The July issue of The Sun was my first. I loved Katti Gray’s interview with former Black Panther Eddie Ellis [“The Run-On Sentence”]. What an articulate speaker he is, and what a beautiful life mission. I was born during the Summer of Love in San Francisco, and my mother has told me a number of times how terrified she was of the Black Panthers she encountered there. It was helpful to read a different perspective on them.
I also loved Jack Gilbert’s poetry, and his description of failure as “coming to the end of . . . triumph.” So true.
Katti Gray’s interview with Eddie Ellis elicited in me a deep sadness but also some hope. For nearly twenty years I taught English classes in a maximum-security prison in central Indiana, and now that I’m retired, I still hear from some of the men I taught — both those who are locked up and those who have finally earned their freedom.
I have seen many of my former prison students become productive citizens upon their release. And others unfortunately have become part of the gloomy statistics on recidivism, perhaps because there aren’t enough organizations like Ellis’s to help them. Ellis is right that the best people to help former prisoners make the transition to life outside the walls are those who have been locked up themselves. He is also right that many of those released from prison have never been habilitated in the first place, making rehabilitation a misnomer.
It is disheartening but not surprising to hear that less public money is being spent on providing legal counsel to the poor, who are disproportionately arrested for crimes of all sorts. People in government are reluctant to spend money in general on helping those who are doing or have done time. Mitch Daniels, our former governor here in Indiana, did away with the college program in which I taught. He claimed it was too costly, though it’s obvious to anyone whose thinking is not clouded by ideology that sending prisoners to college is much cheaper than paying to keep them locked up.
Your July issue exposes the racism behind our commitment to mass incarceration in this country. There are other contributing factors we need to address before we can solve this problem.
We need to question our national addiction to punishment, not only in our prisons but in our schools, where children — especially children of color — are made into criminals. Punishment is not an effective deterrent, nor is it the best way of dealing with lawbreakers. Punishment is also not good for those who must enforce it. Prison guards have higher-than-normal rates of divorce and suicide.
Many Americans seem to believe that retribution is a right and that it provides healing for the victims. We need to offer other models of healing such as “restorative justice” and the “truth and reconciliation” system used in South Africa after apartheid.
We need to look at the role big business is playing in the growth of our prison population. Corporate-backed groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council push for three-strikes laws and harsher sentences. Private prisons are then happy to expand to accommodate the increased numbers of prisoners.
One of my formerly incarcerated friends says that people returning to society need to be seen as “returning citizens,” not criminals who need additional punishment after they have served their sentences.
As a white person who has written to and visited state and federal prisoners for ten years now, I appreciated the interview with former prison inmate Eddie Ellis. The inhabitants of U.S. prisons are mostly poor people of color. I have been particularly struck by all the wasted heart, intelligence, and talent among incarcerated black men.
I was also moved and enlightened by Ross Gay’s essay “Some Thoughts on Mercy.” I’m thankful for his courageous honesty about his experience as a black man in America. His writing helped me understand what he and others like him are up against.
I read “Some Thoughts on Mercy” aloud to my boyfriend on a trip from San Diego to Los Angeles. As Ross Gay, a black university professor, described being pulled over for a broken license-plate light and asked if he had any weapons or drugs in the car, I thought of the movie Crash, in which a black producer and his wife are pulled over due to racial profiling.
“When the police suspect a black man or boy of having a gun,” Gay writes, “he becomes murderable: Murderable despite having earned advanced degrees or bought a cute house or written a couple of books of poetry. Murderable whether he’s an unarmed adult or a child riding a bike in the opposite direction. Murderable in the doorways of our houses. Murderable as we come home from the store.” By the time I got to the end of this passage, my tears were flowing, but I managed to finish reading the essay aloud despite the thickness (guilt?) in my throat. My boyfriend and I were silent for a time, thinking about our black friends and knowing that they could relate to Gay’s experience on a more personal level than we could, and that each could probably tell us a similar story.
Ross Gay’s essay moved me deeply. It showed great mercy on the author’s part to discuss the experience of black males in a way that is accessible to the rest of us. The ending about the bees, in particular, has stayed with me. There is something beautiful about the bees’ seeing past the fearful parts of our nature and into the goodness and innocence at our core. Don’t we all desire to be seen that way?
Reading Ross Gay’s poignant and powerful piece about his encounter with the police, I was reminded of something that happened to me about ten years ago.
I had recently been released from prison and was attending a meeting for survivors of domestic violence and familial abuse. We were women of every race and from every background. At this meeting a young black law student described why she disliked shopping: Everywhere she went, she said, she felt watched. Store clerks assumed she was shoplifting and didn’t even try to hide the fact that they were keeping an eye on her. She had never stolen anything in her life, she said, but she had to shop online or in the “ ’hood” if she didn’t want to be stalked by security.
When she was done talking, no one knew quite what to say. Sometimes “I’m sorry” just isn’t enough.
To break the uncomfortable silence, I began telling of my first encounter with the law: I was arrested when I was twenty-six years old, charged with a murder I did not commit, and taken to jail, where I sat for almost a year, unable to post bail. Represented at trial by a disinterested public defender — I couldn’t afford to hire an attorney — I was found guilty and sentenced to twenty-five years to life. For my first couple of years behind bars, I held fast to the idea that this kind of thing just didn’t happen in the U.S.: innocent people did not go to prison for decades. I was sure the mistake would be straightened out somehow.
It wasn’t. I was fifty-two years old when I got out, just three weeks prior to that meeting.
The others offered sincere words of concern and sympathy. Then the black law student walked over and gave me a hug. With tears in her eyes she said she’d had no idea that things like that happened to white people, too.
“Some Thoughts on Mercy” helped me understand, in a way I never could before, the experience black men in this country have of being unfairly mistrusted and feared. Ross Gay’s essay brought to mind the time I was pulled over with a black friend in the car. My friend’s reaction puzzled me back then. Now I get it, as much as a middle-class white woman can.
Is it just me, or are the Reader Write contributions becoming more and more emotionally wrenching lately? I find myself perusing the section for pieces involving physical violence, sexual abuse, or molestation and skipping over them. I admit those experiences should be shared, but must they become the theme each month? Is the sole aim of Readers Write to shock readers or cause them to feel intense emotion? It would be nice to see some lighter content and a greater variety of topics.
I had decided to let my subscription lapse. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy The Sun; I liked it a lot. But having twin eight-year-old girls, two part-time jobs, and three volunteer positions, I found it difficult to make time to read the magazine every month. I could skim Every Day with Rachael Ray. I couldn’t skim The Sun.
I changed my mind after reading a Readers Write piece in the June 2013 issue. Crissie Dittrich writes of the scars on her husband’s skin from a kidney transplant and how, after his first transplanted kidney failed, another donor saved his life for the second time. In the last paragraph she writes, “This savior now has scars on his side. I wonder if his wife traces them with her fingertips.”
What could be more beautiful?