Archive: Sep 2009

lastwords2claire cameron of the times reports on the last words of texas prison inmates prior to execution.

Nothing I can say can change the past.

I done lost my voice.

I would like to say goodbye.

My heart goes is going ba bump ba bump ba bump.

Is the mike on?

I don’t have anything to say. I am just sorry about what I did.

I am nervous and it is hard to put my thoughts together. Sometimes you don’t know what to say.

Man, there is a lot of people there.

I have come here today to die, not make speeches.

Where’s Mr. Marino’s mother? Did you get my letter?

I want to ask if it is in your heart to forgive me. You don’t have to.

I wish I could die more than once to tell you how sorry I am.

Could you please tell that lady right there — can I see her? She is not looking at me — I want you to understand something, hold no animosity toward me. I want you to understand. Please forgive me.

I don’t think the world will be a better or safer place without me.

I am sorry.

I want to tell my mom that I love her.

I caused her so much pain and my family and stuff. I hurt for the fact that they are going to be hurting.

I am taking it like a man.

Kick the tires and light the fire. I am going home.

They may execute me but they can’t punish me because they can’t execute an innocent man.

I couldn’t do a life sentence.

I said I was going to tell a joke. Death has set me free. That’s the biggest joke.

To my sweet Claudia, I love you.

Cathy, you know I never meant to hurt you.

I love you, Irene.

Let my son know I love him.

Tell everyone I got full on chicken and pork chops.

I appreciate the hospitality that you guys have shown me and the respect, and the last meal was really good.

The reason it took them so long is because they couldn’t find a vein. You know how I hate needles. … Tell the guys on Death Row that I’m not wearing a diaper.

Lord, I lift your name on high.

From Allah we came and to Allah we shall return.

For everybody incarcerated, keep your heads up.

Death row is full of isolated hearts and suppressed minds.

Mistakes are made, but with God all things are possible.

I am responsible for them losing their mother, their father and their grandmother. I never meant for them to be taken. I am sorry for what I did.

I can’t take it back.

Lord Jesus forgive of my sins. Please forgive me for the sins that I can remember.

All my life I have been locked up.

Give me my rights. Give me my rights. Give me my rights. Give me my life back.

I am tired.

I deserve this.

A life for a life.

It’s my hour. It’s my hour.

I’m ready, Warden.

inmate cageI was struck by this photo by Bruce Ely in the online version of today’s Oregonian.  The story is about the former state senator who has been appointed by the Governor to chair the parole board; she brings an interesting history and perspective to a high-pressure and largely thankless job.

It’s the photo of an inmate pleading his case in the parole board’s hearing room at the Oregon State Penitentiary, though, that really caught my attention.  Although I’ve spent quite a bit of time teaching in the penitentiary and been on more than a dozen lengthy tours, I’ve never been in the parole board’s hearing room in the prison, and didn’t realize they made inmates face the board and plead their case through an actual cage.

I find this very disturbing.  Surely there are other/better ways to keep the board safe when face-to-face with potentially volatile inmates.  For men fighting for their lives and a chance to return to the community, what’s the message here?  Is it possible for the parole board members to become desensitized to the cage and to be able to offer impartial decisions?

The new chair of the parole board offered this comment:  “Ninety-five percent of offenders return to the community,” she says. “If we as a board don’t believe in redemption, we’re in trouble.”  If the board truly believes in redemption, perhaps they should consider an alternative to the inmate cage in their hearing room.

08obama-480aFrom President Obama’s address to America’s school children

I get it. I know what it’s like. My father left my family when I was two years old, and I was raised by a single mom who had to work and who struggled at times to pay the bills and wasn’t always able to give us the things that other kids had. There were times when I missed having a father in my life. There were times when I was lonely and I felt like I didn’t fit in.

So I wasn’t always as focused as I should have been on school, and I did some things I’m not proud of, and I got in more trouble than I should have. And my life could have easily taken a turn for the worse.

But I was — I was lucky. I got a lot of second chances, and I had the opportunity to go to college and law school and follow my dreams…

Some of you might not have those advantages. Maybe you don’t have adults in your life who give you the support that you need. Maybe someone in your family has lost their job and there’s not enough money to go around. Maybe you live in a neighborhood where you don’t feel safe, or have friends who are pressuring you to do things you know aren’t right.

But at the end of the day, the circumstances of your life — what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you’ve got going on at home — none of that is an excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude in school. That’s no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. There is no excuse for not trying.

Where you are right now doesn’t have to determine where you’ll end up. No one’s written your destiny for you, because here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future….

(photo for Sara!)

calculatorSo, Chris scooped me in writing about compensation for exonerees in Texas.  The story was on my radar, too, but I’ve got a somewhat different take on it.  While I agree that clearing one’s name is a vital concern for many of the falsely accused, I do actually think Texas is offering a relatively generous compensation package.  After a 45-day processing period, exonerees can expect to get $80,000 for each year spent behind bars, and lifetime annuity payments that are generally worth between $40,000 and $50,000 per year.

I’ve written about exonerees here before, and it always seemed clear to me that you couldn’t put a price on years stolen from lives by miscarriages of justice.  How would you decide what a decade of your life is worth?  What is the cost of spending your 20’s and/or your 30’s behind bars?  You would miss out on growth, maturity, exploration, and health.   One of the biggest regrets I hear from inmates (generally “rightfully” convicted and harshly sentenced) who have spent much of their young adulthood in prison is their fear that they have missed their chance to have families of their own.  How much worse must it be if you were imprisoned for a crime you did not commit?

These issues are more real and concrete to me than ever as I follow the case of my inside student, Philip Scott Cannon.  Since I first wrote about Philip’s case, his conviction has been overturned.  After serving a decade (of a life sentence without the possibility of parole) in prison, he’ll get a chance to present his case again – complete with new witnesses, a new lawyer, and better science – and perhaps he’ll get a second chance at life in the community.   If that is the case, I think $800,000 and a guaranteed $40,000-$50,000 per year would give him some peace of mind.  His children are his priority, and it would be nice if he could spend time with them without having to immediately worry about getting a job and finding a way to support himself after so many years in prison.

In a letter to the Salem Statesman-Journal, Philip wrote:

Prison sucks, but it can be a place of personal introspection, learning and self-improvement.  It has been for me.  Contrary to popular belief, the majority of men I’ve met here acknowledge their actions, and the underlying reasons for their having pleaded “not guilty” is to dispute over-blown charges and excessive  sentences.  Prison can be very violent and life altering.  Prison is what you make of it.  The true punishment of prison is the separation from your loved ones.  My youngest son was born while I awaited trial.  I only know him from the precious visits we have had over the years.  Our bond is strong, but can it be truly functional under the circumstances?

…When I do regain my freedom, I have no doubt that there will always be some degree of residual suspicion from certain people.  That will be my dark cloud.  Still, I welcome the burden.

I’ve been thinking about the value of a decade in one’s life, too, because of Tom Curtis, another of my former inside students.  Tom was released from the Oregon State Correctional Institution on Friday after serving ten years.   His case may be vaguely familiar – he was featured on “America’s Most Wanted” as a teenager.  The Oregonian explains his history like this:

Back in high school in the mid-90s, Curtis appeared to have everything going for him. He was an Eagle Scout, homecoming king, track star. He had supportive parents and a college scholarship.

Yet Curtis also led a double life as a masked gunman. He was accused in a string of armed robberies, evaded arrest and eventually landed on the television show “America’s Most Wanted.”

Police described Curtis and a handful of friends as college-bound, middle-class kids in search of excitement. They started with car prowls, then progressed to robbing neighborhood stores, mostly in Northeast Portland….

He disappeared for months, then showed up that June at a post-graduation party thrown by his high school buddies in Mazatlan, Mexico. He drank beer and hung out with his friends. No one turned Curtis in to authorities, sparking a heated debate among Portlanders about youth and the moral lessons they were learning.

I didn’t make the connection between adult Tom and the audacious and dangerous teenager in these stories until his release made headline news in Oregon.  I know him as a very bright, motivated student with a quick sense of humor that easily diffused potentially volatile exchanges in the prison classroom.  It’s got to be scary – and exciting – for him to get out of prison at the age of 29.  It will be a real challenge to put his prison experience behind him and find a way to live up to his Eagle Scout, student body president, homecoming king potential.  I hope he gets a chance to continue his education and to make a postive contribution.

How have you spent your last decade?  What might the next one be worth to you?

Yahoo news is reporting on Texas exonerees, who receive $80k for each year behind bars and a lifetime annuity. Exonerees can spend years or decades in prison before authorities are finally convinced that it would have been completely impossible for them to have committed the crimes that put them behind bars.

As the story (and a 2008 Contexts feature) makes clear, Texas is the most generous state in compensating those wrongly convicted. I can’t imagine thinking that $80k/year is “generous” compensation for a year in a maximum security prison, but I suppose it beats a firm handshake and $50 gate money.

The exonerees I’ve met have all been more concerned with clearing their names than with financial compensation. Think about it: it is one thing to spend years or decades locked up for a crime you didn’t commit; it is quite another to spend years or decades with the knowledge that your friends, family, and neighbors all consider you to be a rapist or murderer.

home 021Here’s a short and, I think, uplifting story about some of the good work coming out of prisons.  Inmates in the Oregon State Penitentiary just donated $1000 to HOME Youth and Resource Center, a day shelter and drop-in center for homeless and at-risk youth in Salem.  That’s $1000 directly from inmates’ personal funds, where an average inmate may make $50 per month working in the prison.

Nearly a year ago, my Inside-Out class at the penitentiary chose to work as a group to sponsor a hygiene drive for HOME, in hopes of helping homeless teens and ultimately keeping them out of prison.  We were all amazed at the generosity of the inmate population as they donated brand new bottles of shampoo, toothbrushes, deodorant, razors, and socks from their own scarce supply.  As I wrote about in an earlier post,  we were able to deliver more than a dozen boxes of hygiene supplies and OSU tee-shirts to the shelter.  It was a great day.

The Statesman-Journal published an editorial that described our project like this:

Inderbitzin also challenged the 31 participants to “develop a small-scale, doable prevention project that we could put into action before the quarter was over…They came through in a big way,” she said. “There are a number of aspects to their project, but their main focus was to help homeless teenagers in the Salem area.”

OSU students updated a resource guide for homeless teens. These “outside” students also collected new hygiene products from inmates, prison staff members and even the OSU football team. The “inside” students collected a dozen boxes of products from the inmates and prison staffers. The “outside” students delivered the items to a Salem outreach program lastweekend.

Reflecting on the project, one “inside” student said: “Our group took this challenge to heart, and although not every individual agreed on the focus, every individual gave it their best effort. I watched the effect it had, within our class and in the prison, and I’m not ashamed to admit I had misty eyes when I saw the amount of donated goods that poured in from the prisoners. With only 700 jobs — and most with a monthly salary of $50 — these men gave a big chunk of their pay to kids they don’t even know.”

I’m glad to see the guys in OSP kept working all year to help the homeless kids in Salem.  It’s nice to be reminded that some good really can come out of prison.

(photo is an actual picture of the HOME center, where youth proclaim in the window that “HOME Rocks”)