Prison

Five Questions for Susan Burton

Susan Burton, photo by Kathleen Toner

Bio: Founder of A New Way of Life Reentry Project in California, which has provided housing and support for more than 500 formerly incarcerated women.
Website: anewwayoflife.org

1. What motivated you to start A New Way of Life in 1998?
Through the kindness of a special person, I was able to access treatment services in Santa Monica [Calif.] after the sixth and final time I was released from prison. This was a new phenomenon for me. I am originally from South Los Angeles, and I was amazed that such resources were available in this more-affluent part of the city. I began to wonder why those same resources were not available in my home community—an area so heavily impacted by the “war on drugs.” I knew the need was desperate, and I wanted to bring those resources to South L.A. My work since then has been, and continues to be, a work of faith. I step out in faith, and God shows up.

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COMMENTARY: A Hunger Strike to Close Guantanamo

Photo courtesy Timothy Murphy
Timothy Murphy began a fast of solidarity with the Guantanamo inmates. Photo courtesy Timothy Murphy

CLAREMONT, Calif. — Last Sunday, Timothy Murphy began a fast of solidarity with the Guantanamo inmates who are on a hunger strike to protest their indefinite detention. As one of our Ph.D. students and an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Timothy felt spiritually called to the hunger strike. He is drinking water and nothing else.

Timothy intends to continue as long as he is able, or until the Obama administration begins taking action to address the prisoners’ legitimate grievances, including deliberate steps to find homes for the 86 prisoners who have been cleared for release. Timothy says he would be happy to stop the fast tomorrow if the administration indicated that it was taking steps to do this.

I, like Timothy, believe this is a basic human rights issue for the prisoners. I also believe that it is critical for the health of our nation’s collective soul and integrity to get it resolved. Timothy’s deep commitment inspired me, so I decided to join him, but in a more limited fast: I am fasting three days this week, and every Thursday hereafter, until steps are taken to resolve the Guantanamo issues.

WATCH: Would Putting Me in Prison Serve the Common Good?

Screenshot from Beyond Bars' Common Good Video
Screenshot from Beyond Bars' Common Good Video

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world — about 1.6 million people in 2010. Mass incarceration in our country is a problem, one that too often serves to line the pockets of for-profit prisons while tearing families apart and targeting people of color disproportionately. 

Beyond Bars — a project to curb mass incarceration in the U.S. — produced the following video that puts faces to that problem. Watch the moving video below, and ask yourself the question: would putting them in prison serve the common good?

'But Why?'

TODAY, Greg Bright, 56, sits on the cement porch of his yellow clapboard house in New Orleans' 7th Ward and rests his hand on the head of his yellow dog, Q. It is 2012, and he often finds himself musing over the notion of time—time past, time lost, time wasted. "It feels like a minute since I been out here," he says. It took some time to adjust to life on the outside, he admits, and once, on a dark rainy morning as he found himself biking seven miles in the rain to his miserable job working the line in a chicken plant in Mississippi, he felt real despair—just recognizing that he was 47 years old and had never owned a car. He tried hard to dismiss the sobering thought that, arrested at age 20 and doing 27 years of time, he'd been "seven more years in prison than I was on the streets." Sometimes, he says, "it's little things like that" that really threaten to drag him down into sorrow.

So he chose to do something that both keeps those wasted years fresh in his memory yet also mitigates the sense of powerlessness he sometimes feels. He helps to educate others in the hopes that his story will spur reforms. He is not an educated man—his formal schooling stopped in sixth grade—but he is one of dozens and dozens of ex-cons who form a vital link in the post-Katrina criminal justice reform efforts through various organizations such as Resurrection After Exoneration, a holistic reentry program for ex-offenders, and Innocence Project New Orleans. Greg tells his story to students, activists, politicians, church groups, friends, strangers—anybody with time to spare and an inclination to listen—doggedly putting a face on an abstract idea, injustice.

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Inside Job

Viridiana Martinez
Viridiana Martinez

ONE EVENING LAST July, I walked up to the Port Everglades U.S. border checkpoint in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to intentionally turn myself in to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. My mission: to get into Broward Transitional Center, a privately run U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility, to expose the stories of those held there. It's categorized by ICE as a model facility. But as I witnessed firsthand, it is nothing short of a prison where, as in the other 250 immigration prisons across the U.S., immigrants are arbitrarily held and exposed to all kinds of human rights abuses.

The total number of undocumented immigrants detained in the U.S. each year is sky-high—ICE detained 429,247 people in 2011 alone. In August 2011, the administration announced that it would focus its deportation efforts on people with criminal records. "Obama is only deporting gangbangers and felons," established immigrant advocacy organizations said. "He's our guy for immigration reform!"

But that is far from true. In my work with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA), I keep hearing the real stories of immigrant prisoners and the loved ones from whom they're torn.

Getting detained was part of a strategy of civil disobedience that fellow activists and I have been pursuing since 2010: In order to pressure ICE and the government, we have to put ourselves on the line. I was one of two Youth Alliance activists who sought to infiltrate the Broward Center to find out the inside story. We also set up a telephone hotline, funded by donations from the community, to take calls from people detained in the center.

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Visiting Jesus in Jail

Prison photo, luxorphoto / Shutterstock.com
Prison photo, luxorphoto / Shutterstock.com

What struck me as he spoke was the sheer human potential of this my client, wasted. That matters for all of us because of an unflinching Scriptural text about how we can enter the kingdom of God: “for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me….just as you did it to the least of those who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25:35-40)

That’s the test. Not beliefs or intentions. Actions. 

Specific actions: Jesus tells us to visit people considered the worst among us, those accused of breaking the law. 

It’s not just innocent prisoners we are to see; it’s prisoners. They are all Jesus. 

BREAKING: Sandusky Sentenced to at Least 30 Years

Former Penn State Football Coach Jerry Sandusky has been sentenced to no fewer than 30 years in prison, and up to 60 years. Given Sandusky's age, 68, the ruling is basically a life sentence. 

From NBC News

"Sandusky, who was defensive coordinator and for many years the presumed heir-apparent to legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, could have faced as long as 400 years for his convictions on 45 counts of child sexual abuse, but at age 68, he is unlikely ever to leave prison, assuming he loses any appeals."

Yesterday, Sandusky released an audio statement maintaining his innocence and lashing out at his offenders. 

Canada Cuts All Non-Christian Prison Chaplains

Steven Frame / Shutterstock
Handcuffed male hands hold a black Holy Bible. Steven Frame / Shutterstock

TORONTO — The Canadian government is canceling the contracts of all non-Christian chaplains at federal prisons.

By next spring, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh and other non-Christian inmates will be expected to turn to Christian prison chaplains for religious counsel and guidance.

In an email to reporters on Oct. 4, the office of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who is responsible for Canada's federal penitentiaries, said the government "strongly supports the freedom of religion for all Canadians, including prisoners."

Murals and a Great Divide

Documentary: "Concrete, Steel, and Paint"

THOSE OF US who are passionate about prison reform could talk at length about the injustices of the penal system, but prison activists and concerned citizens sometimes gloss over the internal conflicts of prisoners in their daily lives as well as the pain and fears of crime victims in local communities. The documentary Concrete, Steel, and Paint raises some essential questions about hope, forgiveness, and reconciliation through the moving story of unlikely partners—those incarcerated for committing violent crimes and those affected by violent crimes—who come together to create a mural in their community.

The film begins at Graterford Prison near Philadelphia, a maximum-security institution where men are serving long sentences for violent crimes, including homicide. The men interviewed for the film seem thirsty for opportunities for healing. One of the first prisoners we meet, Tom, says: “When you do wrong that you can’t correct, it’s horrible.” Another inmate, Zafir, tells the camera: “I don’t want my legacy to be that I was a murderer.”

The energy for a mural project came from Jane Golden, the executive director of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, who believes in the power of art, and murals in particular, “to shift the consciousness of a community.” Golden began working with prisoners in Graterford in the early 2000s. The men in her workshops eventually came up with the idea to reach out to the community. “I thought it was an interesting idea,” Golden says, “but I told them the only way this can possibly work is if we can get the community involved.”

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Is Solitary Confinement a Moral Punishment? (VIDEO)

Last month, the U.S. Senate held its first hearing ever on the issue of solitary confinement in prisons. To draw attention to the issue, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture urged Americans to fast for 23 hours for one day, symbolizing the 23 hours a day prisoners spend in solitary confinement each day.

"Christian scriptures and the scriptures of all religions say much about the way we are to treat other human beings, especially the most vulnerable," said the Rev. Richard Killmer, executive director of NRCAT. "And all religious traditions teach that it is important to honor and respect the dignity and worth that God has endowed in each human being. When we put people into solitary confinement cells, which we know are going to cause harm, then we have deeply violated that requirement from God to honor and respect each human being."

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