Archive for June, 2009

For those who don’t know Senator Jim Webb has been championing new legislation–the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009. From a recent Huffington post blog by Sen. Webb, “This legislation, which I originally introduced in March, creates a Presidential level blue-ribbon commission charged with conducting an 18-month, top-to-bottom review of our nation’s entire criminal justice system, ultimately providing the Congress with specific, concrete recommendations for reform.”

Here’s to hoping that if passed the Act isn’t only 18 months of review, but actually a catalyst for major reform that can be realistically implemented as soon as possible.

To read Sen. Webb’s full post and to link to testimony given at a hearing on June 11th regarding this legislation go to:

Listening again to the KUOW interview (link in yesterday’s post) about Stevan Dozier, the man in WA state awarded clemency last month, I was struck by this comment from Silya Talvi, investigative journalist (with a recent book out from Seal Press, Women Behind Bars), “When a person commits a heinous act that moment is not frozen in time, that person is not frozen in that moment for the rest of their lives, unless we force them to be frozen.”

Of course, in many cases “we” (society, generally) do force people who commit a crime to remain frozen in the moment of that act. Arrested and sentenced to however many years in prison, a man is released as an ex-prisoner, forever branded as a violent man, or if not violent, a criminal nonetheless. Someone to never be trusted. Someone to be afraid of. Someone who doesn’t deserve a job or access to decent housing. Once labeled a prisoner it seems there is not way to shake the title. You are summed up as one act (or even several acts), as opposed to as a sum of your parts. And unlike those of us on the outside who also do terrible things to people, but seem to be granted the decency of forgiveness, once you serve time, you are no longer able to be both a good person and a person who has done bad things.

Sometimes I think the question to be asked is do we actually believe in redemption? Because it seems to me that it is one of those things that you can only either believe wholly or not at all. There can’t only be certain people capable of redemption. It can’t be possible that only a few of us are entitled to it and capable of achieving it. Either we are a species that makes mistakes and then is capable of redeeming ourselves, or we are not. Not that some of us won’t struggle our entire lives to be redeemed, but still, don’t you want to believe in a society that takes redemption seriously? The more I read, experience and learn about the correctional complex in this country the more I wonder what it says about us as a people. That we would allow so many (and there are 2 million citizens currently incarcerated in this country) to be frozen in time, as Talvi says, should make us ashamed. Indeed the men and women serving time (not including those who are innocent of their charges) have committed acts for which they owe retribution, but if we do not give them the opportunity and if we refuse to believe that they can learn from their mistakes then we might as well just go ahead and give them a life sentence. For behind bars or not they are sentenced either way.

Having said all of this I want to mention that Dozier was sentenced to life in prison in the eighties for three unarmed robberies under WA’s 3-Strikes Law. Read a statement of Dozier himself at

My local NPR station, KUOW, aired this conversation this morning on Stevan Dozier, who recently won clemency in Washington State. He is perhaps the first prisoner to win such clemency in the country, and definitely the first in WA state. His release sparked this interesting conversation on the efficacy of WA state’s Three-Strikes (your out) Law, prison reform and prisoner redemption. It’s an hour long conversation, well worth the time. I will respond to some of what was said in a longer post shortly (I want to listen to the conversation one more time).

Interesting story on NRP’s series The World about a bicycle race in France for prisoners. Definitely out of the box thinking.

Click on the link and then scroll down. Second to last story.

This article by Helen Epstein in The New York Review of Books is worth a read, particularly her discussion of race and rates of incarceration. Statistics such as, “nationally, one black man in nine between the ages of twenty and thirty-four is incarcerated, a rate six times higher than for whites in the same age group” are sobering. Also of interest is her discussion of “shame” as it relates to violence.

America’s Prisons: Is there hope?

In his April 21 posting, Better Man writes about something close to my heart as a former advocate for victims of sexual assault and abuse. He writes, “That’s the truly scary aspect of all this—it’s the men you love that are offending your children.” This is such a difficult message to get out. Better Man is correct. It was a rare occasion (if I can even think of a single incident, which, off the top of my head, I cannot) when a victim of a sexual assault came to our office because she had been assaulted by someone she does NOT know. When I was working with victims it was most often a relative—a father, grandfather, uncle—or someone in a position of power—a teacher or babysitter—who was the perpetrator. Typically the assault was the culmination of months of “grooming”, a process by which an individual develops a relationship with the victim so that reporting the crime becomes more difficult. Who wants to send their father to jail? What child would want to say that the man who is supposed to love and protect her is also harming her? The process of grooming is meant to confuse and shame the victim. Perhaps Better Man can speak more to the process of grooming in an upcoming post as I’m sure it’s a topic he discussed in his own therapy.

I’ve been working on the lecture I will give on my experience working at the prison when I go back out to school in July. I want to speak to the reasons why it is easier for all of us, myself included, to be able to quickly deem people good or bad, but how such a system ignores the obvious. Good people can be responsible for terrible acts (and bad people are often capable of goodness). This is often the case with sexual violence. “Good” fathers are abusers. “Good” uncles are abusers. Think about how many times you have heard when a sexual perpetrator is exposed, “I never would have suspected him.” It is so much easier to perpetuate the myth that the man to fear is the stranger lurking in the bushes. It’s easier because in such cases it is much clearer who is good and who is bad. It is easier because it is also easier to point our fingers at strangers than it is to look within our own social circles, let alone our own families.

What the perpetuation of this myth of the stranger in the bushes really does is limit the conversation on sexual violence in this country. It makes the story of sexual violence more Hollywood and less reality, which alienates victims who think maybe they are the only one out there experiencing what they are being put through.

I thank Better Man for writing about this important subject.