Issue 477 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


Tracy Frisch’s interview with Maya Schenwar [“Criminal Injustice,” June 2015] articulated perfectly America’s twisted infatuation with mass incarceration. Here we are in the twenty-first century, still hanging our hopes on penitentiaries and building “supermax” prisons, which largely contain solitary-confinement units. This path ignores the alarmingly disproportionate number of African American inmates, the high incidence of domestic violence in the pasts of incarcerated women, and the misallocation of resources that could be used to meet basic needs like housing, education, and healthcare.

My son has been in and out of jails and prisons since he was thirteen years old. He’s forty now, and serving a sentence for burglary and possession of stolen property. Our revolving-door relationship with incarceration (when your kid’s in jail, so are you) began when I took him to a police station for stealing a golf cart and causing thousands of dollars in damage to a golf course. Why did I turn him in? Maybe I thought I might thwart his recklessness before it got out of control.

The arresting officer commended me for showing tough love, but the look on my son’s face — beyond astonishment — still haunts me.

Schenwar says that “juvenile detention brands you a criminal at a young age, when your self-image is still so malleable.” I could see the difference in my son after his first stint in detention. He began to act defiant. Raised by two college-educated African American parents in an upper-middle-class environment, our son told me that he felt more comfortable in the “streets.” Socioeconomic status doesn’t always indicate who winds up in prison.

I commend Schenwar for sharing her personal connection with this American malady, and I applaud The Sun for publishing another searing look into this country’s conscience.

Name Withheld

After reading Tracy Frisch’s interview with Maya Schenwar, I’d like to cancel my subscription.

I worked as a corrections officer for more than seventeen years. Prisoners and addicts came into my units because of their voluntary behavior. I counseled and took care of them when they were sick or frightened. I took their verbal and physical abuse while protecting them from harming themselves and others.

Schenwar never questions her sister’s story of being sorely treated by the system. She wasn’t there when prisoners like her sister called me names and threatened to beat or sue me, or when I had feces and urine thrown on me. I’ve broken up fights, conducted shake downs, and maintained order in 120-prisoner units by myself.

If prisoners’ families don’t like the criminal-justice system, they need to stop the behavior that brings them in contact with it: control their kids and quit making excuses for being lousy parents. If you want fewer drug addicts, try holding every family member accountable for his or her behavior and stop believing that throwing money at addicts will fix them.

Katherine Van Niman Coldwater, Michigan

I agree with many of Maya Schenwar’s points and have long believed that our justice system is flawed, but I wonder what Schenwar, a self-described prison abolitionist, suggests we do with the small number of serial murderers, child rapists, and human traffickers in our country. I’d sincerely like to know the answer.

Darcy Hanna San Marcos, Texas

Four years ago my husband of twenty-two years committed a violent crime. Since then, he has been held in a prison a thousand miles from home. He has also been diagnosed with and treated for cancer. Because the Department of Corrections has a strict no-physical-contact policy, I couldn’t accompany him to doctors’ appointments or chemotherapy treatments. I wasn’t able to hug him or hold his hand.

My husband, who will be seventy-six when he is released, is a good man. As Maya Schenwar says, it takes having someone you love caught up in the prison system to make you see the inhumanity of it. I have come to realize that any one of us is capable of making a terrible mistake. And, as Sister Helen Prejean says, “Everyone is worth more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”

Meg McCarthy Marlboro, Vermont

Tracy Frisch and Maya Schenwar did a commendable job covering a difficult subject that is often replete with misinformation, hysteria, and prejudice.

My husband has been in solitary confinement in California for twenty years, incarcerated in a tiny, windowless cement cage with no human contact. Such indefinite isolation is not a part of our judicial system: no court of law sentences someone to solitary. Rather it is an administrative decision within the prison. The accused — mostly Hispanic and black inmates suspected of being in gangs — have no due process rights to challenge their sentence or confront their accusers.

For nearly three decades the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has labeled these men “the worst of the worst” in a campaign to scare taxpayers into believing their dollars are efficiently and humanely spent. Portraying these men as animals incapable of reform perpetuates another dangerous misconception: that they, and their families, are inured to the pains of such isolation.

Yes, our loved ones committed crimes and are serving their time, but no human being should be subject to such torture. Scholars and civil-rights organizations have documented that restricting human contact is psychologically harmful after only fifteen days. In California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, more than half of the thousand prisoners in solitary have spent at least five years in isolation. Nearly ninety men have spent at least twenty years there.

A class-action lawsuit to end solitary for prisoners held in isolation for more than ten years is now coming to a head. Even if we win, we have a long way to go to humanize the system.

As part of attempts at statewide reform, more than a thousand men in solitary have had their cases reviewed since 2012. About 70 percent were released into the general prison population, which suggests they should never have been sent to solitary in the first place.

Name Withheld

Your June issue touched a raw nerve. I have little doubt that it affected many of my fellow prisoners, too. I passed it around like popcorn at a movie theater.

As a federal prisoner, I see two types of prison staff: those unconcerned with the welfare of prisoners, and those empathetic to what we are going through.

I was sentenced to a hundred months in prison. Being locked away from my family and dog is hard enough, but prison guards sometimes feel it is their duty to punish inmates further.

It baffles me that we have the technology to map the human genome and travel through space, yet we’re somehow unable to keep cruel people from gaining employment within the justice system. Some of the people who work here would just as soon spit on me as offer a hello in passing.

J.N. Markhus Oxford, Wisconson

I’ve had the good fortune to read The Sun for a few months. My benefactor is a fellow inmate who subscribes. Maya Schenwar’s insights — prompted by Tracy Frisch’s provocative questions — are an important contribution to the much-needed debate on mass incarceration.

I can give you a glimpse of life behind bars: By letting me read your publication, my friend puts himself in danger of disciplinary action. I myself have been issued a warning for sharing a book on Buddhism with another inmate. When you’re in prison, knowledge is subversive.

Lawrence Ramsay Lakeview, Oregon

As a federal inmate sentenced to nine years for a nonviolent first offense, I was glad to see the June issue highlight the failures of our nation’s policy of mass incarceration. I witness those failures daily.

Maya Schenwar identifies the lack of effective programs to reintegrate inmates into society, but she doesn’t mention the anger many inmates develop as a result of their long sentences. Most I’ve spoken with are willing to accept some incarceration for their crime, provided it is not excessive and is tied to programs that keep them from coming back to prison.

Reforming our prison system will be hard to do, given the groups that have vested interests in maintaining it: the corporations building and running private prisons and the companies supplying federal prisons with food, commissary items, clothing, and so on. The understanding between these companies and the government is that the prisons need to house a substantial number of inmates.

Name Withheld

I have thought about corresponding with prisoners for years, but Gregory Bright and Lara Naughton’s account “Twenty-Seven and a Half Years” [June 2015] and Tracy Frisch’s interview with Maya Schenwar were the push I needed. I just sent off my first letter to an inmate.

Marissa Johnson Tucson, Arizona

The story of Gregory Bright’s twenty-seven and a half years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit is the most horrifying account of legal corruption that I have ever read: he was locked up in prison at the age of twenty and released at forty-seven, when his conviction was proven to have been wrongful.

Why do these police officers, prosecutors, and judges still have jobs? Where is the justice?

Joanne Morrison Wichita, Kansas

I did the math, and author Gregory Bright must now be sixty years old. The state of Louisiana owes him much more than the $250,000 it has given him as “restitution” for his wrongful imprisonment. Here’s my list: about $440,000 for the other seventeen and a half years (they compensated him for just ten of the years he served); apologies from the district attorney, his lawyer, and the police department; dental and medical insurance for the rest of his life; and a full scholarship for any classes he wants to take. I’d throw in his mortgage, too.

Judith Keenan San Francisco, California

I just finished reading Gregory Bright’s story. I cannot believe he is unable to find a job. With his compassion, forgiveness, and perseverance, he should be running for president.

Salim Bohsali Dixon, New Mexico


In Stephen Guy’s contribution to the June 2015 Readers Write on “Doors,” the corrections officers he encounters are described as “armed.” This is inaccurate. Corrections officers are typically armed only in cases of serious disturbances. The mistake was not the author’s but ours.

The Sun regrets both errors.

In Brian Doyle’s contributor’s note in our July 2015 issue, we identified the teenage boy in his novel Martin Marten as Martin. In fact, the boy’s name is Dave; it’s the marten who goes by Martin.

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