Friday, December 30, 2005

Back from death row

(I'm cross-posting again with Nasty Little Man.)

Well, I'm back after a 525 mile round-trip jaunt. I left early this morning while it was still dark. That was fitting because I felt like I was driving into the unknown. I didn't know what to expect this day. Appropriately, I took a route I had never driven before, which seemed symbolic, as I took I-70 and I-68 across western Maryland. (Of course, I took that route just to avoid tolls.)

Along the way, there was a pit stop in Cumberland, Maryland, in search of a good cup of coffee. Although I know nothing about Cumberland, it gives the appearance of one of those towns with a story similar to so many towns in the northeast. It's best days appear to be behind it. Many older brick buildings, empty storefronts, other stores that obviously haven't changed their marquees for decades. It's gritty, and the dreary skies and my own melancholy about visiting a prison probably added to that effect. It seemed only right that Bruce Springsteen was playing in the cafe that I walked into for coffee.

Admittedly, I'm a bit of a coffee snob. I don't need to have Starbucks, but it's got to be quality coffee. Well, when I walked in to the cafe, there was one of those two-burner industrial models that is in every office in America. It wasn't looking good, but I bought a cup, anyway.

On my way out of town, what to my eyes did appear but the Queen City Creamery and Coffee Shop. It appeared that the quality coffee I craved was before me. When I walked in, behold, all of the signs of quality coffee were there- a menu with various lattes, cappucinos, and cafe au laits, the flavor syrup bottles on the wall. They were even playing Sirius Satellite Radio, which I was seriously missing from my car since I had a rental. Of course, even with these options, the house blend has been my choice of late. It must have something to do with taking the middle path.

After a stop in Morgantown, WV, for lunch, it was off to the prison. This is a relatively new prison, less than 15 years old, and its look is similar to other public buildings. The main entrance and other parts of the building are topped with the pyramid that is popular in the construction of new schools.

The main lobby is like other state buildings with bright flourescent lights, a large main desk, and rows of cushioned seats. Walking the halls you could feel like you're in a school or a hospital with the cinder block walls, tiled floor, and flourescent lights. Of course, one look at the three fences, spirals of razor wire, and sliding steel doors and it's obvious this is no school. (Then again, the kids at the residential school where I used to work called it a "prison" all the time.)

I have to be honest at this point: The visit was not as earth-shattering or life-changing as I thought. The guards were either pleasant or non-expressive. They were certainly respectful and helpful. And the prisoner I visited is very social and does not have some of the mental and/or social deficiencies that many prisoners have. He's also been in a long time so he is adjusted. I'll keep the contents of our conversation private, but I will say that it wasn't any different than conversations I have with other activists. This activist just happened to be wearing an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs and was sitting behind a double-paned window and talking through a vent between the window and wall. And this activist is also living with a death sentence.

As I headed out, I thought about why it wasn't as heavy an experience as I thought it would be, and it dawned on me. Everyone I encountered this day- the guards, the prisoner, other visitors- are all human, just like the rest of us, with their own dreams and hopes and fears. It's a reminder that regardless of our situation, our race, our religion, our nationality, we all share that common bond of humanity.

So I've done it and will probably do it again. I can add "visited a death row prisoner" to my list of other interesting life experiences, like attending the Super Bowl and drinking quintuple espressos with a former Congressman. It was another adventure....


Thursday, December 29, 2005

Live from death row

Well, not exactly. I'm at home, but tomorrow morning I'll leave home at 6am to do something I've never done before- visit a prison. This particular prison is SCI-Greene in Waynesburg, PA, the home of the majority of PA's capital prisoners, and I'm going to visit an inmate who is living hell on earth, living with a death sentence. It seems only appropriate that my first prison visit would be to death row. I never attended a court proceeding until about two months ago, and it was a huge trial, one that's been in the news a lot lately. Might as well dive into the deep end with the big kids.

When you see descriptions of blogs, they are often described as online "diaries". I like for NLM to be more like an editorial page, but in this case, I'm going to try to transcribe some of my thoughts and emotions, both before and after. This is important enough that I'm cross-posting with Nasty Little Man.

For some reason, I'm drawn to criminology and the justice system and am especially both fascinated and torn by the way we handle prisoners. I'm not naive enough to think that we can live in some restorative utopia, and I know that criminals need to pay a debt to society. But our pendulum seems to swing too far in the other direction. As I write this, legislators are cooking up ways to continue a prisoner's punishment even after his/her sentence has ended. A recent example is the attempt in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives to take away voting rights from ex-felons, who currently can vote the moment they walk out of prison. This is an important piece of their reintegration into society, but some legislators want to continue to pound them.

We can put greater energy in trying to help the incarcerated improve themselves and prepare them for post-prison life. I'd guess my feelings on this come from my spiritual background, both the Christianity of my childhood and the Buddhism of my adult life. Jesus fraternized with the "least among us", including criminals. In the dharma, we keep faith in the belief that all of us have a true self, which is gentle and compassionate. Even criminals have this true self. We also believe that we are never the same person from minute-to-minute. We are in constant flow and change. Thus, a man who commits a crime, even a violent crime, at 22 is not the same man at 42 or 52 or whatever age he is at release.

According to legend, the Buddha even took in the serial killer Angulimala as a monk (PDF), and the story goes that he became a fine monk. When a representative from the government visited the Buddha to ask him about Angulimala, the monk was the first person he encountered, not realizing that he was Angulimala, and the official remarked to the Buddha what a nice man he was.

While the dharma teaches that we have a true self, it also teaches that there are consequences for our actions, so I believe in a middle path for prisoners that is neither too heavy-handed nor too lenient.

I don't know what to expect during this visit, and I will keep an open mind. That is not a naive open mind but instead a recognition that anything could happen. The prison personnel could be difficult, rude, and disrespectful or they could be quite nice. When I walk into that prison, a feeling of dread could overcome me or it might just seem like another building (minus the razor wire, of course). I will be ready for anything. Fortunately, the prisoner I am visiting is a conversationalist and is socially aware, so we will not be lacking for chatter.

I will be sure to report back tomorrow night when I return home.

Walter Ogrod: Innocent and sentenced to death

I recently received correspondence from Walter Ogrod, a prisoner on Pennsylvania's death row. Walter sent me a copy of a two-part Philadelphia City Paper series on his case from June, 2004, so last night I sat down and read the articles. Although we abolitionists certainly know that there are more innocent people on death row, it's still stunning to read the individual stories.

You can read all the dirty details in the articles, but here's the basic breakdown. Walter was convicted and sentenced to death in 1996 for the 1988 murder of a four-year-old girl in his NE Philly neighborhood. No physical evidence linked him to the crime. A witness who spoke with the killer (not knowing at the time that he was the killer) described someone 5-8 inches shorter than Walter and with different color hair.

Walter was convicted in part by a confession he claimed was coerced out of him by two Philadelphia detectives. He visited the police station after working an all-night shift and had been awake a total of 30 hours when he made this so-called confession.

At trial, the defense shot holes in the case. Walter was seconds away from walking away a free man from this nightmare, but one juror blurted out, "I disagree," as the jury foreman was reading the "not guilty" verdict. The judge declared a mistrial, and in the interim between the mistrial and the retrial, a jailhouse snitch emerged to weave a tall tale about Walter's connection to the crime.

You can read all the horrifying details here:
Snitch Work Part 1
Snitch Work Part 2

I'm currently reading Executed on a Technicality by David R. Dow, a law professor at the University of Houston, which has similar stories of breakdowns in the criminal justice system. I can only read so much at a time because eventually I just can't take it. A copy of a Star Wars book is always nearby for lighter reading. Reading about these injustices can start to weigh on you after awhile.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Harold Wilson talks about his experience

Democracy Now has an excellent interview with Harold Wilson, PA's most recent death row exoneree, who was acquitted at retrial in November. You can read the transcript, listen to it, or watch it.

There are multiple issues to address in Harold's interview. For now, one of the most pressing is the way the exonerated are treated. In Harold's words:
And I signed the processing papers for my release. I was given a copy of my release papers. I was given 65 cent and a token, and I was told that I couldn't leave the facility with SCI Green State Correctional DOC on my clothes, so they gave me clothes to wear and a jacket, and I walked out the back door of the county prison at 9:30 at night onto State Road with 65 cent and a token and no other means of support or survival.

Monday, December 19, 2005

New Year's resolution: More abolition blogging

Along with more meditation and more sleep, I'm vowing to do more abolition blogging in 2006. Four major stories have passed me by in the last month:
The execution of Tookie Williams
The revelation of the wrongful execution of Ruben Cantu
The exoneration of Harold Wilson of Philadelphia
The 1000th execution in the U.S. since 1976

I'll do better in '06. I swear.