There is another inmate I have been writing to for about one and a half years who is on death row in San Quentin. Sometimes being in that situation ends up destroying them, and sometimes it gives them the time and space to understand who they are, what they did, and how it brought them to this place. It doesn’t negate what they did. They are paying the price for what happened. But many men – and women – in this place were pushed along a timeline outside of their control from the day they were born into families filled with violence and beatings, or they were throwaway kids tossed about different state group homes, detention centers, and countless, often neglectful and violent foster homes filled with physical abuse along with alcohol and drug addiction. If they ran away the only neighborhoods outside their door were filled with street gangs with guns, death and drugs.
These young people found the “family” of love they were craving inside a street gang. These at risk children instinctively know that as children they should have someone to love and care for them so they go to the only people who open their arms and wrap them around these young bodies. But there is a very big price to pay for this love. They must do as they are told to do – without question. They wouldn’t hesitate to kill for the honor of their gang. They would also have to bring in money to survive through theft and selling drugs, and they have to kill those who disrespect them or try to kill them first. Sometimes that disrespect is only because someone in another gang looked then in the eye. As the years go by many of their homies died. The ages of the men and boys in each barrio was not very old. They didn’t live very long. They expected they would be killed any moment. They couldn’t get out. They were in for life. They knew no other way of life. They wouldn’t know where to go if they did get out. This was the only life they knew.
In Los Angeles, in the decades around the ’90’s, crime escalated. There were hundreds of gangs each trying to control a few blocks. Drive-bys from other gangs was expected and later retaliated against. There were many reasons that brought these minors into juvenile court, an over crowded, inefficient system that couldn’t handle the sheer number of broken children no one wanted. A single probation officer was expected to supervise hundreds of juvenile delinquents at one time. There isn’t even time to see if they are attending school let alone help them in any constructive way.
When they are brought into court there is nothing done for them. They slap their wrist. They let them go. If they do have parents no parental guidance is given. The crimes escalate. The court lowers the age children can be tried as adults – 22 states consider that age to be 7.
One of these juveniles is the man I write to, along he is long past being a juvenile. He is now in his 30’s. I don’t know all the crimes he has committed. I know he has been in and out of prison, once was for murder, and murder once again landed him on death row. This is where he began his search to find answers to make sense of his life.
It’s easy to think that everyone has choices and to an extent we do. But we have to know about those choices and the effects those choices make. You can not know something you have never been exposed to. These young people followed the path their life was headed just like we all have. Different sets of privileges, understandings and guidances urge our lives along a path that has been set by different causes and effects.
After being given the sentence death and entering prison this last time years ago this man searched through every religion to find something that helped him make sense of his life. He tried everything, even satanism. Nothing made sense because each one told him there was something else out there that had control of his life and could decide at any time to punish him or save him. And this entity did all of this because it loved him. All he had to do was love and trust this thing.
No one could see or talk to it but people claimed that God talked to them personally because they needed so badly to believe it was true. It was all about getting to heaven when you die. No thank you. He wanted to understand life, not death. All of this belief these people had never changed their lives or the kind of person they were.
If there had been a God and it just stood by and let his life happen this way from birth, he wanted no part of it. This was NOT the answer. He was not going to just blindly trust that NOW he was on death row, God was going to love him. No, this religion about an almighty God was for people who were unable to take responsibility for lives and needed it to be God’s plan for the reason why their lives were so fucked up.
He found Buddhism. He found the answers to his questions. He had the time to study and mediate. He learned what karma was. He could not change the past but he could affect the future.
The staff in San Quentin made his existence as miserable as they could. Because he is Hispanic it was even worse. In California the use of solitary confinement was used far beyond what most states did, keeping men locked up for decades for no reason. They were unable to call family. Visits were severely restricted. Inmates could only have three books. A cherished book would have to be given up if you wanted a new one. He was allowed no programs.
During this time I saw his profile on an online site of inmates looking for people to write to – a connection to the outside world. Our letter writing began. I initially chose to write to him because he said he was Buddhist and I was curious how that came to be.
After many letters it was easy to see that this man had rehabilitated himself in spite of the prison’s efforts to destroy him. He wants to create a life inside that he was never able have on the outside. Chances of ever getting out is not anything he contemplates. But he would like art supplies because he is quite a good artist and he would like to learn things. Why continue to treat him inhumanely? What purpose does it fill? He has been removed from society. There is no purpose in continued degradation.
Not everyone agrees with me. A devout Christian woman recently told me she was angry that I was writing to him because after what he did he deserved no forgivesness. Murder can not be forgiven. Hmm… I thought. This is the way a Christian thinks? Only certain offenses can be forgiven? He wasn’t asking for forgiveness and I never offered it. I, too, am Buddhist. I offered understanding and a chance for communication on a human level. I have learned much from our letters.
In 2016 California will decided on either abolishing the death sentence or carrying out that sentence in a shorter time and not letting inmates languish for decades waiting. The problem with the death sentence is that the verdict is wrong often enough that innocent people are put to death.
Recently California has made changes that has been long awaited prison reform. It has done away with indefinite solitary confinement which has affected many people who have been in complete lockdown often for decades who haven’t deserved that punishment. It will affect this man I write to. My next post will be his last letter to me describing his feelings about this change. When I read of this change in the media my first thought was of him, hoping it would allow him more life when he thought there was no hope. On death row, having hope can destroy you.
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