31 July 2014

The Road to Damascus

Every once in a while there's a high profile parole hearing, where everyone gets geared up on one side or the other.  (And yes, we just had one up my way.) They're usually murder cases, sometimes horrific.  There is press coverage, rehashing the crime in all its gory details.  The family (usually) protests vociferously to any parole.  The character witnesses for the prisoner are generally considered either bleeding hearts and/or easily gulled and/or sincere but mistaken. And usually the prisoner is not released.  Contrary to the television world, I would say that 90% of all violent offenders do not get released their first time up for parole, or second, or third.  And many violent offenders do not and perhaps will never get released.

This may not be a bad thing:  Charles Manson leaps to mind.  He is currently 80 years old, still residing in Corcoran State Prison in California, and that's fine with me.  The members of his "family" who participated in the Tate-LaBianca Murders (mostly tried in 1970, one in 1971) were:

  • Susan Atkins - 17 parole hearings, all denied; 22 years old going in; died at 61 in prison.
  • Patricia Krenwinkle - 13 parole hearings, all denied; 23 years old going in; currently 67 years old.
  • Tex Watson - 14 parole hearings, all denied; 25 years old going in; currently 69 years old.
  • Leslie Van Houten - 19 parole hearings, all denied; 19 years old going in; currently 65 years old.

Everyone agrees that they were manipulated by Manson; that he masterminded the horrible murders; that they were under the influence of drugs.  All had/have, over their 40+ years in prison, claimed to become born-again Christians, and/or worked with AA, NA, and other organizations, and/or transformed.  It is extremely doubtful that any of them will ever be paroled.  The crimes were too horrific (although no more horrific than others that have been committed against less famous people) and received too much publicity.

Okay.  So what about these cases?
  • A 16 year old tried as an adult, convicted, and sentenced to life without parole for shooting a taxi driver in cold blood in order to get the taxi and use it to flee from the scene of a robbery the kid had just committed.
  • An 18 year old Native American killed another man in a drunken brawl and was sentenced to life without parole because "he would never be a decent member of society."
  • Any of the many "three strikes and you're out" life convictions for committing three felonies.

What if they clean up their act, sober up, get saved, whatever, study, work hard, participate in AA, NA, and other organizations, and/or were transformed in various ways?  Two questions:
  1. Is there really such a thing as repentance and transformation?
  2. Does it matter?
First one:  Can people really repent, change, transform? You would think, given the title above, that everyone who claims to be Christian would say yes.  However, after years working in the judicial system, I can tell you that most people don't believe it, at least not for certain crimes and certainly not for others.  Why?  Well, here are a few options:
  1. They've - we've - all been taken one too many times; we've all been screwed big time and haven't gotten over it.
  2. They can't imagine another person's life, much less that life actually changing.  How can someone, anyone, think/feel/act differently than me without being dangerously crazy, and in need of serious treatment and/or incarceration? (Well, that's what fiction is for, to explain it.)
  3. Life is much easier when you maintain the "once a ___, always a ___" attitude.
But okay, say we do believe that people change.  Comes the second question, does it matter?  In other words, what is punishment really about?  I've read that it's a three-fold concept, incorporating
  1. retribution and/or incapacitation (as in Old Testament/Sharia law); 
  2. deterrence (although there have been studies that prove people aren't deterred by the severity of punishment; certainly in Restoration/ Victorian England, where people were hanged for stealing a handkerchief, there were still plenty of thieves because poverty was so endemic); and 
  3. rehabilitation.
Rehabilitation is the interesting one:  if rehabilitation (i.e., transformation) is the goal, and if people are capable of rehabilitation, does that mean we still execute them and/or keep them incarcerated for life? And if they are rehabilitated/transformed, shouldn't we let them out, to try again, to live again?  Or is rehabilitation, while a sweet dream, an ideal outcome, irrelevant to punishment as a debt that must be paid, using time instead of money?

(Although, speaking of debts, we all know, don't we, that prison is extremely expensive? Which is part of the push towards private prisons which, frankly, scare the hell out of me, because private prisons have quotas for occupancy...  And then there's the whole thing of trying to pry all the costs for our court system out of the accused and arrested - whether or not they are found innocent.  And then there's the infamous case of the woman who died in jail because her children skipped school and someone had to pay the truancy fines and they didn't have the money, so she got to go to the equivalent of debtors' prison in Pennsylvania.)

Look, I believe in rehabilitation.  I believe in transformation.  I am not the same person I was in my teens (thank God).  And yet, I have no answers, just questions.  There are some crimes for which I'd lock people away for life.  But they may not always be the same crimes that someone else would lock a person away for life.

And then there's Saul.  He was guilty, at the very least, of accessory to murder (he held the coats as Stephen got lynched), and he was going to kill as many heretics as he could find.  And then Saul got knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus, and became a believer overnight, blinded and restored to sight by a miracle.  He eventually had to leave Damascus - in the middle of the night - and went to Jerusalem, with a new name - Paul - but that didn't fool anybody. The disciples didn't want anything to do with him, because they didn't believe that he had changed.  It was a big risk. They took some convincing.  So do we. So do I.  The question is, when is the risk worth taking? Is it worth taking? How do we know?


  1. Eve, I researched parole boards in Ohio and, as you suggest, they virtually never released anyone on parole and upon occasion when they did, they were often overridden by the governor. Fear appears to be the motivating emotion, fear of being thought a mollycoddling bleeding heart when what is really needed are people who can make the tough decisions, e.g, keep offenders in prison. And certainly members might have a legitimate fear a released prisoner could offend again.

    That wasn’t the case with Susan Atkins. Some felt she should have been let out in her final weeks of life. She was dying, she'd begged forgiveness for her crime many times, and there was nothing to gain by keeping her in prison. I wasn’t at her hearings, but I might have been persuaded.

    I’ve been reading about the rise of debtors’ prisons and I started to comment about that when I realized my comment was growing into an article! So perhaps Sunday I'll splash my thoughts on the page.

  2. Eve, I always enjoy your posts and this one is no exception. I agree with you that there are many questions involved that simply can't be answered, but I do wish you'd added a few more paragraphs f statistics dealing with repeat offenses after incarceration.

    Also, maybe no one is ever paroled in Ohio, but here in SC, our probation and parole officers deal with case loads that far exceed what should be reasonably handled by each agent.

    I've been researching for an article about blonde bombshells and last night, while reading about Jean Harlow, I was reminded that she had occupied the house of the Tate murders.

    Another memory your blog brought to mind: Back when I was an undergraduate, I did some work with inmates. One of them was a really pathetic story. He'd convinced me that his conviction for assault and rape was a complete miscarriage of justice. He'd been the victim of false accusation by a girlfriend he'd dumped. I was thoroughly convinced and I shared my concerns with my supervisor. Her reply was, "Next time, say it sympathetically, but tell him you don't believe him."
    I followed her suggestion and found myself frantically backing away as guards came in and constrained him as he came across the table, reaching for me, and screaming, "I'll give you what I gave her, you bitch."

    Enough from me for today. Like Leigh, I could go on about this topic far beyond a blog.

  3. Debtors' prisons scare me, Leigh, and I think they should scare everyone. Fran, I totally know what you mean - when I'm at the pen with the boys, I hear a lot of hard luck stories, and I believe almost none of them. (The ones I do believe are some of the childhood horror stories; those are often true.) I listen with polite attention, that's all.

  4. It's me again, Eve. I agree that debtors' prisons in this century in America is downright horrifying.

    I also wanted to say that during my long years, there are certain events that stand out in my mind as real today as the day they happened. One of them is the assassination of JFK and another is where I was when I heard about the Manson murders.

  5. re: Fran's comment. Worked beside a volunteer totally obsessed with inmate half her age. Thought he walked on water and worked tirelessly to make the world see he was wronged which no one else believed. My take was he was unrepentant bastard.

  6. Eve, a thought provoking article. Rehabilitation is a very iffy subject when applied to rapists, child abusers and the like. Is it in the genes? Can they overcome their urges? Is it possible that they could return to society and live normal lives? True justice may not be possible in cases like those. On the other hand, there is no question in my mind concerning Manson. He's where he belongs.

  7. Herschel, I entirely agree. On all counts. Manson can stay where he is. Who can we really rehabilitate? Maybe some people you can't. Maybe some crimes you can't. But I am also very, very frustrated with minors being tried as adults for murder and then given life sentences. And I personally don't buy a 100% three-strikes you're out law. With some people, the song is true:
    If it wasn't for bad luck, they'd have no luck at all.

  8. Eve, the 3 strikes law needs revision. It is too rigid and doesn't allow for mitigating circumstances, severity of the crime, etc.


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