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.


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