And Finally, on a Positive Note
My friend Iris Schneider has been photographing Bruce Lisker, who was recently released from prison where he served 26 years for murdering his mother, as he adjusts to life in Los Angeles. Reporters for a 2005 L.A Times Magazine discovered that a bloody crime scene footprint, which was presented as primary evidence at his trial as being’s Lisker’s, was not. Furthermore, Lisker called to report the crime and said he saw his mother’s body on the floor through a back window when he arrived shortly after her attack. The prosecutor claimed that based on measurements at the house, it would have been impossible for Lisker to have seen the body through the window. The reporters visited the Sherman Oaks home, and using the same measurements presented in Lisker’s trial, determined that the body indeed would have been visible. It would be impossible to not conclude from reading the article than an innocent man had been imprisoned since the age of seventeen. Nevertheless, from the publication of the findings that supported his innocence, Lisker’s exoneration would take over four years. A perusal of justice center websites across the country reveals that published exposes actually sped up the process for Lisker and it is not uncommon for innocent prisoners, who lack the benefit of investigative reporters and private counsel, to languish away for decades before new evidence is even considered.
Iris snapped photos of Bruce as he shopped at the Target which stands now close to the location of the Fedco we both remember from our childhoods. He is exhilarated, after subsisting on prison canteen and the quarterly shipments of 70 pounds or fewer that inmates are allowed to order from a small selection of prison approved mail order houses. Lisker is articulate in a radio interview on KPPC’s Airtalk as he describes the combination of exhilaration and sensory overload he experiences his first few days at large after having been imprisoned for his entire adult life. Lisker was 17 and heavily involved in drug abuse at the time of his mother’s murder. The stormy relationship between Lisker and his mother, which resulted in screaming fights, was documented and Lisker was living in an apartment. How culpable is a seventeen year old? Lisker made the choice to use drugs and the attendant lifestyle led him to an affiliation with a man who was glaringly not a Boy Scout. He had been Lisker’s roommate. He apparently murdered Lisker’s mother and Lisker is not a murderer. Does he have some culpability though because choices he made at the age of seventeen directly resulted in his mother’s murder? Does his youth or perhaps the outrage of serving 26 years as an innocent cut him some slack or does successful reintegration into freedom and society require that he take this on?
In the further annals of justice miscarried, the New Yorker ran an extremely disturbing piece about Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texan, who was executed for the arson murders of this three children. It turned out that arson investigators employed completely unscientific methods and a follow up revealed conclusively that the fire had not been arson. This evidence came to light before Willingham’s execution but the courts and governor refused to consider the new findings and it is impossible to refute that the state of Texas executed an innocent man. The article mentioned that Willingham had been a substance abuser but there was no mention of his criminal history, which was pretty extensive and mostly drug related, before the fire. A letter to the editor by James P.O. Paquette notes, “I feel the author’s decision to abbreviate Willingham’s final words in order to exclude his less eloquent statements served only to entrench a widespread notion that anti-death penalty advocates are disingenuous about the character of the condemned. This is a description of Willingham’s complete final statement. The parts excluded from the New Yorker article are in italics:
“The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do. From God's dust I came and to dust I will return so the Earth shall become my throne. I gotta go, Road Dog." He expressed love to someone named Gabby and then addressed his ex-wife, Stacy Kuykendall, who was watching about 8 feet away through a window and said several times, "I hope you rot in Hell, bitch." He then attempted to maneuver his hand, strapped at the wrist, into an obscene gesture.
That Willingham was not particularly an upstanding citizen almost makes this wrongful execution more tragic, for it is often those on the margins and lacking savvy and vocabulary and resources to navigate the justice system who are more likely to end up being swallowed whole by it. The perspective of sociologist Egon Bittner is cited in Dreams from the Monster Factory by Sunny Schwartz, “The consideration extended to the seemingly undeserving person is not intended for his or her personal benefit, but expresses the moral integrity of one who extends it. It enhances the dignity of human life, especially in situations where extending it appears to be hopelessly misspent.”
Schwartz implemented the RSVP program in the San Francisco jail system which aims to help inmates explore and own up to their violent behaviors and find alternatives. A Restorative Justice component in which violent felons are confronted by their victims is often included in the program. Professional agreement is that a person’s violent tendencies diminish as empathy is nurtured and this inexpensive program has an extraordinary track record in reducing recidivism. Despite awards and glowing press, RSVP or similar programs are offered only in three jail systems nationwide. This protocol is proven to work but because it helps our prisoners learn to become whole and actualized, it is regarded with suspicion because our prisoners are bad guys and they deserve to suffer and feel like garbage and chronic recidivism pays for Correction Officer’s vacation cabins.
The cuts here in California Corrections are being felt by all three of my penpals. All mention that less food is being served. Inmates who work, or have relatives or friends to deposit money in their trust accounts, can purchase items from the canteen. Large restitution requirements are added on to most sentences and 33% of all deposits to inmate accounts are garnished for this. Additionally, trust accounts carrying a balance are debited $5 or $10 for each medical or dental visit. With prison jobs paying an average of 30 cents an hour, many inmates are left indigent and unable to purchase canteen items to supplement the reduced mess hall offerings. For those able to afford canteen, the most popular item is Top Ramen noodles. I have a list of items inmates can order from the canteen and all items are shelf stable and mostly loaded with fat, salt, sugar and/or preservatives. The lack of basic nutrition is particularly scary as inmates avoid medical visits due to the expense and the medical services available have been determined so inadequate the California Corrections Medical division has been in Federal receivership.
The cuts have also resulted in fewer overtime hours available for corrections staff, which means there is inadequate supervision for yard time and inmates remain on lockdown with greater and greater frequency. Recent letters from inmates, who now have even more time to write than ever, are long and while all strive for a cheerful tone, more and more bitterness seeps from between the lines. Visiting has been reduced from 3 to 2 days a week although flu scares have resulted in some yards having all visits cancelled for several weeks in a row. It gets so crowded that often visitors who have travelled hundreds of miles are sent away after only an hour or two. From San Diego I learn there has been a huge rash of officer “blue flu” every Sunday during football season. From Tehachapi the news is that most vocational and all ESL courses have been eliminated and in Level 4, where men with particularly violent histories or long sentences are confined, all educational programs have been completely eliminated.
The conservative anecdote to Wikipedia, Conservapedia attracts a lot of law and order types who would support nothing the least bit resembling pillow fluffing in our corrections system but has an even broader agenda apparently, having commissioned a way better translation of The Bible:
As of 2009, there is no fully conservative translation of the 1. Bible which satisfies the following ten guidelines:
1. Framework against Liberal Bias: providing a strong framework that enables a thought-for-thought translation without corruption by liberal bias
2. Not Emasculated: avoiding unisex, "gender inclusive" language, and other modern emasculation of Christianity
3. Not Dumbed Down: not dumbing down the reading level, or diluting the intellectual force and logic of Christianity; the NIV is written at only the 7th grade level
4. Utilize Powerful Conservative Terms: using powerful new conservative terms as they develop; defective translations use the word "comrade" three times as often as "volunteer"; similarly, updating words which have a change in meaning, such as "word", "peace", and "miracle".
5. Combat Harmful Addiction: combating addiction by using modern terms for it, such as "gamble" rather than "cast lots"; using modern political terms, such as "register" rather than "enroll" for the census
6. Accept the Logic of Hell: applying logic with its full force and effect, as in not denying or downplaying the very real existence of Hell or the Devil.
7. Express Free Market Parables; explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning
8. Exclude Later-Inserted Liberal Passages: excluding the later-inserted liberal passages that are not authentic, such as the adulteress story
9. Credit Open-Mindedness of Disciples: crediting open-mindedness, often found in youngsters like the eyewitnesses Mark and John, the authors of two of the Gospels 10. Prefer Conciseness over Liberal Wordiness: preferring conciseness to the liberal style of high word-to-substance ratio; avoid compound negatives and unnecessary ambiguities; prefer concise, consistent use of the word "Lord" rather than "Jehovah" or "Yahweh" or "Lord God."
Despite the Reverend Wright, I assumed Mr. Obama would be more of a beacon of religious tolerance than his believing in The Rapture predecessor Mr. Bush. But while W may have spoken in tongues, despite objections from China, he met with the Dali Lama. Obama, given our enormous debt to the nation, lacked Bush’s courage. China will undoubtedly be enormously enriched by the growing U.S. obligation and even if this were not he case, it is immoral, and perhaps my biggest disappointment with Obama, to play ostrich to the country’s blatant flaunting of human rights violations. Further testament to his heartbreaking wussiness is that his refusal to meet the exiled leader of Tibet is referred to as a new policy of “strategic reassurance.” We are into China for half a trillion dollars but what can they do if we stay on their case about human rights? Foreclose?
We travel this weekend to Felton and because the Harper Berry manse and our usual rental cabin are both otherwise occupied, we are staying in a motel chosen for convenient location that has horrifying reviews pertaining to scary management and spray painted bath towels on Trip Advisor. A year ago when I drove up the coast, it seemed impossible that Proposition 8 could actually be approved by California voters. Bob and Chris were not as confident as I, and after 14 years together decided to partake in the legal sanctification of marriage, lest the window slam, and they managed to schedule a wedding at the very tightly booked Santa Cruz City Hall for which I drove from L.A. to serve as lone witness. Over 18 years ago, Bob stood beside me at my wedding. Being asked to reciprocate was an honor and one of the happiest experiences I have ever had. After the shotgun thing, right under the wire of Prop 8, they are hosting now a celebration at the occasion of their first anniversary. Bob asked me, along with a few other friends and relatives, to deliver a few words for a ceremonial portion. He e-mailed me a tidy list of participants and their designations. I am referred to as “witness.” I’m not sure if I should limit my words to only the brief ceremony outside City Hall, among the homeless lolling, on a warm day, by the river or if there is a broader expectation. I have known Bob nearly 30 years. A lot of what I have witnessed is not appropriate for sharing at a celebratory event.
The “witness” distinction leaves Bob open to be fodder for a lot of cheap laughs and what party would not liven up with a colorful recounting of the exploits of one determined to redefine the art of self destruction? While Scary Bob captured my attention and caused me to jump at a ringing phone for years of my life, he now seems pertinent only because from his rock bottom would be like Everest place, Bob clung to a glimmer of God’s light and mustered the courage to surrender to it. It is a long and hard journey when you are guided only by an infinitesimal crack of light in skies dark with fear and self loathing. Bob moved north and stayed on the road and met Chris, whose own journey too was not always illuminated by clear and certain light.
Bob’s dad Harry spoke at my wedding. I cannot remember his words but his spirit lingers sweet and large enough now so that I can share some with Bob and Chris as they celebrate their own union, a celebration Harry would have attended joyfully. Early in their relationship, Harry, in his 90s, spent some months of his final year living with Bob and Chris. Before I met Chris, Bob described his tender care of the frail elderly man so even if he wasn’t smart and funny and extraordinarily handsome, I would have loved him anyway.
That these two paths converged and burst bright with the perfect light of grace is sweet to celebrate. There is injustice and intolerance in the world and I am mindful of this and also of the many victims of fear and ignorance who are arbitrarily deprived the sacrament of marriage. But in this world that seems particularly lacking in sweetness now, may we not lose hope and allow ourselves one pure joyful breath for a union that is blessed and righteous.