Older inmates have paid their debts. Are we willing to forgive them?

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Passing through the barbed-wire entryway of Otisville Prison, it was the flourishing plot of vegetables that first caught my eye. During the five years I worked in the mental health department at the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City, I saw a lot of things; an organic garden was not one of them. We stopped to admire the tomatoes, zucchini and peppers that peeked out from beneath lush green leaves.

I was with members of Network Support Services, an organization dedicated to the rehabilitation of prisoners, and had been invited to the program’s annual awards ceremony. The Network program at Otisville, a medium-security federal prison in upstate New York, supports about 50 older inmates, who are permitted to live in a communal setting on the prison grounds. I was curious about these older men. The men I had worked with on Rikers were mostly young, many facing long sentences in upstate prisons. Now, I would see the other end of the criminal justice spectrum in the faces of those with decades of incarceration behind them.

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We entered a flat-topped rectangular building nestled among a grove of trees and stepped into a spacious common area, where dozens of men were getting seated in long rows of folding chairs. Bespectacled and gray with age, they glanced at us with shy smiles. It was hard to believe the genial men in this room had been convicted of violent crimes earlier in their lives. Afterward, I would learn that James, the enthusiastic master of ceremonies for the day, had shot and killed a rival gang member as a teen.

Passing through the barbed-wire entryway of Otisville Prison, it was the flourishing plot of vegetables that first caught my eye.

Settling in, I glanced around the room and did a double-take. Hanging along the walls were crocheted afghans in soft pastels—baby blankets. Before I could ask someone what baby blankets could possibly be doing in a prison, James opened the ceremony.

With a stack of certificates in hand, he first announced the names of the organic gardeners. A dozen men bounded up to claim their awards, beaming and bowing as if they had won an Oscar. Next was the language club. James asked four men to stand up and state their native languages, and they rattled them off: “Spanish!” “French!” “Russian!” “Chinese!” James explained that these four gave the others lessons in their native tongues. On Rikers Island, violent divisions formed over racial and ethnic differences. Here, diversity was embraced.

The awards kept coming: the breakfast club, the prayer and meditation group, the book club. Every announcement was met with a fresh round of applause, backslaps and bearhugs. Far from the desperation and violence I had known on Rikers, this room was filled with nothing but love. But then again, these men were clearly not the people they had once been.

On Rikers Island, violent divisions formed over racial and ethnic differences. Here, diversity was embraced.

Finally, the mystery of the baby blankets was revealed. Using donated yarn, the inmates crocheted these blankets, which were then donated to needy mothers in the local community. As James read off the number of blankets sent out, everyone was on their feet, clapping and looking over at the group of us from the “outside world” as if to say: See the good I am capable of. I am more than one act. See me.

We did not need convincing. We were on our feet, too, clapping not only for their awards but for the resilience of the human spirit, for redemption, for the capacity in all of us for change. I clapped for a program like Network that would care about the forgotten souls who fill our prisons, and I applauded Otisville Prison for allowing this program on its grounds.

When the ceremony wound down, slices of a congratulatory sheet cake were passed around. As everyone enjoyed the treat, I noticed longing glances at the surrounding mountains, and eyes riveted to a flock of birds overhead. I began chatting with a friendly man named Alejo Rodriguez, who told me he was the pioneer of the blanket project.

Nothing is harder than forgiving the most reviled and disdained among us.

“We were all so excited,” he said, “and we wanted to see if the local paper would write a story about it. The prison officials here contacted them, and sure enough, a reporter called right away. I got on the phone with him and told him all about how we learned to crochet and about the mothers. And you want to know what he said? He said to me, ‘You mean, nobody got stabbed?’”

The local newspaper had no interest in a story about the prisoners who crocheted baby blankets.

“It doesn’t matter what we do,” came a voice from the back. “It will never matter.”

“It does matter,” I said. “It always matters.” Yet even as I said this, I thought of John MacKenzie, who at 71-years-old came before the New York State Parole Board in 2016 for his 10th time. MacKenzie was a model prisoner by all accounts, had earned several degrees and had set up a novel program for victims of crime. Yet once again, he was denied freedom due to the “nature of the crime”—a murder committed in a drug-fueled state when he was in his 20s. Giving up all hope, Mr. MacKenzie went back to his cell and hanged himself.

Like John MacKenzie, these men can grow, mature and pay for their crimes with the bulk of their lifespans, but the one thing they can never ever do is change the nature of their crime. Their only hope is our forgiveness.

As the men quietly filed back to their cots for the afternoon “count,” I was reminded of Christ’s words about forgiveness. When Peter asked him, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times but 77 times.”

The message is clear. Yet forgiveness remains one of the toughest virtues to embrace, and perhaps nothing is harder than forgiving the most reviled and disdained among us. But if we are to realize the full breadth of our humanity, then we cannot ignore the hopes of those who have atoned, paid their debt and now wait on us. To do less would mean not only turning our backs on them but turning away from God’s call for us to forgive, no matter the cost.

Nora Bolcon
1 week 4 days ago

I hate to pop this writer's little bubble but most inmates who only kill someone once, and didn't torture them beforehand, don't get a life sentence that they actually serve life unless they are also badly behaved in prison. Most would get paroled before their death if they lived to an old age.

There is no way we should just forgive and let hardened rapists and murderers, including pedophiles and child murderers out because they knit blankets for mothers and said they were sorry.

Prison is not about revenge and it isn't even about necessarily reforming prisoners. It is fundamentally about keeping society safe from people who kill, rape, torture, kidnap, and otherwise destroy other people's lives.

For the record, since I have family in corrections, they will explain to you the reason there is no stabbing with the needles: It is because the knitting circle is a benefit to inmates who are being well behaved and if they want to keep the right to be a knitter they better behave or the right will be taken from them.

There may be a few prisoners who would never harm anyone again even though they are lifers. However, those are few and far between and all inmates know how to put on the innocent show for counselors and visitors, reporters, when they think it will get the visitor to help them in any way.

My family member listens to rapists brag, and laugh with fellow inmates about how they have raped little children and women, and then murdered them or not, but instead sometimes cut off body parts after raping them but then left their victim alive. Yes - many inmates think this is funny too. These inmates if they have not done anything violent in prison are considered well behaved inmates despite their complete lack of regret and even pride in their past acts of violence.

How would anyone be able to judge this one should be released but not that one. Good behavior in prison, I can absolutely assure you, does not equate to good or non-criminal, or non-violent behavior outside of prison. This is true no matter how long the person has been in prison for especially violent criminals.

Mary Therese LEMANEK
1 week 1 day ago

you said "Prison is not about revenge and it isn't even about necessarily reforming prisoners. It is fundamentally about keeping society safe from people who kill, rape, torture, kidnap, and otherwise destroy other people's lives." If you and the rest of society honestly believed this, there would be no reason to keep so many behind bars for so long. Forgiveness is a difficult thing and you are right, there are no guarantees as to how any of us will choose to act. Conversion, the turning towards the good, is certainly possible. Locking someone into who they were vs. who they have become does them, and you, a disservice.

Nora Bolcon
1 week ago

Well Mary, all I can say is as much as that statement sounds nice, anyone who is actually in corrections will tell you that based on what they have witnessed when the visitors, reporters, and counselors leave the room it is a naïve statement.

Most long term prisoners have very much earned their stay and many if not most would return to some sort of crime upon release and often violent crime. Rape and pedophilia are often sexual addictions so if you can't cure the addiction, the person will not be able to control their urge to offend again. We, as a nation, have not faced this fact.

I do have more compassion for the individual child or women who is brutally raped by a known serial rapist, or the parent or spouse of a murdered child or adult who would not have suffered the agony or loss of these crimes had we not let the perpetrator out of prison often fully knowing they were not "cured" of their violent tendencies.

I wonder how you would feel if your child or grandchild were kidnapped, tortured, raped by a criminal who had done this crime in the past but was let out of prison due to someone pushing for early release for the poor prisoners. Most long term inmates are violent inmates. Many of them extremely violent. Prison does not make them less violent or better capable to live in normal society but actually worsen their capacity to live peacefully with others. All inmates are well trained to put on a good show to authorities and outsiders. There are simply some people who can't live in a society peacefully and there others who simply don't want to ever.

Democracy works only if people feel they can obtain some form of real justice when injured by others. When there is no justice, we start to see vigilantism increase. That does not mean I believe prisoners should ever be abused. I do not believe this would be right either.

Obviously, I would not support keeping anyone in jail who had been found innocent by new evidence and there exist remedies for such issues in the forms of appeals, etc. Our legal systems is perhaps the best in the world but it is not perfect or pure. It never was in the past and isn't still now but it is better than most legal systems. As for the large amount of imprisoned people in the U.S., that is from a multitude of various problems in our society: from our drug laws and policies, to biases against women (women are often made to stay in prison for their full sentence given where men are often released early due to lack of room to keep them), blacks and minorities and the poorer classes in general. I, personally, am against the death penalty so we can obviously agree on that issue.

What I would prefer to see is better forms of inmate treatment and training which could give greater meaning to inmates lives while serving their time and/or better opportunities to be productive while in prison. I would like to see prisons set up to be more like military boot camps. My relative worked for a boot camp as a drill instructor for many years of his career as a correction officer. This style of prison life was reserved for soon to be released prisoners and non-violent offenders. My relative often received letters from past inmates who had gone thru the boot camp and from the parents of such inmates thanking him for the work he did to help these inmates prepare for the world and just to give them a sense of sanity while in prison in having finally learned the value of self discipline. Many inmates have no sense of self value and no concept how or why they should discipline their own behavior which creates an attitude of hopelessness, depression, anger and chaotic thought leading to continuous chaotic life choices. This idea of boot camp can be expanded to whole prison populations and would make prison a much less violent and dark place. It would cost money (so it won't happen) but I can back this idea before your idea of letting people out based on they spent a long time in prison already.

Mary Therese LEMANEK
1 week ago

Well Nora, I know a number of people who work in Corrections, people who are lawyers as well as men and women currently incarcerated, out on parole or leading productive, free lives. I have never lost family to violence but friends have. It is not about releasing people just because they have spent a long time in prison. It is about assessing their rehabilitation and the danger they present to society. Some people deteriorate in prison, many are able to move in a different direction. If we were willing and able to set aside the attitude that nobody can change or the belief that no punishment will "make up" for the crime and look at people as individuals rather than stereotypes, it would be possible to safely and justly release many many people.

Nora Bolcon
1 week ago

Dear Mary,

Being incarcerated or being a lawyer does not count as working in corrections.

The people who have been incarcerated have had a jury and judge hear their case and applied the legal sentence based on their crime. Yes, many non-violent criminals have left prison to go onto lead productive lives, as I pointed out in my previous statement, but few murderers and child molesters and rapists have done so. There is a huge difference between violent criminals and non-violent criminals.

There are some crimes that should keep you in jail for life. Someone who tortures a victim before they murder them should stay in jail till they pass from the earth because that is not something a close to moderately healthy human being ever does to another human being. These people are not likely to change into someone productive and kind should they be released. Also if anyone intentionally kills a police officer or corrections officer, etc. they should do a life sentence because no one is going to want to put their life on the line in corrections work if they are not protected by the law to the highest degree.

Also, there are already parole boards and appeals courts which the incarcerated can and do plead to in order to receive earlier than originally sentenced incarceration time. These people are at least trained to decide what is a good basis for releasing someone earlier than sentenced and even these trained professionals have quite frequently allowed early parole to people erroneously. Many parole boards have released prisoners who violently offend again and often within the same week or month they were released. I know personally of several such cases.

No child or woman or man should have to undergo violent rape, torture or murder by the hands of recidivist criminals just so we can prove - yep - they really belonged in that prison. We were right the first, second, third time we jailed them. Every victim's life is permanently altered by violent crime. I simply disagree with your opinion on this subject. If anything, we let many violent criminals out that we shouldn't and keep to many non-violent people incarcerated for things like not making bail on overdue speeding tickets.

I can support changing how we run prisons as I have explained previously but to simply let people out more easily because we feel bad for people in prison is negligent and harmful to society.

Tim Donovan
1 week 4 days ago

For years, I 'vs been a pen pal with a man serving life imprisonment for a serious crime at a prison in Philadelphia, PA. From our years a correspondence, I 'm convinced that my friend, who is a devout Jehovah's Witness, has reformed his life.. I commend the author for being a cofounder of a suicide prevention hotline. A friend of mine, who like the ",model prisioner" she described who was denied freedom, gave up hope and hung herself despite being a loving woman an excellent music teacher for children and adults who were disabled. My prison friend has told me of the often violent conditions in his prison, and the deaths by suicides by some of the inmates he's known. Although I understand that prisons are in large part places to house criminals to penalize them for their crimes and protect society, I believe they should also have humane environments, that can prepare inmates who become eligible for parole for a productive life in our nation. On several occasions, I 'v e made modest contributions to Dismas Ministry, which according to their website serves over 11,000 prisoners each year who are Catholic. The ministry provides free Bibles, prayer books and several correspondence courses to Catholic inmates and chaplains. One correspondence course is on restorative justice, in which criminals attempt to make amends with the loved ones of their victims. Although I know some criminals are so violent that they should /must remain in prison for life, I believe that even convicted murderers shouldn't be deliberately killed by capital punishment. First, I believe that our nation must resolve difficult social problems without resorting to killing, whether the innocent unborn or those found guilty of murder. Second, the American Civil Liberties Union has documented that a number of prisoners on death row have been exonerated. Although I sincerely sympathize with the loved ones of murder victims, killing murderers won't bring the victim back to life. Finally, if one of my loved ones or myself was murdered, I would favor clemency for the murderer.

Randal Agostini
1 week 3 days ago

This is a good story, for it shows the difference that love can bring to any situation. America has an unacceptably high rate of incarceration, which shows that a great deal more to be learned. As a society and as Christians within the society we should be able to allow prisoners their Dignity and Hope. This can only be realized if we allow ourselves to understand.

Anne Quinn
5 days 15 hours ago

So many of these comments demonstrate what is being said in this essay. Forgiveness is difficult, if not impossible. Perhaps it would help to remember that forgiveness does not involve condoning or forgetting an action. It also isn’t granted by human beings, but only the divine. When humans attempt to forgive, they only get out of the way, in effect saying, I will put aside my fury and my lust for revenge to let God handle this. When the writer visited the prison, she saw the prisoners with new eyes. They responded to her knowing they were being regarded differently in this moment, for their accomplishments, and not only for the horrors of the past. That is why there was healing in this moment. What should be done in the future for these prisoners I do not know. We can’t forget what happened and the concerns of their victims; but these prisoners were not given the death penalty, so there needs to be some plan going forward.

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