death penalty

Reverence for Life

By Bill Menza

Aware that much suffering is caused by war and conflict, we are determined to cultivate nonviolence, understanding, and compassion in our daily lives, to promote peace education, mindful meditation, and reconciliation within families, communities, nations, and in the world. We are determined not to kill and not to let others kill. We will diligently practice deep looking with our Sangha to discover better ways to protect life and prevent war. - The Twelfth Mindfulness Training of the Order of Interbeing 

Violence begets violence. When we practice the Twelfth Mindfulness Training, or the first of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, we undertake to cultivate reverence for life and to seek ways to end violence. But we often overlook official violence against criminal offenders. After studying the death penalty for over 18 years, I have reached some very sad conclusions about our treatment of prisoners, particularly those on death row.

Many prisons are violent places not so much because of the prisoners, but because of politicians, judges, and prison officials. In the name of being tough on crime and exacting vengeance, politicians and judges punish and kill offenders without mercy, and often without regard for the damage their actions inflict on individuals and society. Prison officials' duty to care for plisoners has been replaced by a falsely-perceived duty to punish. That a prison sentence itself was the punishment directed by the court is not considered sufficient. In many prisons, inmates are routinely threatened, beaten, shot, chained, hog-tied, electrically shocked, and denied food, mail, and medical treatment. Many are fed foul-smelling nutraloafs, a baked mixture of various foods. Instead of receiving psychiatric care, agitated prisoners are held for hours or days in the "devil's chair" that prevents all movement. A bucket under the chair collects their excrement.

Supermaxs and control unit prisons are now common. Supermaxs are usually reserved for violent offenders or troublemakers. In them, prisoners may endure solitary confinement for years or a lifetime. Control units are like supermaxs, but worse. They are sensory deprivation prisons constructed by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, based on studies of the Nazi prison system and North Korea POW brainwashing techniques. In these units there is strict solitary confinement, and all out-of-cell contact is restricted. Prisoners are monitored by video cameras 24 hours a day. These prisons are designed to punish prisoners and make them compliant. They are reserved for violent or unrepentant criminal-political prisoners. Complete mental breakdown from being in a supermax or control unit prison is not unusual.

In these units, offenders are also denied contact with the sky, the trees, and Mother Earth- all in the name of "prison security." In Virginia, when prison officials for a supermax under construction realized prisoners would be able to see the forest and birds through their windows, they had the windows frosted. When Jamie Fellner, associate counsel for New York-based Human Rights Watch, asked Virginia Director of Prisons Ron Angelone about rehabilitation services at the Virginia Red Onion Supermax, he replied: "What are they going to be rehabilitated for? To die gracefully in prison? Let's face it; they're here to die."

The public, too, has constructed a wall of silent disinterest against criminals. Some people support the brutality and cruelty of prison in their delusion of vengeful self-protection. Because we are afraid of the violence in our society, we fail to see that the damage we do to these people damages all of society for generations to come. Our own neighbors accused and convicted of crimes have become our common enemy. We seem to think prisoners must be punished as severely as possible, or disposed of. Too often, they are treated as vermin to be exterminated or buried alive in concrete boxes.

In the end, we all suffer from this abuse. Violence and killing teach violence and killing, and the pain and suffering of this violence has no boundaries in space or time. A criminal offense affects crime victims and perpetrators, their families, and our communities; so does this official violence and killing. Aware of the nature of interbeing, we may see clearly the costs to all of us of this official violence. To maintain a prisoner killing program and to keep offenders who are no threat to others in prison for long periods has financial, emotional, moral, and spiritual costs. The current tough-on-crime mentality creates communities devoid of mercy and compassion, where we practice mindlessness and heartlessness.

We must look deeply with our Sanghas to discover ways to protect life and cultivate compassion. To help practice not killing, you might want to learn more about the death penalty and prisons, or write to political leaders and newspaper editors with the kind of letters that help them wake up from the delusion of violence, from the delusion that "might makes right." You might want to write prisoners who are waiting to be killed about the teachings on no-birth, no-death. Or consider working with groups that are trying to prevent and curb official violence. As written in The Dhammapada, "Animosity does not eradicate animosity. Only by lovingkindness is animosity dissolved. This law is ancient and eternal."

Bill Menza, True Shore of Understanding, is a member of the Washington Mindfulness Community, Amnesty International, Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Virginia CURE, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Buddhist Peace Fellowship. He writes to prisoners,  particularly those about to be executed by Virginia officials.

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Moments of Communion

By Connie Nash

For years, I’ve been hearing and reading about parents –– mostly struggling mothers and other family members –– talk about their beloved children or loved ones who have ended up behind bars. There are all kinds of reasons given for the arrests and imprisonments along with, in some cases, a parent’s confidence his or her child could not be guilty. Some of the unfortunate were in the wrong place at the wrong time; some had committed an awful act under the influence of drunkenness, drug use, despair, guilt, or in a moment of terrible anger. Some were in prison for an act due to post-traumatic stress from fighting America’s terrible wars in Vietnam or Iraq I.

Several years ago I was attending the National Coalition Against the Death Penalty and was listening deeply to a sister of a death row prisoner whose DNA test proved him innocent of the crime he was convicted of, yet he was still not free. Her life was filled with many complications because of this difficult situation. Although I’d been a friend to family members of inmates for years, all at once it struck me deeply that these same events could occur to anyone, even to my family.

My husband and I adopted three magnificent sons who were fourteen, eight, and four years old when they entered our family. The two oldest had experienced disrupted lives filled with poverty, violence, and loss of parents and friends in Africa, followed by many adjustments to life in the southern United States. The youngest had experienced seven different homes and all manner of other abuses in his early youth. We also have a lovely daughter with an artistic temperament. Whenever I would bring up my concern about how our children would succeed in life, my husband would give me all the reasons our kids would survive unscathed. He made it clear he didn’t think our children had special needs.

Listening at this conference brought up my deep fears and panic about my children’s future, and I began crying. At some point I found myself receiving the balm of deep comfort I had been needing for years from a human rights activist I barely knew. This man just stood there in front of me, completely tuned in, unrushed, undistracted, listening so well. My concerns became his for those few precious moments. His eyes seemed to reflect not only my words but my heart’s agony. He seemed able to feel what I couldn’t articulate. As he listened, I could feel my despair slipping away. It felt like magic.

After I calmed down, he shared that his mother was the inspiration for his deep dedication to human rights and the plight of so many behind bars. Then he expressed confidence that my own mothering would help bring about fruit in each of my children, to help them survive no matter what came their way. He offered me a comforting and healing embrace before we each went our way.

I still wonder often, what will become of all our children, particularly those who are traumatized? Yet, because of those few moments with someone so adept and willing, I am less frightened than I’ve been in years. That experience continues to water my faith and encourages me to work hard for the well-being of all children.

I know many who carry deep pain and are afraid to let it out for fear there would be no stopping the tears. Yet I know that I now have greater empathy and strength for my suffering friends, because my own agonizing fears were expressed and heard.

How many more sons and daughters might we raise who do not turn from fear and pain? Mothering –– even with my four children now out of the nest –– has become ever more urgent and important to me. My desire for a just peace has become my very sustenance, as has my need to work for healing, the abolition of the death penalty, and the ceasing of all war. Not least among that which strengthens me is the power of a few moments of communion, and of feeling truly heard.

Connie Nash is relocating to Asheville, North Carolina. As a disciple of Christ, she has been enriched by the teachings of Thay Thich Nhat Hanh and the deep listening of practitioners.

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