Category: mercy

Royal visit has me longing for home

PHOTO: Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge visit the Somba K'e Civic Plaza on day 6 of the Royal Couple's North American Tour, July 5 2011 in Yellowknife, Canada.By Alan Bean

I have been too busy to blog this week, but I couldn’t resist this story. You may ask what a royal tour has to do with criminal justice reform. Very little, I expect, although I am clever enough to come up with something if I had a mind to.

I am blogging about Kate and William’s royal tour because it pleases me.

For one thing, Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne a few years before I was born and, though I am 58 years old, she has been the only British monarch I have known. When you grow up singing "God save our gracious Queen, long live our noble Queen, God save the Queen(to the tune of My Country ‘Tis of Thee) it gets into your bones (whether you like it or not).

This lovely photographic essay from the Washington Post shows the royal couple taking in a little calf roping at the Calgary Stampede and attending the Dene Games in Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories. I was born in Calgary in 1953 and the Bean family moved to Yellowknife three years later. I remember my dad taking my sister and I to the Calgary Stampede during a summer vacation when I was a little kid. He wouldn’t spring for cowboy boots, but I did get a cowboy hat, and I wore it to bed that night.

I remember William’s grandfather, Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, creating quite a stir a generation ago when he was presented with the inevitable cowboy hat during a visit to Calgary. “Thank you very much," said the Prince. “I think I have six or seven of these now. Perhaps I’ll use this one for a planter.”

That didn’t go down well in Cow Town.

There is another story about Prince Phillip dining at Calgary’s glorious Palicer Hotel back in the mid fifties (when he was about the age William is now). According to legend, a hotel waitress, while removing Phillip’s dinner plate, whispered, “Keep your fork, Prince, we’re havin’ pie.”

I don’t get back to Canada much these days.  My parents are both long dead and my sister, Carol, spends half the year in Texas.  But everyone needs a sense of home, and places like Calgary, Edmonton and Yellowknife are about as close as I can get.  A return visit to Yellowknife after almost fifty years is high on my bucket list.

Calgary's Bow River Valley

Last year, while in Calgary for the funeral of my aunt, Iris Garner, I stopped by the old home of the now defunct Baptist Leadership Training School, an institution I attended in 1971.   It had been fully forty years since I last walked to the nearby park overlooking the gorgeous Bow River valley.  The view of the river hadn’t changed a bit, but I hardly resembled the callow youth who once looked out over the scene.  I have rarely felt more orphaned and adrift.

So I guess, in the end, these rambling thoughts do relate to this blog’s primary theme.  Everybody needs a sense of place, everybody needs to belong to a people.  Friends of Justice works in the American South, a region occupied by rooted people with a strong sense of belonging.  What happens when a proud people is made synonymous with bigotry and hate?  Issues of culpability aside, how deep does the fear, loss and resentment go?

The spirit and spirituality of mass incarceration is a plant native to the southland that has been nourished for decades by the deepest kind of alienation and outrage.  People felt as if the glorious narrative that had given them a sense of people and place had been desecrated.  The sense of loss was palpable.  This is why Ronald Reagan launched his election campaign in 1980 in Neshoba County, the place where, 16 years earlier, three civil rights leaders had been murdered.  Reagan was opposed to the civil rights movement, but he was hardly a son of the South.  His advisers knew, however, that a rich deposit of racial resentment was waiting to be mined in places like Neshoba County.  People had lost their story and they desperately wanted it back.  Reagan promised to deliver.  The promise was kept.

Sign announcing the 2011 Neshoba County Fair

I understand these emotions.  I grew up in one country and I live in another.  Calgary, Alberta and Fort Worth Texas have a lot in common, but I never really feel at home in Texas.  Nor would I feel at home if I returned to my native Canada.  Like Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.”

When Tea Partiers say they want their country back they are longing for an old, old story.  They want to feel part of an exceptional, virtuous and boot-leather-tough nation where everyone shares the same values and pursues the same goals.  That kind of America never existed in reality; but it lives in memory nonetheless.  The nation people want to regain exists in the form of narrative mythology, and this story about restoring a noble, resolute and unified America is the most potent force in contemporary politics.

There is no sense decrying or endlessly deconstructing the narrative that animates our ideological opposites.  We need a narrative of our own.  We don’t need a story about the nation we once were; we need a story about the nation the better angels of our national nature have always aspired to be.  We need to start talking about a country where there is no us and them; a nation where there are no surplus, throw-away people.
We need to start talking about a nation of broken people where broken people can be redeemed.
According to reporter Jeremy van Loon, Prince William characterized Canada as that kind of country.

Prince William praised Canada’s “extraordinary potential” and the nation’s values of “freedom and compassion” at the end of a nine-day tour of the country with his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge.  “Canada is not just a great union of provinces and territories, it is a great union of peoples from many different backgrounds who have come together to make this a model — and a magnet — for those who value freedom, enterprise, tolerance and compassion,” he said today in Calgary.

 I’m not sure Canada, or any other country, deserves such high praise.  The prince was being complimentary.  But don’t we want to live in that kind of country?  When we tap into that desire, the movement to end mass incarceration will begin.

The National Parent Caucus; Meeting the Needs of Forgotten Families

By Grace Bauer

Beginning in 1998, with my son’s first arrest at the age of 12, I embarked on a journey that I was ill equipped to handle. When I gave birth to my children I had high hopes and dreams for them, this arrest and the succeeding problems that lay ahead for him were never apart of those hopes and dreams. I, as most families that find themselves involved in the juvenile and criminal justice systems, was incredibly naive and made decisions based on what system professionals told me, never considering that it wasn’t their job to help my son. Those decisions set a predictable course, for those with knowledge and understanding, for my son that would leave him emotionally and physically scarred for the rest of his life. I made those decisions without an understanding of what they meant for him or a conception of what it meant to have a “system-involved” child. For the next three years, I walked this path alone in confusion and isolation I sat quietly:

. . . in meetings where professionals talked about my son and didn’t say anything because they presented themselves as the experts and seldom asked me anything

. . . in court rooms in front of a judge without an attorney or advocate because I was told an attorney would only slow down my son getting the help he needed and I believed this lie to be the truth

. . . outside the court house, on the day my son was adjudicated delinquent and sent to a far-off facility because my legs would not carry me away from my baby and I still believed I had done what was right

. . . by the phone for days awaiting a call from the facility to inform me of where my son would be placed and when I would be able to visit

. . . through 2 1/2 hour drives, and then 5 1/2 hour drives, to visit my son in prison, and sometimes be turned away upon arrival because he was in the infirmary or in isolation

. . . in the car on the long drives back home with tears running down my cheeks and my heart in misery, the images of my son’s battered body swirling through my mind, feeling sickened by my powerlessness and stupidity

. . .  I sat through a visit with an attorney, nearly 3 months into what I believed would be a 90 day stay in an excellent program, only to be told by the attorney that my son would not be coming home until his 18th birthday and that, when he left that prison, I should buy him a ticket to Angola State Penitentiary because that is where most of these kids ended up

. . . on the phone with one of the first teachers permitted inside the Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth in Northeast Louisiana while she explained she had assessed my son and found him in isolation where he appeared to be on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

. . . as I heard the diagnosis of my son with severe depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

. . . when the “New York Times” named the Tallulah prison, where my son was housed, “one of the worst in the nation”

But a new day would come when I no longer sat quietly. (more…)

Laura Moye of Amnesty International discusses the Troy Davis case

The state of Georgia will soon be announcing an execution date for Troy Davis even though the state’s case has largely disintegrated.  

Troy Davis with family members

Our Friends at Angola 3 News have published an informative interview with Laura Moye, director of the Amnesty International USA Death Penalty Abolition Campaign that addresses most of the questions this tragic case inspires and holds up the Davis case as a symbol of a broken system. You can sign an Amnesty International petition and a Color of Change petition calling on Georgia officials to back away from their date with death. 


Troy Davis Execution Date Expected Anytime –An interview with Laura Moye of Amnesty International

Laura Moye is director of the Amnesty International USA Death Penalty Abolition Campaign. In this interview, Moye talks about 42-year-old Troy Davis, an African American who has been on death row in Georgia for over 19 years—having already faced three execution dates. The continued railroading of Davis has sparked outrage around the world, and public pressure during the last few years of Davis’ appeals has been essential to his survival today. (more…)

Michelle Alexander: The human rights nightmare nobody wants to talk about

Michelle Alexander

By Michelle Alexander

How a Human Rights Nightmare Can Happen in Our Country on Our Watch — and Go Virtually Undiscussed

If we fail to commit ourselves to ending mass incarceration, future generations will judge us harshly.

April 28, 2011

So much about our racial reality today is little more than a mirage. The promised land of racial equality wavers, quivers just out of our reach in the barren desert of our new, “colorblind” political landscape. It looks so good from a distance: Barack Obama, our nation’s first black president, standing in the Rose Garden behind a podium looking handsome, dignified, and in charge. Flip the channel and there’s Michelle Obama, a brown-skinned woman, digging a garden in the backyard of the White House — not as a servant or a maid — but as the first lady, schooling the nation on better health and the need to be good stewards of our planet. Flip the channel again and there’s the whole Obama family exiting Air Force One, waving to the crowd, descending the flight of stairs — a gorgeous black family living in the White House, ruling America, cheered by the world.

Drive a few blocks from the White House and you find the Other America. You find you’re still in the desert, dying of thirst, wondering what wrong turn was made, and how you managed to miss the promised land, though you reached for it with all your might. (more…)

Call in to support the National Criminal Justice Commission Act

Friends of Justice is pleased to pass along this announcement from Laura Markle, Criminal Justice Reform Grassroots Coordinator with the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church

Wednesday, April 27th

TEXAS call-in day to support passage of the NATIONAL CRIMINAL JUSTICE COMMISSION ACT . . . please spread the word!


In early 2011, Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) and bipartisan cosponsors re-introduced the National Criminal Justice Commission Act (S. 306), legislation that would create a bipartisan Commission to review and identify effective criminal justice policies and make recommendations for reform. Currently, the Senate bill is awaiting House introduction and passage. Please help to urge House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-21st/TX) to prioritize and pass this important legislation as soon as possible!


Rethinking Hell

By Alan Bean

Hell has always been a hot topic in America.  Rob Bell’s Love Wins created such a pre-publication stir that the book debuted at number 2 on the New York Times best-seller list and remains on Amazon’s top 10. 

Bell’s take on heaven and hell rests on the recent scholarship of folks like NT Wright (on the evangelical side) and Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan (writing from a more liberal perspective).  (Brian McLaren offers a slightly more cerebral, and original, popularization of this new scholarship.)  The big idea is that salvation isn’t about going to heaven (or hell) when you die; eternal life (for better or worse) begins now. 

In a recent chat with Welton Gaddy, Rob Bell offered this typically folksy summary of his perspective.

I start with the first century world of Jesus. Jesus spoke very clearly and forthrightly about this world: that the scriptural story and the Jewish story that he was living in was about the reclaiming of this world, the restoration and the renewal of this world. So, Jesus comes, He teaches his disciples to pray “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The action for Jesus was here on earth, about renewing this earth, about standing in solidarity with those who are suffering in this world. And he spoke of a kingdom of God, which is here and now: upon you, among you, around you, within you.

So in the book, I talk about this urgent, immediate invitation of Jesus to trust him, that God is good, that God is generous, that God is loving, that God is forgiving… And to enter into a new kind of quality of life with God right here, right now. So let’s bring some heaven to earth, let’s work to get rid of the hells on earth right now, let’s become the kind of people who love our neighbor… And that, for Him, it was immediate and urgent about this world. What happens when you die? He talks a little bit about that, but He’s mostly talking about this world. I think, for a lot of people, the Christian faith doesn’t have, for them, much to say about this world; that it seems to be all about what happens when you die. And so, the book, in some ways, flips it around and says: “I think this is actually what Jesus was doing.” (My emphasis, along with a few quick edits) (more…)

Right-winger + hard time = compassion

prisonBy Alan Bean

Why are so many right-wingers suddenly arguing the case for criminal justice reform?  In this fascinating piece in Salon, Justin Elliot of Salon directs this question to Doug Berman, author of the influential Sentencing Law and Policy blog

Here are the highlights:

1. Prison is far more brutal than most people believe it to be

2. Most of the conservatives currently leading the smart on crime crusade have been locked up: Duke Cunningham, Charles Colson, Pat Nolan, Conrad Black

3. The religious concept of redemption generally plays a large role in these conversions.

4. Historically, mass incarceration required the enthusiastic cooperation of the political left

5. When you do hard time you realize that harsh penalties are typically applied to crimes disproportionately committed by minorities

6. Busting budgets and historically low crime rates make this a good time for reform, but . . .

7. The political forces that drove mass incarceration are always lurking. (more…)

The Problem with Pornography

By Alan Bean

This site has had little to say on the subject of pornography.  Our primary agenda is shutting down the machinery of mass incarceration; a subject far removed, one would think, from a discussion of popular culture.  But if Robert Jensen is right, pornography is fundamentally about patriarchy, and patriarchy is about hierarchy: the powerful maintaining a dominant position over the powerless.  So maybe there is a connection, and not just because, as Jensen suggests, there may be a link between the explostion of internet pornography and sex crimes.

As Michelle Alexander suggests, we can’t reform the criminal justice system until we move away from the cruel and punitive public consensus driving the prison boom.  How do we move from a society built on a foundation of hierarchy, control and domination, to a society rooted in equality, love and conversation. 

The piece pasted below is a conversation between Robert Jensen, a fifty-two year-old journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and a twenty-four year-old writer for UT’s F-Bomb blog who keeps trying to argue for a kinder-gentler form of pornography.  Jensen argues that the social impact of the porn industry has changed radically in recent years and doesn’t think that’s a good thing for women or for men.  Jensen, by the way, is the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, so he’s given this matter a great deal of thought. 

The Problem with pornography?

FBOMB: If you could briefly describe, what is the problem with pornography?

Robert Jensen: Well, let me first sort of step back. There has long been a conservative, typically religious critique of pornography that poses the problem of pornography as being in conflict with what is traditional family values, which is sexuality confined to a heterosexual marriage. That’s the critique you’ll hear most often in the culture is that conservative, typically religious critique. The feminist critique of pornography approaches it from a very different perspective and says that, in patriarchy, in a society structured around male dominance, one of the ways that dominance is reinforced and perpetuated is in men’s sexual use and abuse of women. One way to say this is, in patriarchy women are routinely presented to men as objectified bodies for male sexual pleasure. One of the vehicles for the routine presentation of women to men as objectified bodies for male sexual pleasure is what I would call the sexual exploitation industries: prostitution, pornography, stripping. These are ways that men buy and sell primarily women’s bodies. Pornography, like prostitution and stripping, is one of those methods of buying and selling women’s bodies. So from a feminist critique, the problem is the way in which those sexual exploitation industries reinforces male dominance, and leads to predictable consequences, primarily for women and children. (more…)

Obama’s problem with white folks

By Alan Bean

A new Pew Poll shows that Barack Obama isn’t connecting with white voters.  This is hardly big news: Obama won just 43% of the white vote in the 2008 election.  But his popularity rating with white voters now rests at 38%.  Even more chilling, if you’re a Democrat, a full 60% of the white electorate backed Republican candidates in the 2010 midterm election.

What’s going on here?  Two things. 

First, as we commemorate the 43rd anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, the Republican Party is still advertising itself (surreptitiously, of course) as the Party of White.  

In the short run, this makes a lot of political sense.  Baby boomers, the demographic currently controlling American politics, are 75% white.  But the “Party of White” strategy will shortly run out of gas.   From the earliest days of European colonization, America has been a majority white nation.  Not for long.  A slight majority of Americans 18 and younger are people of color.  These rapidly shifting demographic patterns have injected a strong dose of cognitive dissonance into the hearts and minds of white folk.  We feel we are losing control.  We pull the red lever because we hope it will preserve the white-dominated world we were born into. (more…)

Maverick judge apologizes for harsh sentences

By Alan Bean

Judge Jack Weinstein

Over at his excellent Sentencing Law and Policy blog, Doug Berman highlights an amazing opinion recently issued by US District Judge Jack Weinstein in the case, United States v. Bannister.  (You can find the full opinion here.)  Federal judges aren’t as constrained by mandatory minimum sentences as they once were, but Jack Weinstein makes it clear that the sentences in this case would have been much less severe if he had his druthers.

“These defendants are not merely criminals,” Weinstein concludes, “but human beings and fellow American citizens, deserving of an opportunity for rehabilitation. Even now, they are capable of useful lives, lived lawfully.”

The eighty-nine year old Weinstein is a philosophical dinosaur who believes we have a duty to create a just society (what kind of socialist claptrap is that?)  Read this brief excerpt from a much longer sentencing opinion and you will learn precisely what is wrong with America’s war on drugs. (more…)