Friday, April 24, 2015

A Case of Prisoner Re-entry


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

April 24, 2015


                I started corresponding with a prisoner more than a decade ago.  He was in the Indiana Security Housing Unit—the super-max prison--in Carlisle, ten miles south of the federal death house in Terre Haute, where he had stabbed a guard.  He has shared a great of his life with me.  From an angry victim of sexual assault by his father who also beat his mother, he became a self-educated adviser to other prisoners, a counselor for non-violence, respected by staff.  Shortly before his transfer last year to a transitional unit at the privatized prison in New Castle, he asked to see a guard he had stabbed in 2001, apologized, apology accepted.  He is finishing his GED.  He is due for release in less than two years, having served twenty.  He plans to return to Elkhart, where he and his family lived when he was arrested, and is in touch with the Mennonite Community Center’s coaching program for newly released prisoners.  He is estranged from his siblings.  Under the circumstances, he is doing the best he can to prepare for successful release.

                Now that he is in New Castle, I use, newly acquired by Securus Technologies, the largest private, for-profit contractor with prisons and jails across the country.  Snail mail is still easier for him.  Recently I sent him an abstract I submitted to a conference, proposing that in training and at work, police ought to spend time with those they (will) patrol at community events and in community projects, to get to know each other, as Nils Christie advocated (Limits to Pain, 1981), “in many respects,” rather than as stop-and-frisk suspects (a proposition laid out also in this blog, Jan. 25, 2015, “Peacemaking Policing Made Real”).  My black friend responded both with anger, and with fear of what police may do to him when he is released.  Here is a copy of my attempt to reassure him:


  Thanks for your letter of April 19.  You ask, "How do you get others on board?"  The answer is that no one person--top, bottom or middle--creates a change like this...and yet, each of us who relates with others, who in Buddhist terms is peace in his or her relations is part of the force that builds that change, not only in ourselves but in the lives others we meet live in their other relations.  Why do so much to accomplish what takes lifetimes beyond our own to make for instance a  national difference in how police relate with brown and black folks?  Because it makes a difference in one's own relations in one's lifetime, like yours with prisoners and staff who give you respect and appreciation for rising above the violence you have endured, and the anger that has made you lash out yourself.  You are strong.  If you can learn to get respect from the police in the SHU, you may get hassled by the police on the street, but you won't get hurt or busted anywhere.  And in your own neighborhood, wherever that is, you'll soon gain the respect of the police on the street.

  The police violence against black and brown people that the public sees today is as old and outrageous as law enforcement itself in the US--not worse than before, just more visible.  So, too, is the reality I saw on patrol 40 years ago that many police never draw guns throughout their careers, and that many cops almost never resort to physical force.  When I start writing about a change like working neighborhood service and get-togethers into police training and patrol, I often begin to find examples to cite.  In my writing and my relations, I, like you in your relations, can only sow seeds of change in an institution like policing in black and brown neighborhoods, but doesn't it pay off in the quality of your life today as in mine?  love and peace, hal


                Back in 1980 when I wrote Crime Control Strategies, I proposed framing the problem of reducing recidivism as “making the community safe for the offender.”  Whatever threat police may pose to members of communities of color in general, the threats to those known by police to have criminal records are greater still.  It is ironic that the strength and support, the commitment to non-violence and respect, that my friend has managed to gain while in isolation in a super-max prison has reduced the threat he faces of police violence.  My friend Billy reinforces my belief that building safety and security in our relations and a commitment to non-violence can begin anywhere, despite the violence of the institution in which it occurs.  Love and peace, hal

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