolently. Dave, who had already been imprisoned for 14 years, and I were trained together as workshop facilitators over a decade ago. I was immediately struck by his caring and intelligence. He exhibited a deep commitment to making life better for his fellow prisoners.

I worked with him periodically over the next few years and continued to be impressed by his ability to work with other inmates--to challenge them to choose a new path by talking about his own mistakes and failures. Sentenced to 25 years to life for murder as a 19 year-old, Dave had taken advantage of his time in prison to educate himself and try to improve life in the institution in which he was incarcerated. Dave's life served as a valuable role model, as did the concern he frequently expressed for young people who might follow in his footsteps. I wondered what risks Dave, a small and slight man, assumed by calling on other men to give up the familiar and accepted use of violence.

In the late 1980's I wrote several letters to New York Governor Mario Cuomo on behalf of Dave's appeal for clemency. Despite a standing job offer from a local Catholic Charities organization, a clean prison record, and active leadership in many rehabilitative programs, Dave remained behind the forbidding walls of a maximum security penitentiary. Later this year, he will appear before the Parole Board for the first time. Among the paperwork before the board will be my letter of support calling for his release.

The second missive, from Juan, was part of our ongoing correspondence. I am continually struck by his ability to empathize with the struggles that I experience in life. Despite the fact that he has been locked up for ten years and was rejected in his first bid for parole, he truly feels for me when I have difficulties with my job or personal life.

The depth of character necessary for someone in Juan's shoes to step outside of the prison walls and feel the pain I experience is truly extraordinary. After all, it would be very easy to belittle the pitfalls that I experience when compared to his long-term incarceration.

Juan also has dedicated himself to helping other prisoners. As a leader in the Alternatives to Violence Project, he challenges other men to find productive ways to confront the problems they face. In addition to working in pre-release to help other men create practical plans for how to survive when they go home, he spends countless hours each month planning and facilitating AVP workshops.

An athletic man who regularly draws on his military experience in workshops, Juan's physical presence contrasts strongly with that of Dave. Yet their messages, spoken with different accents, are very much in sync: "yes, there is discrimination and hardship ahead, but we can overcome it with internal strength and thorough preparation". Both men also recognize that theirs is not just an individual struggle; changes must be made within in our society to reduce crime and create greater opportunity and equality.

I know that many people want to see those who have committed violent crimes live out their days in prison. And, I try to understand their feelings. But, real individuals whom I know personally keep getting in the way. I know some of these men who have murdered, who have raped and assaulted. Some of them frighten me, too. But others have earned my respect.

My two friends have so much to offer. I firmly believe that they will use their talents in valuable ways wherever they find themselves. I am angry and sad that these two men, plus thousands of others like them all over the country, will go before parole boards whose decisions appear to be influenced more by politics than by whether or not these men have earned to right to return to society. All of us are poorer as a result.

 

* not their real names, since publishing them could further decrease their chances of being paroled