writing to inmates

Rehabilitation or Punishment? – What Our Choice Says About us

As you already know from my previous articles, in February 2021 I started writing to inmates, and I am now a pen pal to 6 people that are incarcerated in different states in the US. Like I mentioned in Writing to an Inmate it has opened up a whole new world to me. It has changed my world, and I often think about what my pen pals are going through, if a lifetime punishment really provides closure for the victim’s family. In conclusion, I wonder why the question of rehabilitation or punishment still remains a question.

Rehabilitation or Punishment? - What Our Choice Says About us

Would you choose an eye for an eye, inflict suffering to get back or would you prefer to see rehabilitation and find a way to forgiveness?

“Everyone makes mistakes. If you can’t forgive others, don’t expect others to forgive you” (source: LiveLifeHappy)

An Eye for an Eye or Fair Seeing Glasses?

Before you wag your finger at me and berate me for sounding naïve, I want to ask you to first take a good look at the justice system and see how it has “taken care” of people, guilty, innocent, or partially guilty.

Although it is common knowledge that “justice” has many flaws, I don’t think it really sinks in. It didn’t with me until I started writing to people who are locked up for what they did, until I began to know them, their cases, their lives, and even their families (and how their parents, aunts, uncles, spouses, etc suffer through this).

calling a loved one

I care for them, I worry about them. After each phone call I realize the freedom I have and I appreciate it so much more and I think of them and the limitations in their lives, every single day, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade. It is no life, and that, dear reader, is the punishment, having no life but a mere, pointless existence.

prison quote

Sure, there are rehabilitation and study programs, some prisons offer work opportunities. Nonetheless, does it really matter when you’re locked up for half or even your whole life?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for rehabilitation and I’m definitely for study programs and apprenticeships. Those initiatives provide opportunities for the time when they are released, and if prisons and courts displayed a strong focus on that (and fair trials), I wouldn’t be writing this article, but so far all I’ve seen is a strong focus on punishment, an eye for an eye.

Cast the First Stone, Then What Does That Make You?

Punish him, throw the book at him, take his life to make up for the life he took!

If our courts and we as a society want an eye for an eye for wrongs done to us, then we are no better than the people we are locking up.

scolding

“Yes, but wait until you become the victim of a crime, then you’ll sing a different tune,” I can hear some tell me. Well, I was a victim of crime, not once, but several times. I can’t go into detail, but believe me, I was hurt, I felt rage and pain and sorrow. I was broken and wanted to lash out. Oh yes, of course, it’s normal, isn’t it? In the end, though, I didn’t want the perpetrators of the crimes that were committed against me to have a lifetime of suffering.

What difference would it have made? It would never have brought back what I had lost. What was lost remains lost in this lifetime.

All I wanted was for them to take responsibility and get a just consequence, but it would never occur to me to take their life or lock them up forever.

justice

I am not against punishment. I believe that one should face consequences for what one did, but I oppose abuse of the courts, abuse of power, the feelings of “righteous authority” that some people adopt as soon as they put on a uniform, convicting innocent people, and over-convictions.

What are over-convictions?

Sentencing someone to 30 or 35 years for possession of marijuana, accusing someone of murder when it was manslaughter (which carries a huge difference in the sentence), sending someone to death row for simply being present at a murder without ever having killed anyone and not even having any knowledge of the killing that was about to take place. There are many more examples, too many to list.

Justice initiative non-profit groups are so overwhelmed with cases of wrongfully convicted people that they have to turn down petitions for help. They can’t deal with the waves of appeals. And the stubborn bureaucracy of the courts is no help at all.

despair

In January of this year I had no knowledge of all this. Ever since February 2021 my eyes have been opened wide and are still opening. I can no longer remain quiet.

There are people who show no remorse, serial killers, cartel leaders, and drug gang members who keep on taking lives (but even the latter can be redeemable and some have shown that they are), basically people who should definitely be locked up.

At the same time there are also tens of thousands of people who should not be locked up for the rest of their lives, people who made terrible mistakes in their adolescence or early twenties and who are paying for it with their lives.

foolish choice

What were you like in your adolescence? Were you already an upstanding citizen when you just turned 18? I wasn’t. I did some idiotic things as a teenager. None of it carried a prison sentence, but that doesn’t mean that I’m proud of it.

We have all done deeds that we’d like to forget, that we are ashamed of. Don’t you think that many of those people who are incarcerated may feel the same about what they did? If we deserve second chances, then why don’t they? If we are redeemable, then why can’t they be? If we can grow, why do we think that they can’t and should remain punished every single day of their lives?

As soon as they are carted off to prison, society tends to forget one important thing: inmates are human beings.

Life in prison is not like in the movies. It’s not as glamorous and adventurous as Orange is the New Black or any other prison series or movie would like you to believe. They spend years living in a box, and they often have to spend hours in their cell every single day. Lockdowns happen frequently, rules may change, more restrictions may apply, and so on.

wrongfully imprisoned

Although I realize that this is a difficult topic that may likely spark some anger, I want to stress that I am speaking on behalf of innocent and wrongfully convicted people. Someone who is wrongfully convicted may still be guilty, but he or she ends up with excessive punishment, and that is unlawful and unethical, thus undeserved.

Let’s take that example of manslaughter and murder. Murder 1 can get you a life sentence, but manslaughter carries around 10 to 15 years. You see? Over-convictions are an abuse of the court and prosecution who often seem to prioritize winning a case over obtaining justice for the victim (and the perpetrator).

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Final Thoughts

The men I write to are nice men, we often talk, share stories, I try to help them with what I can, and sometimes they give me advice like a friend would do. I care about them, and I think that they deserve a second chance and/or a fair sentence and not the excessive punishment that some of them carry. These are only 6 men, but – as I said – there are tens of thousands more in similar situations.

The good news is that many justice initiative groups and innocence projects are rising, but it still isn’t enough. They are all overwhelmed. Laws are being changed, such as the law of parties that convicts people in Texas to death row for being present at a murder without ever killing someone.

abolish the Texas law of parties

Recently, the Texas House of Representatives passed a bill to limit the death penalty eligibility for defendants who did not kill; it still has to pass through the Senate.

There is progress, slowly but surely. It seems slow to me, but the progress is on its way, and I hope that the wheels of justice will get oiled soon to work faster, more efficiently, and – more importantly – to finally be truly just.

 

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Comments

  1. Hi Christine,

    This is such a topic that is close to my heart. My cousin went into prison for 14 years in 2018. He was part of a gang and involved in drug activities and violence. To be honest, I didn’t know my cousin very well and I don’t know what his part was in the crime that put him into prison for so long. But, I know his Mother and brother and sister believe that he shouldn’t be in prison. They are working hard to try to get his sentence reduced or even overturned.

    After reading your article, I think I need to learn more about him and what his crime was and see if there is anything I can do to help. So, I thank you for inspiring me to do this.

    Keep sharing your amazing articles and inspiring more and more people around the world.

    All the best,

    Tom

    1. Hi Tom,

      Thank you for sharing this. It’s often hard to know what really happened. If your cousin’s mother, brother, and sister believe that he shouldn’t be in prison, they must have a reason. I hope that they succeed in getting his sentence reduced or overturned and he’ll have the chance to start anew.
      I think that your cousin would appreciate it if you want to learn more about him and like to help. Now that I have gotten so involved, I realize how any help or any kindness is so much needed and appreciated in there.

  2. Thanks for sharing this topic to the table, something most people don’t want to talk about or to take a look at it, I believe there are many things on today’s society that need to be fixed or to be done in a different way. Many times I see the news and most of the times they talk about something happened to someone and they are judge by the law and they will spend their whole life in a different type of lifestyle. as you well share in your article, these people will face a completly lifestyle from the rest of us, in many case this lifestyle never will give them an opportunity to be different or to get the tools to make a better life. But they are humans, just like us. 

    1. Hi Alejandra,

      Yes, they are human beings, and there is often much more to the story than the news tells us.

      Thank you for your comment!

  3. Hi Lila,

    It’s good to see you become a pen pal with six inmates and help them connect to our society. I will choose to forgive people instead of over convict them for things they never do or just being present at murder with no intent to do so. Everyone wants a second chance, and I believe those in the uniform at a court want it too. But, they never show the same mercy to the defendants.

    Texas’s bill to limit the death penalty eligibility for defendants who did not kill is a good start, and I look forward to seeing more cases in our world.

    Matt

    1. Hi Matt,

      Indeed, getting rid of the law of parties is a good start and hopefully it will lead to many more positive changes and improvements. The Texas law of parties dates from the times of slavery. If that is so, then how about other laws? No wonder there’s so much injustice. I think that changes are overdue.
      Thank you for your comment!

  4. Thank you so much for addressing this issue, Christine! As I’m currently studying for the Bar Exam, and you go into detail about persons being sentenced to life in prison for just being present at a murder scene, without actually killing anyone, I have to expound on the federal law on this issue. Under federal accomplice liability law, a principal is the person who actually commits the murder, while an accomplice is a person who intentionally encourages, aids or abets the principal before or during the crime, with the specific intent that the principal kill the victim.

    However, a person’s mere presence at a murder scene, coupled with silent approval and intent (he/she wants the victim to be murdered, but he/she doesn’t say or do anything to actually encourage the principal before or during the crime–he/she just stands there and watches) is NOT enough for accomplice liability.

    There are MILLIONS of inmates who are currently in jail for crimes they didn’t commit, and for the persons who have admittedly made mistakes, many of them have been excessively punished and certainly deserve lower sentences, rehabilitation, forgiveness, and a second chance at life. I fully agree with you that our justice system is grossly flawed, and until we truly address these issues, come to grips about what needs to change, and put forth a sincere effort to right these wrongs, this terrible reoccurrence of “punish to the full extent of the law” will continue to happen. I’m with you; let’s make change! Great read! Yah (God) bless you!

  5. The justice system has its flaws. And there are many inocente people behind bars. So the system should be fair. It is not the goal to soften sentences to all in order for those that are wrongfully condemned may not suffer much. And it’s not the purpose to increase penalty so those that are really guilty may suffer. I believe that when the system is truly fair, these problems will stop. 

    Even then, if it happens to be completely fair, that doesn’t mean that all will agree to it.

    1. Thank you, Paolo. Good points, I hope that in time the justice system will learn to be fair and that it will be sooner than later.

  6. This is a tricky topic, as it’s hard to make blanket statements about the right way to rehabilitate everyone who has found themselves on the wrong side of the law. However, the American justice system seems to target minorities and cast down harsher sentences to those who already face systemic issues that can lead to certain types of “crimes.” 

    I personally think there is a lot of room for rehabilitation programs to help those with certain types of offenses. I also think all drug laws should be overturned as a person should be allowed to try drugs if they desire (we allow alcohol despite its dangerous effects). These days, it also breaks my heart that Roe v Wade could be overturned and send doctors to prison for performing procedures on women. 

    I think you are doing a wonderful thing by writing to inmates. That lifeline to a caring person on the outside world will do a lot for their mental health and likely be a great tool for their successful rehabilitation.

  7. I think this is very informative, enlightening, and philosophically concise. I love how you beg the question of whether we the people should go for an eye for an eye provided that the justice system is flawed, biased, and lethal. It is interesting how you provide a historical, philosophical, and futuristic lens in regard to the state of incarceration rates. I was especially moved when you said that someone could get 30-35 years for marijuana charges. Yes, I agree with how you feel about the death penalty. That said, I think the death penalty should be terminated in all states, not to mention how countless people have died innocent of their alleged crimes. Thanks!!!

  8. Hi Cristine,
    Wow. Thank you for sharing your article. When I was reading it I had a few goosebumps. Really amazing that you decided to write to inmates and that you are trying to show them some reality. I am sure it is very important to them.

    I totally agree with you that there are plenty of wrongly sentenced people and the mistakes of youth shouldn’t be considered as strict as they are in some cases;. People are evolving.

    On the other side you have oftentimes people who killed, but were not charged appropriately, for instance when it comes to people serving countries, like police men, politicians, etc. Then you might think there is an imbalance in it too.

    What would you suggest as a solution?

    Cheers and thank you for opening this ”secret” topic up.

    Julius

    1. Hi Julius,

      That’s so very true. Usually, the real criminals hardly ever get convicted, because they are in positions of power or money … which is just aother harsh example of the unfairness of the “justice” system, a system we cannot trust. There seems to be a little progress, for example in the arrest of Derek Chauvin, the policeman who killed George Floyd, but that progress is still lacking in 10,000s of other cases. It seems that the justice system only applies justice when it is covered by the media or pressured by the public …

  9. Hi Lila, forgiving, in the end, is great for the person being forgiven but is even better for the person who is forgiving. There is a quote by Lewis B. Smedes: “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” That is so true.

    I agree with your opinion. On the other hand, I have never encountered any bad crime aimed against me. Apart from family members fighting against me for receiving money from my mother (which I hadn’t) and starting a lawsuit over the inheritance.

    They won the lawsuit because they lied. I lost because I was honest. So be it. I feel sorry for them because they have carried vengeance with them for so long. I can’t imagine it being very healthy.

    I think the world would be a better place if there was more room for forgiveness and less room for hatred.

    Thanks for bringing this topic up.
    xxx

    1. Hi Hannie,

      Lewis B. Smedes’s quote is spot on. When you forgive you set yourself free, relieve yourself from a terrible burden that weighed on you. Not everyone can do that and it’s an important (and difficult) lesson to learn.
      I’m sorry to hear about the lawsuit from your family members. You’re right, though, carrying grudges and vengeance with them for so long is not healthy. I had a similar experience with my stepmother after my father passed away. There was no lawsuit but she kept everything and I decided not to fight it, because it would have gotten ugly and I didn’t want to deal with it.
      If only the world could learn to forgive and work on our society, realize that the way our society is set up and the way some families make their children suffer breeds criminals. If we could set up our “justice” system on fairness, the prison system on forgiveness and rehabilitation instead of revenge and daily punishment, I believe that in that way people would get more opportunities for growth and crime would decrease.

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