Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

August 26, 2005
   Vol. 3, No. 13

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"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Joan Chittister is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer on topics of justice, peace, human rights, women's issues, and contemporary spirituality in the Church and in society. She presently serves as the co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the United Nations, facilitating a worldwide network of women peace builders, especially in the Middle East. A speech communications theorist, Sister Joan's most recent books include The Way We Were (Orbis) and Called to Question (Sheed & Ward), a First Place CPA 2005 award winner. A member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, she is founder and executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality in Erie.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

Concern for children's welfare ends
when we toss them in prison

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By Joan Chittister, OSB

"We should not think of consciousness," the scientist Susan Greenfield explains in reference to fetal development, "as an all-or-none phenomenon but rather that it may come on like a dimmer switch." I find that a very comforting thought, especially on the days when I wake up to something long after I should have been aware of it.

I have just had another one of those moments. Three things happened: I got a letter months ago from a prisoner in Norfolk, Mass. Then, someone left a newspaper on my airplane seat. Then, I went to The New York Times online to check for hurricanes.

In the newspaper, I discovered that Mitchell Johnson, the Jonesboro, Ark., youth who in 1998 at age 13, shot and killed four students and a teacher, has been released from prison. Johnson, now 21, served seven years -- five years for the shootings plus two more for gun law infractions. His 11-year old accomplice is in prison until 2007 when he turns 18, the age at which juvenile offenders must be released.

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To no one's surprise, Arkansas -- like 31other states between 1995-2003 -- changed their laws after the incident to allow juveniles to be charged, convicted and imprisoned as adults.

I paused when I read the article.

Yes, crimes such as theirs are heinous. Yes, they must be accountable to society for failing to be a constructive part of it. But that's not the question, I thought. The question is what does sentencing children as adults "rehabilitate?" What do we solve by putting children in adult prison facilities with frenzied and professional criminals? Except the usual adult frustration with childhood incorrigibility, of course. Except the great macho need to get even, even in situations when "even" is impossible.

It's a question that is getting to be more and more conscious to us all as we try to deal with a generation of out of hand, out of reality, drug-damaged children and increasingly outraged adults for whom violence is the answer to violence, even in the highest .

So, online, I never got to the weather report. I got involved instead in a report on the findings of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, a Congressional commission investigating prison sexual abuse and rape after a report of 8210 prison rapes a year in 2003. (NYT, August 20, 2005) One witness, now a 45 year old software executive, testified about his first night in an adult jail for petty larceny with a toy pistol. "When my friends prepared for our high school prom," he testified, "I was being gang raped."

Kendell Spruce testified that he was infected with HIV after being raped at least 27 times in an Arkansas state prison, once at knifepoint. Chance Martin, now 50, was in jail for three days as an 18 year old for charges that were later dropped. The rape he suffered there, he says, "nearly ruined his life."

Then, I remembered -- and understood in a new way -- a letter I got some months before the papers arrived from inmate Francis Edmands. The writer is a long-term adult prisoner who reads NCR and so began to write to me about childhood incarceration. "As President Bush once said," he wrote, "No child should be left behind! ... In my opinion," he goes on, "children should not be sentenced to imprisonment at all, but sent to a treatment facility and then when the medical experts feel the child is well and whole again, that child should be returned to society, soonest, to grow and become a good and productive person."

This analysis of the subject was not from a reporter meeting a deadline. This was not a congressional report politicized. This letter was from a man who has said: "Never, before I was arrested, have I been made aware of all the wrongs that can be had against those who have been brought to justice."

At any rate, his letter rings in my ears now. I am reprinting parts of it exactly as he wrote it because he is the expert on this one. He writes:

"A few years ago, a boy twelve years of age was sentenced to life in prison without parole. I was dumbfounded. I couldn't believe what was happening. Then I got to thinking, how long has this been going on? Are all the states trying children as adults? Is it just me, or are other finding this practice wrong. Not only wrong but an insult to the intelligence. ...

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"There was a fifteen year old sentenced to fifty years. How do you look into the eyes of a child and say that parole is not available until you are sixty-five years old?

"Then there is the horror of all horrors, children executed. Sixteen and seventeen year olds are sentenced to death. The execution might not happen until ten years have passed but nothing has changed. They are executing a child. The states are not that dumb. It's easier to put an adult to death. Can you imagine the outcry if they were going to execute a sixteen year old? The world would invade us, like we invaded Iraq."

The letter raises serious questions about the culpability of child offenders -- and of ours as adult caretakers, state guardians, educators and, oh, yes, civilized people.

The writer makes his final point clearly: "Imagine all the good that could have been had if the energies that were used to drag children through adult courts were used instead for the betterment of the child, such as in mental health and education, so the child could be returned to society soonest [sic] to grow and become a good and productive person.

"How is that a country such as ours can be so overwhelmingly protective when it comes to the welfare of its children yet contradict itself when it comes to the treatment of children when they do wrong?"

Indeed, how is it?

From where I stand -- in case you don't hear from many prisoners yourself or have never been inside a prison or are not inclined to give much thought to crimes against criminals -- it seems to me that maybe we should all think about it more. The dimmer switch on our own consciousness may be lower than the soul of a so-called "developed" nation can afford.

P.S.: Francis Edmands, T.O.P., wrote something else, too. He wrote: "Here at Norfolk Prison, as an inmate I am totally blessed. Because I am a member of the Dominican Laity. The only one of its kind behind the 'wall.' This coming October I will be making Perpetual Profession. This is my way of thanking God for all he has done for me. If there is anything I have learned while being a lay Dominican, it is to wash feet. ... From where I stand, this place is hallowed ground."

Clearly the man knows something about the difference between revenge and rehabilitation.

(Editor's note: There will be no From Where I Stand column next week. The next column will be posted September 8.)

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator. Put "Chittister" in the subject line. E-mails with attachments are automatically deleted.
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