Easter Through Incarcerated Eyes (Easter 2016)

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(Artwork by Tsjisse Talsma for The Atlantic)

A few weeks ago, as I was leaving for a retreat at Ironwood State Prison in the Low Desert of southern California, a deacon who works with me at a juvenile hall in Los Angeles told me, “You will see God. Prisons are the easiest places in the world to see God.”

And did I?

I work with the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative (JRJI), which advocates for young people transitioning into the adult prison system and offers chaplaincy services in juvenile halls and adult state prisons. JRJI’s founding director, a Jesuit named Mike Kennedy, had the insight that prison life bears a resemblance to monastic life: individuals live in cells with rigid schedules and a lot of silence and solitude. Perhaps if prisoners could learn to pray — to see themselves as monks, rather than as convicts — they could discover an inner life and freedom that no one can take away.

Many of the men I met at Ironwood have known Mike for years, and they are living testimonies to JRJI’s success. They have not only learned to pray; they have also formed a religious community among themselves, the community of Jesus the Risen Prisoner. They elect leaders; they pray together; they make vows. The “warriors of light,” as they are known, provide an alternative community for men who literally risk their lives if they want to leave the gangs to which many of them have belonged since they were kids.

***

We’ve all heard it: “hurt people hurt people.” The generalization isn’t quite fair to the hurt people who don’t hurt people in ways that will land them in jail, but it’s true that behind every crime, there is always suffering — always a longing to escape from pain, to channel the anger of an anguish that, for the kids in juvenile hall, began so terribly early. “My earliest childhood memories,” an ex-prisoner shared his testimony as part of our retreat, “were of the gang graffiti I saw on my way to school. Before I even knew what they meant, my friends and I were competing to see who could draw them better.”

How old do you have to be to join a gang? Fifteen? Thirteen? Gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha, which rules the streets of so many North and Central American barrios, will induct children when they are as young as nine years old. The kids join for community, belonging, acceptance, love…and the gangs give it to them, their “little homies,” after they have killed however many people they have to kill as part of their initiation.

Moreover, Mike estimates that 90% of the kids at juvenile hall are hooked on crystal meth, which he calls “the devil’s drug”: cheap, destructive, profoundly addictive. More often than not, the crimes that land these kids in jail were committed not when they were planning to kill but when they were high on meth and had no idea what they were doing. Many are behind bars not because they pulled the trigger, but because they were hanging out with the kid who did, and that makes them accessories to murder in the eyes of the law.

And then there’s the pain of childhood abuse. In most prisons there is a special yard for those who need protection from the general prison population: either because they’ve left their gang and fear retribution, or because their crime involves sexual abuse. So many men in prison have suffered this trauma themselves, so if you’re in for a sex crime, you’re a marked man. When we preach at our Sunday services and mention drugs or violence or gangs, the kids sit up and listen because they can relate to these stories. But once, in passing, we happened to mention child abuse as an example of the world’s evils, and almost in unison, half of them hid their heads in their arms and sounded like they were going to cry.

***

I’ve spoken to people who feel a ten- or twenty-year sentence means getting off easy compared to life without parole. Now I sit at tables with kids who are fifteen years old, who committed a crime literally before their brains were fully developed and without ever getting a first chance at life anyway, and yet are being tried as adults (as California law allows). Some are facing thirty or forty years, which is more time than I’ve walked this earth, and double the time they’ve been alive. If any of us has ever scoffed at a “light” sentence, we might do well to imagine how long ten years — even ten months — locked in a cage really is.

Thanks in part to advocacy organizations like JRJI, sentencing in California has become a little more reasonable. Juveniles who were sentenced as adults to life imprisonment without parole are now eligible for a second look, which is a welcome source of hope and a counterbalance to the archaic “three strikes, you’re out” law or the oft-abused gang enhancement. (A gang enhancement is when a judge can tack five or ten years onto your sentence if you belong to a gang. One egregious abuse of this law occurred when a kid lost his temper at the trial of the man who had killed the kid’s brother. “You liar! I’ll kill you!” he blurted out in court, and was charged with intimidating a witness. He got five years for intimidation, plus a ten-year gang enhancement, to total fifteen years in prison… all because he yelled, once, at the guy who’d killed his brother.)

Society’s basic paradigm of justice is retributive: it is not only based on revenge rather than mercy, but on punishment rather than rehabilitation. This is the only way it could begin to make sense to lock human beings in cages and throw away the key.

***

One day a couple of weeks ago, a kid wanted to ask me about something his teacher had said during a class discussion about Rodney King. “Nicholas,” he asked me. “Is it true that — ” He paused, trying to remember the wording. “Is it true that money buys justice, and poverty buys injustice?” I looked into the searching eyes of this kid who had no money and was waiting for the results of his trial, and I wasn’t sure what to say.

***

“How long, Lord?” goes the psalm. “How long?” The things they can’t do behind bars, the things they miss. It’s not just the kid who asks me, every time he sees me, what I’ve eaten in the past week (carne asada? guacamole? all the things he won’t taste for twenty years); it’s also the kid who’s never met his baby daughter, born while he was in jail; the kid who is sad one day because two of his sisters had birthdays that week, and the correctional officer who was angry at him wouldn’t let him call home. The saddest thing that can happen to you in prison, I’m told, is for your mother to die. Several kids have told me they pray that their mother will still be alive by the time they get out. They want to be there, as any of us would, for her funeral.

This brings us to mothers. Mike believes that mothers suffer even more from incarcerations than their children do. When you speak to them, they can often only speak through tears. “Every night at dinner,” one mother reflected, “I look at the empty chair at our table, and I wonder: is he cold in his cell tonight? Did he get enough to eat? Is he depressed? Are they looking at him as a human being, or as a criminal?”

Another mother described sitting through her son’s forty-three-day trial: the venomous words from his victim’s family every day in court, telling her she was a failure at being a parent; the sleepless, tear-filled nights; the mind-numbing array of anti-depression medications she experimented with during those long, cruel weeks. When she finally arrived at sentencing day, I thought it would be accompanied by a sense of relief that at least it was all over.

“Sentencing day,” she told me simply, “is your funeral day. It’s the day you die.” As I took this in, she added, “Only, there’s one difference: it’s not you who are buried; it’s your son. Your son is buried alive. And every week, it happens again. Every week, when you drive those three hours to visit him on a Saturday and then he goes back to his cell for another week…it’s your funeral day again. He goes back into the tomb.”

***

JRJI believes in restorative justice, in rehabilitating and reconciling rather than punishing. Some will doubt that this is realistic, and it’s true that change doesn’t come easily. It’s also true that our prison system makes it harder, rather than easier, for people to embrace their humanity. People who have been sentenced to life in prison say that that was the moment of no return: if they have no hope of ever getting out, all they have left is to survive, and that means becoming tougher, meaner, more violent.

If I am tempted to judge, I have no choice but to look at my own life, and say: There was never a remote chance that I would enter a gang or kill anyone. My family, my social class, and not any preternatural and undying innocence of my own, protected me from that. But have I, even in my privileged life, never dealt with the agony of sorrow in ways that are destructive of myself and others? Do I not fall short, daily, of the person I wish I could be? Are there not prisons from which I, myself, still long to be free?

***

Is change really possible? When I walked into a room full of prisoner-monks at Ironwood State Prison, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt so surrounded by goodness. These guys’ spiritual life is more developed than mine is: they have tasted the bitter hours and reflected long and hard on sin, violence, forgiveness, redemption, conversion, prayer, and grace. What remain words to us when we read them in the Bible are living realities for them. Somewhere in the depths of imprisonment — in spells of solitary confinement when life could not get worse, but also in moments (they all report) when a chaplain visits and, for the first time they can remember, someone is looking at them with love, reawakening something human inside them — something changes. This is the message that the guys at Ironwood asked me to spread as far as I can (and it is why I am writing this testimony): “Tell people,” they implored, “that change is possible. All of us here have changed.”

It’s present in a guy at Ironwood who grew up in a machista culture that told him you are weak if you cry. “I’ve cried here in prison,” he shared in our group, “when I’ve thought about what I’ve done,” and when we asked him if he felt it made him weak, he responded, “No, not weak: only more human.”

It’s present in the kid who asked me about money and justice and Rodney King, who told me he’s been having trouble lately understanding the logic of “us versus them” he grew up with. “I’m starting to realize we’re all the same,” he said. “Or, like…I don’t know how to put it…not the same, but….connected.” When I asked him how this made him feel, he replied, “I just wish that everyone in the world could see this. That we’re all connected. Then maybe there would be peace… right?” he asked me, again with those searching eyes. “Don’t you think that then, there would be peace?”

And it’s present in this testimony from a man named Isaac, who wrote to us from prison:

There are still moments where I sit in my cell and the loneliness is so crushing that I ache beyond explanation. During those moments, I speak to God from the depth of my heart and soul. It may or may not be immediate, but every single time, God brings me comfort to ease my sorrow.

“Fifty years to life.” Saying it saddens me. It’s a reminder of all the anguish I created for so many people. The true miracle that emerged from this reality is the life born into existence despite all the sorrow. Open your heart, and then your mind and eyes will open up to the beautiful gifts that life has to give you. You will possess life.

***

Change is possible. Redemption is possible. It’s present in all of these stories. Let me end by mentioning two of my mentors, who served prison sentences once and now work for JRJI.

One, Carlos, is profiled in this New York Times video. I hope you will watch it if you get the chance. One of Carlos’s many ministries is to help recently paroled inmates readjust to a society they’ve been excluded from for decades. Think about it: they have never seen a wireless phone, much less an iPhone. The world has grown in leaps and bounds without paying them any thought. They emerge from a time capsule into the future. It’s like this one man I met who entered a halfway house after decades in prison, and every day he’d just sit on the porch watching the cars go by, too terrified even to walk to the end of the driveway. One day, after weeks of fear, he finally gathered the courage to make it down to the mailbox…. and then he left the gate and started walking down the street…. and then he turned a corner and started running…. and then, he told me with a big grin, he just kept running and running and running.

Another friend and mentor at JRJI manages correspondence with men and women in prison, and writes to them with words of hope and encouragement. Recently, for Mike’s birthday, Mike invited all of us in the office out sailing at Marina del Rey. During his time in prison, my friend said, he never imagined he’d be on a boat someday. “This may be the most peaceful afternoon,” he told us, gazing out at the gentle water, “in my life.”

***

Friends, let’s take nothing joyful for granted. I can’t describe how sacred life felt out there on that boat, how sanctified by gratitude.

And so at the end of this story of crushed dreams, broken justice, and terrible violence (which the church remembers on Good Friday) and of death and waiting and grieving mothers and tenuous hopes (which the church remembers on Holy Saturday), there is Easter Sunday. Among other things, these guys I’ve told you about teach us something of what Easter means. It is Resurrection: a rising from the dead, an emergence from the tomb. A returning home. And it’s not only possible: it is real.

Love. Believe. You will see God. “You will possess life.”