Archive for February, 2014

A man in one of our local prisons has written a book about his trial and the fact that two DNA experts don’t find him at the crime scene. It’s hard to believe that such injustice can happen in Canada. The book is called Overlooked (the testimony of the DNA experts was overlooked.) He’s giving the book away, so he doesn’t run into a violation of profiting from his so-called crime. (

Does the prison system encourage people to write? Do they believe with Aristotle that “Art releases unconscious tensions and purges the soul?”

I got a letter from this man yesterday.

Hi Ed, Denied education. Denied French Classes, Punished for writing. Another year, another ebook with more retaliation by the prison system courtesy of …, the head of … This man has promised me, “I’ll ban you from computers.” (computers are very limited in all our Canadian prisons. There are usually a few in the library and a few in the school. Out of a population of 300 inmates, there may be 10 computers. Compare this to American federal prisons which now allow email and the computers to send an email.)

The man goes on to say that he can’t use the school computers to write on, and some of his work that was already there has been deleted by this official without his permission.

We don’t have to go to Russia or China or the Ukraine to find human rights abuse. This abuse is in institutions that our tax dollars are paying for.

The man ends his letter with this note: “I keep plugging away with writing.” He reminds me of the struggles Olympic athletes often have. He struggles to write despite difficulties that would stop the normal person.

A book that has come to my attention is:  IN SUNSHINE AND IN SHADOW (a mother’s story of autism and addiction); by Dixie Miller Stewart,

Dixie’s son, Rob is serving seventeen years to life in a California State Prison.  Although his mother was accustomed to receiving calls asking, “Are you the mother of Robert Bowers?” nothing could have prepared her for the call letting her know that her son had stabbed a man.

Rob didn’t merely stab the man because of that day’s pain.  He stabbed what that man represented:  someone bigger and worse; someone who didn’t play fair; who sexually violated his body and innocence; someone who had repeatedly robbed him of all his possessions…and twice left him for dead from stab wounds, and who countless times mocked and humiliated him in public. He finally stabbed those men back.

In 2003, Robert Bowers waived trial and plead guilty to murder in the second degree.  In her book, IN SUNSHINE AND IN SHADOW, his mother tells his compelling, heartbreaking story.  It is not a tale of heroics, success, or courage as society defines those, neither is it one about the transcendence of the human spirit over evil to some higher plane.  It is instead a story about the mere survival of the broken spirit of a very shy, strangely disabled, usually gentle, and almost always tormented young man.

Autism, addiction, and abuse made life an incredible struggle for Rob.

Dixie Miller Stewart writes to give a voice to Rob and the men and women like him who don’t fit any molds, neither those society sets for them, nor those of “criminal.”  They are the lost people who in desperate moments, made awful decisions for which they will pay the rest of their lives.  And his story is to give understanding to frightened parents, a heart to a society hardened by behaviors it doesn’t understand, and a conscience to anyone who rejects the “different” child.  She challenges readers to look past their prejudices.

My experience teaching in prison tells me that Rob’s story is all too common. In last week’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristof wrote an article called, “Inside a Mental Hospital Called Jail.

Today’s NY Times (Feb 16) carries several responses to Mr. Kristof’s article in the Review Section.

IN SUNSHINE AND IN SHADOW is available from the author or from Amazon

I’d like to write a column about this, but I’m not qualified. All I can do is relay my own experience and hope that a reader will provide more background.

Lynette, an attractive woman in her thirties, is a teacher of fundamental English and Math in prison. She works for a private company that pays her $20,000 less a year than a public school teacher. She never flirts and discourages anyone who tries to flirt with her.

Lynette uses praise to advance her students. She puts me in mind of a good mother who raises her children by letting them know when they do well.

Christie, also an attractive woman, has a master’s degree and is in charge of a large department in the prison. Her management style is that of a roman emperor, “my way or the highway,” or more specifically, to staff she says, “My way or you won’t get a raise,” or to an inmate she says, “My way or a year added to your sentence.”

She has a reputation among the inmates of saying one thing, but doing another.

Lynette makes me glad women work in a man’s prison. In my opinion, she is the essence of the ‘female influence.’ She will help male inmates have a good view of women

Christie on the other hand, has adopted the worse things that man have been doing for years in prison, lying to inmates, adding time to their sentences and treating them as slime.

Unfortunately it seems that women who are like Christie advance in the prison bureaucracy, even to the level of warden or assistant warden. Do these women operate from fear, that if they let their guard down for a moment, they will lose the respect of the inmates? Or are they motivated by a need to punish people?

Women like Lynette have a great impact on male inmates. They help overcome the negative images male inmates often have of women. These teachers, guards and officials strike me as not afraid of the inmates or of themselves. They act in the best tradition of women.

A woman like Christie ends up worse than the worst male staff in the prison.

This is an important subject. What is your opinion?

When I began to teach in prison, I expected the chaplains to be a tough sort, standing up for the inmates. In my opinion, this kind of moral stance was in the best tradition of the Catholic religion. And the men and women I admired most in the Protestant and Jewish faiths were of the same persuasion.

I expected prison chaplains to follow the quote of the prophet Isaiah. This is what Isaiah expected the messiah to be:

I have appointed you

to open the eyes of the blind,

to free captives from prison

and those who live in darkness from the dungeon.  (Chapter 42, 6)

In no time, I was pretty disappointed.

An inmate told me about the previous Sunday’s sermon. “The Bible teaches us to obey those in charge of us and to treat them with reverence. Don’t question them, do what they tell you.”

With my education in the Catholic seminary and five years as a Catholic priest, I could hold my own in a discussion of the Bible and what it meant to be a Christian. But the opportunity never came up. Most of the chaplains I met, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and other, were of the sort that identified with the obedience quote above. That’s what they preached.

Nobody gave the inmates even a hint that something could be wrong with the system they were imprisoned in. I know prisoners felt things, that this was not ‘corrections,’ but punishment, that often guards and staff were unjust, and that what they experienced in their everyday lives could hardly be called ‘living religion.’

Until I met Jerry.

Jerry was the Catholic chaplain in a high medium prison of about three hundred inmates. He was not out on the barricades yelling at the administration, he was in his office counseling anybody who came to him. Even though the prison system paid his salary, he was not afraid to question their decisions. Like me, he’d been through a long seminary education, but he left just before ordination and soon married. I figured he would play along with the administration because he wanted to keep his job, but not Jerry. Every month one of the chaplains gave a talk to the guards. The usual arrangement was that chaplain would give a very short ‘sleeper sermon’ and let the guards go. Not Jerry. When he heard of a group of guards making fun of a mentally challenged inmate, he brought it up in his sermon.

If somebody asked him to stay a half hour or an hour after his time in the office, no problem. He would, even though he wasn’t paid for any time after his office hours.

One of the prisons couldn’t get a Catholic chaplain, so Jerry went on his own time one day a week to help them out.

In my opinion, Jerry fulfilled that quote of Isaiah.