The Awakening by Vern
“It’s July 14th, and for some reason I feel compelled to write down my feelings. I’m lying in bed, and I’ve just watch Serena lose her Wimbledon championship match. I’m locked in this cell with my tablet and the rest of my property. As much as I enjoy the time in my cell alone, this time is eerie. I’m in the State Correctional Institute Phoenix. The cell is brand-spanking new, and I am the first occupant this cell has endured overnight. Everything in here smells new and has that state-of-the-art look. But I am not titillated—or fooled—by the modernized environment I’ve stepped into. I am fearful of what’s behind this façade of fresh paint and air conditioned cells.
On Tuesday, which was the 10th, I had a bad feeling. The mere thought of our impending move from Graterford to Phoenix enveloped me in intense feelings of fear and panic. I wasn’t afraid of any of the men that would be moving with me or any of the other jailhouse mysticisms that instill fear into the uninitiated. I can gather that my trepidation was born from the prospect of an unknown future, but the intensity of these feelings was sort of alarming, given how much I’ve already been through in my twenty-seven years of incarceration. Then on Wednesday the 11th, we were locked down for the move. Having a single cell makes these lockdowns more tolerable, but this one signaled the end of an era. So I lay in my cell and slept or watched TV until it came time for me to go. They started taking people off my block on Thursday 12th. It was crazy watching brothers leave the block with a big cart full of personal property, escorted by the men in black (CERT team members). And even though my time to move was coming, there was this sense disconnection as I watched each of these men leave before me. I wasn’t even close to most of them, but they were part of my life for many years. If they had been going home, I would’ve cheered for them. But their movement didn’t warrant celebration—nor a memorial. So what do I feel?
On Friday the 13th, one of the men in black stopped at my cell. “Mr. Robinson, you’re moving.” I had already packed, so I just had to put my belongings into the moving cart. I left a lot of stuff in the cell, knowing that they would discard many of my belongings. Dealing with the CERT in the ’95 raid left me with an impression that our belongings were the least of the CERT team’s concerns. But I have to say that the CERT team members’ attitudes were nothing like those from the raid of 95′. They seemed more…patient. Matter of fact, the officer that was escorting me might have lulled me into a false sense camaraderie—not as if we were friends, but was if he saw me as human. I don’t want to assume he saw me as anything but human, but the illusory moment—more than likely an early stage of Stockholm Syndrome—was shattered by what I encountered once the officer escorted me off the block. When we got off the block, I saw a long line of brothers in browns. All of us were pushing our carts, and we each had an officer in black escorting us. All of us had to stop various tables to check in our electronics. The hallway was saturated with CERT team members and peppered with the men in brown pushing their property per orders of the officers. Once the electronics were checked, our property bins were taken from us and we were escorted to the school building, which was the point where we’d be prepared to board the bus. The school building was a snap-back moment to reality. I still had my respectful escort with me, but the visuals made his attempts to assuage my anxiety a moot point. The school corridor had CERT team members lined up with faces of stone. This environment was more suffocating than hallway ’cause the stern looks of the officers seemed indicative of a desire to utilize their tactical training skills. We went through various checkpoints to check for contraband on our person, culminating in our shackling. I need to tell you what this looked like? Dogs, chains, naked! This trip on the bus was literally five minutes from Graterford to Phoenix. Nothing much to say about that.
Entering Phoenix would have been invigorating—if it hadn’t been a prison! It looked like a sprawling campus with technological advances that many of the men of Graterford had never seen; but the fact that the manicured lawns and futuristic resources were used for prison made these things less appealing and not awe-inspiring. I was escorted, along with the men on the bus with me, to a cell block. Entering the block, I realized that the structure resembled the newer structures that I had seen on the television shows documenting prison life, like “60 Days In.” I was told what cell to go to, and I was locked in. After sitting in the cell for hours, I noticed something. I think that we took for granted the “liberties” we were afforded at Graterford. I know that Graterford was an oppressive institution as well, but the design of these new prisons is meant to oppress, but stagnate any communal growth as well. Now I see why the men and women upstate stuck together more. While the design’s intention is separate, it ultimately brings the community together because of its oppressive atmosphere. Graterford wasn’t an amusement park, but it surely wasn’t this. I’ve never been an advocate for making prison conditions better ’cause I’m not an advocate for prisons at all. But with no alternative in sight, what am I to lobby for? In spite of all that ails the world, I still search for the good in individuals. I mean, if I want forgiveness, I have to give it, too, right? But I see no good at all in minds that devise machinations of this magnitude. They seem to be devoid empathy.
This email was started Saturday and I’m ending it on Monday. It might seem to be a dramatic relation of this move, but it’s just how I feel. There was more, but I’m conserving emails. I just watched Trump with Putin on TV. These things have to be related dramatically, ’cause people ain’t listening!
A couple of weeks ago, I had to go to the school building here in the prison to interview for a new group. When I got there, I was escorted to a room to be interviewed. There were three tables in there, along with a different Rutgers student sitting behind each. Once I was summoned to one of the tables, the student that was at that table greeted me and asked me to sit down. As I sat down, I noticed soothing music was playing in the CD player over by the window. The student asked me to hold on for a minute while she retrieved some papers. As she was rummaging through her belongings, I began to look around the room. I felt a cool breeze coming through the window as the music played softly from the speakers. I looked further and I noticed the other two Rutgers students waiting for their subjects to arrive. Then my eyes were drawn to the bookcase that I had initially overlooked. What was in this bookcase of elementary school books that caught my eye? It was a book called Galaxies.
I remembered this book. I remembered Galaxies from elementary school. It was a simple book that was published by Houghton Mifflin Company, and it was instructional for elementary kids. It had short stories, poems, jokes, informational articles, and skill lessons designed to enrich a child’s learning experience. So why did this book now pique my interest as a 39-year old man? I hadn’t seen this book in at least thirty years, but why did it grab me so? I couldn’t answer that question in that moment, but I was completely enthralled by the book and perplexed by the allure this book held for me.
Whatever the case, I had to have this book. For what reason, I didn’t know. I later approached one of the school workers and asked him if he could acquire the book for me. He told me he would, but I could see in his demeanor that it wasn’t going to be a priority. After about a week, I approached another school worker to ask him if he might be able to retrieve the book, and he told me he would try. Some more time had passed, and, at the same time, the euphoria had pretty much worn off. Some weeks later, I was called back to the school building for another interview. When I went into the room this time, I looked straight to the bookcase. My eyes zeroed in on Galaxies, and I made a mental note of where it was located in the bookcase. When I left the school building that day, I went to yet another school worker and asked him would he be able to get the book. I told him the approximate location and everything, to which he replied, “I’ll see what I can do.”
About a week had passed and I’d pretty much forgotten about the book. The previous guys that I asked to get it didn’t seem too interested in helping me, so why would the third be any different? One day I was in my cell and the third guy came knocking at my door. When I opened the door to my cell, the guy handed me a book. He looked puzzled. He said, “I don’t know why you want this, but here it is.” His tone was almost condescending. After realizing that my request, on its face, looked preposterous, I actually understood his bewilderment at my reasons for asking for this introductory book. I thanked him and he left my cell. As soon as he handed me the book, I sort of zoned out for a second. Once I regained my senses, I knew that if I were to look into a mirror, I would see that my face was awash in astonishment. Now I’m sure that he thought I was crazy!
I immediately took the book into the cell and put my curtain up in order to get some privacy. I didn’t want to be bothered. When I sat in the confines of my cell with no noise to disturb me, I took a good look at the book. Wow! I thought. It looked just like it did back in elementary school. I flipped through the pages and realized that the cover and the pages had the same texture that they had 30 years ago. When I stopped at this specific page, my whole being was flooded with a sense of nostalgia. The page I stopped on was a story called “Surreal: 3000 A.D.” by Suzanne Martel. The stop here was not happenstance, no it wasn’t. I remembered this story because it was something I read in my youth and it intrigued me. I immediately was drawn to the picture, the story, and even the smell of the book now. These feeling that I was having about this book were overwhelming, but they became stronger every minute that I held this book. After I read the story, I continued to flip through the pages of this book. I had to keep stopping because of several reasons: this picture opened up a memory, those words opened up a memory, another picture opened up a memory… and on and on. Even the division of the chapters was instrumental in making me relive my youth. But why was this simple book holding my attention like this?
Over the next few days, I continued to flip through the book, as I was entranced by so much in it. With every flip of a page or every reading of a short story or lesson, I became slightly more aware of why I was drawn to this book. The comprehension began to come in slowly, but it picked up pace like an investigator finding a trail of clues. One of the first things I remembered was that Galaxies was the ultimate book in elementary school. You had to complete a number of other instructional books in order to get to Galaxies. It was sort of the coup de grace of learning in elementary school, the apex, if you will. My memory of the other books began to come into focus. I think the penultimate book was Kaleidoscope. I remember the two other books were called Panorama and Rainbows. Rainbows was the first book you were given in order to get to the rest. I don’t think I spent much time on Rainbows because I got skipped a couple of grades. But all this came to me, and I seemed to remember it vividly now. But still, why was this book, Galaxies, so bewitching to me?
After roughly two weeks with this book, it hit me! I never actually got to read Galaxies in school. I skimmed through it, but I never got to go through the actual lessons and read it in its entirety. By me being skipped twice in elementary school, there was a lot of curriculum that I started but didn’t get to finish because I was moving at an irregular pace. Actually, I don’t think I got a chance to finish either of the books because I always out-paced and out-read everybody else…
Wait a minute! I now know why this book had (and slightly still has) me dazzled. Galaxies was my objective when I was a youth. This book brought me back feeling of aspirations! I knew that Galaxies was the peak, and I was determined to get there. I even read some of it before it was my time. I was determined to get to the top, and Galaxies was it. I not only wanted to learn, but I wanted to tackle the best to learn. The thing was, I never got to Galaxies because I surpassed it. I actually accomplished what I was trying to do, but the memory that Galaxies was my aim at one time was never discarded from my memory.
I’m glad that it wasn’t, because it reminded me of who I can be and what I can accomplish if I put my mind to it. Even though my Galaxies is now on a grander scale, that doesn’t render my old pursuit of the book Galaxies as trivial.
Galaxies was not just an instructional textbook for elementary students, it was a life lesson for me. Will I reach Galaxies now, or will I surpass it? Let’s see!
I want to open up a discussion. This discussion will lead into different facets of the same apparatus. Depending on what’s contributed to this discussion, this discussion could delve much more deeply than I even anticipate. But in order for this discussion to have a chance at a meaningful resolution, all contributors have to be willing to look at everything objectively and believe that there’s a possibility that their own line of thinking could be wrong. I will assert right now that in an effort to stay objective, I will attempt to be cognizant of the fact that my scenarios or thoughts are not necessarily truths that are etched in stone. Someone could offer a rebuttal that disproves my thoughts, and I am open to that possibility.
TWO DIFFERENT MEN
Let’s begin this discussion with an analogy. Let’s start with two different men. One man named “John” has an “occupation” that requires depravity in order to be successful. He’s a hit man, and he’s committed a fair share of murders. There are no limits on how far he’ll go. Whomever he’s hired to execute, that job will be done, no questions asked. The second man is named “Blake.” While he doesn’t exhibit a penchant for murder, his environment and peer pressure sometimes goad individuals to believe they “have to do what has to be done.” One day Blake finds out that his own mother was robbed and beaten by a man from around the corner. Needles to say, even though his mother survived, the “codes of the street” that he continually adhered to compelled him to “take care of that situation.” Without the same stealth or clarity of mind as John, Blake takes the life of the man whom he considered to be a vile human being for robbing and beating his mother.
Both of these men, John and Blake, committed abhorrent crimes against other individuals and society as a whole. Neither actor can be reconciled without the proverbial pound of flesh. Absent the subjective beliefs of some as to whose crimes were worse, it’s safe to say that John’s accumulative demeritus for homicide call for a more intense punishment. But sadly, “justice” is not always sought. More often than not, an “outcome” is the desired result.
WHAT IS NEXT IN THEIR LIVES
There is hypocrisy in our judicial system. This hypocrisy is perpetuated by sanctioned individuals within the system. But the Public endorses these actions by doing nothing and accepting these actions as just. I’m apt to say the Public only accepts some flawed concepts because they are not privy to the strategies applied daily in the judicial system. If the Public were to see these actions more often, the Public would probably be horrified. Oh, one of these hypocrisies, or flawed concepts, is “The Deal.”
As I stated before, John’s continual disregard for the sanctity of human life seems to be easy to categorize as heinous. Blake, while not free from blame, could possibly be seen as a person provoked by the assault of his mother. But now the prosecutor uses The Deal to decide the fate of these two individuals (over 90% of cases have a deal offered). The Deal is not gauged on an individual’s particular crime; it’s arbitrarily decided by the perpetrator’s worth to the prosecution.
John is offered a deal that could have him out of jail in maybe 10 or 15 years. His deal entails him testifying on all those who hired him and many of their cohorts as well. Blake, on the other hand, is offered a deal for 30 to 60 years. His deal is not for testimony but just to save the government the cost and time of trial. Needless to say, with John’s unsavory compilation of crimes, he willingly relinquishes the beliefs he once held dear and he testifies against his former brethren, securing The Deal in the process. On the other hand, feeling as though proper vengeance was exacted, Blake doesn’t take the deal and he winds up feeling the full weight of the law after his convictions: LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE (I ask you to highlight this particular sentence for an important future reference). Do you think the two sentences are fair?
WHO ORCHESTRATES THE DEAL, AND WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?
The government propagates the notion that deals must be made in order to keep the system moving. They say that without deals, the system would come to a “grinding halt.” But let’s examine the art of The Deal and see if it is feasible to our pursuit of justice.
First of all, there are no written standards for a deal. (I could’ve given you the real-life example of Marie Noe from Philadelphia who received no jail time for the smothering of over 5 of her own infants. She also violated her probation and still never saw the inside of a prison). A prosecutor –two or three at the most– has the authority to offer whatever deal they believe suitable. This means that one human being who is not infallible –three at the most– gets to determine a person’s worth based on a personal assessment of the case. The defendant is subject to a prosecutor’s proclivities, and possibly the prosecutor’s obduracy– one human being who is not infallible, as an agent of the government, with the power to decide an individual’s fate. Why aren’t prosecutors’ actions considered just as bad as the perpetrator, since he/she also subjectively decides what action is right and just?
Before you claim the prosecutor IS the government, remember that The Deal is NOT law nor is there uniformity (i.e. Marie Noe). Without established guidelines–and a seemingly unmitigated immunity for prosecutors–defendants are sometimes subject to the whims of a prosecutor. Many time, prosecutors’ actions can’t be construed as acts on behalf of the people because prosecutors use the system to gratify their own desires; therefore, their actions belie an entity that is supposed to be an example of fairness and justice.
Let’s also examine the aspect of The Deal that the government considers a necessary evil. Prosecutors have repeatedly asserted that they sometimes need to deal with criminals in order to catch criminals. That mind-set has, at times, led to the proliferation of criminal enterprises. (We readily employ that mind-set overseas, too, to usurp governments and we can see what that has gotten us.)
This action won’t be considered vigilantism because vigilantism is action taken outside of lawful procedures. But using criminal actions to prevent crimes –actions taken outside of lawful procedures– almost surely is applicable to the same category as vigilantism. Wait a minute, I don’t want to further obfuscate this conversation with questions of whether the government can be vigilantes.
Consider this question: If you had a strong belief that your daughter was getting high, would you give the neighborhood dealer some type of incentive or consideration in an effort to catch your child red-handed? And if you’re that desperate to catch your child in the act and you do work with the dealer, are you content that a criminal has benefited off your desire? If your compensation was money, it probably could’ve contributed to the dealer’s expansion. Whatever your compensation was, would you be comfortable? This scenario is tantamount to the prosecution’s deal with a cooperating defendant. Is this Utilitarianism and these actions are the greatest good for the greatest amount of people?
Prosecutors secure testimony from a criminal who was in collusion with others but no longer sees a benefit for self by aligning and staying true to those others. Prosecutors give this criminal The Deal in order to secure convictions on the other defendants. Lots of times, the criminal who is given the deal is more dangerous than those whom he has to testify against (Surely people would be more afraid of John than they are of the ones who sent him).
This cooperating “witness” is only doing this for some type of incentive. Matter of fact, let’s look at some recent real-life events. In 1997, Renee Gissendaner conspired with her boyfriend to have her husband murdered. The boyfriend, Gregory Owen, actually plunged the knife into the neck and back of Gissendaner’s husband. The prosecutors cut him a deal to testify against Gissendaner, and he will be eligible for parole in 2022. Renee Gissendaner was executed by the State of Georgia on September 30, 2015 for the murder of her husband. Even though the man who actually murdered her husband is eligible for parole, she was executed for her crime. Is there fairness in this case? Is Owen more redeemable than Gissendaner?
Another similar case is in Oklahoma. Richard Glossip is on Death Row as his co-defendant, Justin Sneed, was spared the Death Penalty. Following the theme of the previous example, you can gather Justin Sneed was the one that murdered the victim, and Sneed conveniently was offered the chance to testify against Glossip for a reduced sentence. So the actual murderer, Sneed, was spared the death penalty, and the individual that Sneed testified against, Glossip, was given the death penalty because it was alleged that he told Sneed to kill the victim. This is fair?
WHY SHOULD WE CARE? WHAT’S THE EFFECT OF THIS?
I can’t tell you why you should care. Actually, this piece is being written to evoke some responses, mainly those that explain why others should care. I just want to present a side of the system that many don’t see, and with that information, you can decide what position you want to take. In the beginning I said that this conversation would look at different aspects of the same apparatus, and now I want to explain how all of those analogies relate to another part of the system.
Is The Deal the problem? No, The Deal is a concept, an inanimate object. But the same as the concept will ultimately lead to the root– human intention. The Deal is not a problem per se; how people see other people’s intrinsic value is the problem. Deals are offered on an arbitrary decision of who is redeemable and who’s not. Knowing this, whether you look at the intent of the concept or the applications of the concept, The Deal is reliant on the integrity of humans.
The Deal is just a mechanism that some use to exhibit a wanton disregard for justice that’s tempered with compassion and humanity. That disregard is exemplified in some other machinations that blatantly oppose mercy (one of these machinations being LWOP, which we will explore shortly).
The agents of the government who employ The Deal perceive their actions to be benevolent, and sometimes they are right. But as you can see from some of the earlier examples, the seemingly unfairness of some of those deals completely strips the prosecutor’s actions of any benevolence.
The human factor to The Deal is, at times, detrimental to the deal. Prosecutors take a position of defenders of “non-accused” citizens instead of defenders of justice. Prosecutors are actually supposed to be defenders of the public, which also encompasses “accused” citizens. But prosecutors develop a callousness that inhibits the desire for justice and encourages abuse. In some instances, the wishes of the victims for mercy are not even honored, indicative of the prosecutor’s dismissive attitude towards justice. At some point you have to ask: Is the thirst for vengeance really the public’s thirst, or is it the desire of “armchair warriors” who utilize the public’s fear to further their own agendas? Prosecutor’s partiality is evident as prosecutors show such exuberance to convict the accused but lack that same fervor when evidence is revealed to be contrary to the prosecutor’s position. Often times they won’t even apologize for a wrongful conviction.
IS THE DEAL THE PROBLEM?
Just like most concepts and inanimate objects that are intended to help others, a human with nefarious means can corrupt that good intentions of any concept. The Deal has been used unjustly for some time. When that is done, justice is not served. When justice isn’t served, the approval for injustice becomes stronger. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and no human is immune to the possibility of an injustice being perpetrated against him or her.
The consequences of a deal can sometimes be dire–not only when a deal is taken, but sometimes when a deal is NOT taken. You can see from the examples earlier, unbalanced outcomes are prevalent in this system. The government has “legitimized” two forms of obliteration of human beings: Death Penalty and Death by Incarceration (DBI–also known as Life Without Parole). Acknowledging the finality of these sentences, why would we allow something as definitive as the destruction of a human being to be reliant on a system that is oftentimes unbalanced?
The Death Penalty and Life Without Parole sentences are levied on those whom the system deems incorrigible. (Before someone tries to insert the argument that jurors decide a person’s fate it should be noted that juries only decide guilt. Juries are not even informed as to what sentences are applied to the charges they have to choose from.) The initial argument against these sentences is that neither sentence allows for redemption. Both sentences neglect a possibility that a human being could change for the better and become an asset to society. The sentences effect an action that is legally criminal; eradication of a human being. But beyond the immorality of the sentence, let’s look at the process of deeming an individual unredeemable.
I just said that those terminal sentences “are levied on those whom the system deems incorrigible.” A more accurate depiction would substitute the word “system” for the word “prosecutor.” Prosecutors –maybe two and definitely no more than three– are the deciders of a person’s fate. If an accused refuses to fully cooperate, the prosecutor can maliciously try to attain the harshest penalty available. Does a refusal to cooperate with authorities somehow warrant annihilation? Actually, the Constitution guarantees the right to not incriminate one’s self, so why would taking advantage of the rights the Constitution has afforded you be treated as if it’s subterfuge and a terrorist act against the government? Is the system meant to be a propagator of vindictiveness?
SO GET RID OF THE DEAL TO INSURE FAIRNESS, RIGHT?
No. The conversation about the deal was just a contrivance I used to illustrate a much larger issue: the absurdity of our justice system! These analogies were used to show the incongruity in the application of fairness. We are complicit in a system that gives an unearned chance at redemption to a person whose recompense is to be further dishonorable (I did not attribute “dishonorable” to cooperating defendants because of “snitching;” they are dishonorable because they have no ethical allegiance to anyone but themselves. They only cooperate when they are offered leniency, almost never because of their civic obligation).
Deals have become tools that are used in reprehensible ways, not as producers of honorable justice. I initially said that the Public is unaware of these deals, but that might not be true. Who doesn’t know about Sammy The Bull or one of a multitude of henchmen who eventually turned state’s evidence? I believe the Public is aware, but there is such a cavalier attitude towards the situation. Our selfishness precludes us from looking at instances in a system that is imploding, blinding us to the fact that we can be affected by the blast.
The words “Criminal Justice System” seem to be a duplicitous term that only the favored would favor. Nobody is accentuating the fact that the cries for justice are not coming from the elitists. And unfortunately, some outside of the elite standing cannot see the lack of justice that is apportioned for them, more than likely because they haven’t had to address it head-on. There is a clear dichotomy, but what’s not clear is if the have-nots understand that they are have-nots.
But there is a bigger problem in this system. There are quite a few irregularities in the application of fairness in our legal system. It seem as if the whole process indicts our unquenchable thirsts for revenge and reluctance to forgive. So I want to pose a question. If you find that most of the scenarios that I related to earlier implicate unfairness, how could you not be against a sentence that eradicates any possibility of redemption? How could you be an advocate –through lobbying or reticence– of a sentence of such finality in the face of human fallibility and bias?
We implement punishments in our system that exact permanence, but none more than DBI and the Death Penalty (Death Sentences). In light of a system prone to error, how could we be comfortable with that? Death Sentences are not punishment to teach what was done wrong; they are human decrees of a person’s immaterial worth to the world.
The system has many instances of showing a disregard for certain individuals’ circumstances in life, but Death Sentences show an unmitigated disregard for life, period! The moment you decide another is not worthy of life, you take part in a segment of society that imbues themselves with the right to decide life or death. The same act that you objurgate the “murderer” for, you plan to implement yourself. The mercy that you wish was bestowed upon the victim is the same mercy that you are unwilling to bestow, essentially adding fuel to a circuitous ring of fire that furthers destruction of human life.
We don’t rob a person who has robbed someone, we don’t rape a person who has raped someone, we don’t kidnap a person who has kidnapped someone, nor do we assault a person who has assaulted someone. So why should we kill someone who has killed? Is there any curriculum in our country that teaches that it is okay to violate someone if that person has violated you?
I have asked you to look at Death Sentences from a self-reflective point of view, comparing the sentence’s value to your own moral compass. Well, why don’t we just look at the sentence from a practical view.
There are plenty of states that use Life With parole sentences, and some states do not use the Death Penalty. There has been no major uptick in murderers because of the availability of parole. The recidivism rate for the class of individuals who were serving Life With Parole is extremely low. Keep in mind, parole is not immediately granted to an individual because his or her date is due. If a person shows transformation in thinking and a renewed dedication to community that is beneficial and not harmful, then that person would be afforded a chance at parole.
Why not use parole? There is a commutation and clemency process that resembles parole and allows a second chance. Commutation and clemency have not been protested as release valves, so why should parole? The problem with commutation and clemency is that the process is lengthy and, more often than not, political. They are processes that also overlook those who are probably viable choices but didn’t apply; an individual’s life should be worth being looked at without the prerequisite paperwork. Parole accomplishes that. And since there is no uproar about commutation or clemency, why not use parole, which is just a better alternative of those valves of release?
AGAIN, WHY SHOULD WE CARE?
No one can make you care, but a lack of caring is what’s weakening humanity now. But if you don’t care, what makes you think that someone with more power and authority won’t feel the same– about you!
Please understand that just because I railed against the unjust Death Sentences, I do not absolve the actions of an individual who has killed another human being. But we can’t censure one individual for an act and in turn perpetuate the same act and then call it comeuppance– especially under the auspices of a clearly flawed system.
We utilize a system that spitefully negates the possibility of redemption. This system is in the hands of a few, and they willingly trample the rights and desires of the many. In a system of checks and balances, the many, who are not in the upper rungs of the hierarchy, are not actually allowed to engage in the checks and balances– or at least dissuaded from doing so.
Look, some states do not use Death Sentences. Is there a difference in murder between states? What makes those people convicted of murder much more deserving of a second chance than people convicted in states with Death Sentences? Nothing. They all have the same capacity to become better people and also attempt to correct some of the harm they have caused.
We’ve gotten to a point where we let politicians and pundits tell us how to feel. The Supreme Court just determined that juveniles were not to be required to face mandatory Death Sentences. There was no massive uprising to combat this. The Court said it, so it was so. Individuals whom people had once considered incorrigible were now considered able to contribute to society. We waited for decades for the “authorities” to tell us it was okay for kids to go home. Why wait more decades for the “authorities” to tell us what we can see now; many men and women are not incorrigible, and they should not be viewed as such.
Don’t be fooled, the authorities actually work for people, You can ask for systemic change now, or you can just sit back and watch the negative effects, hoping that it never touches you.
I once talked about this quote in one of my papers:
“If I had to choose between justice and disorder on the one hand, and injustice and order on the other, I would always choose the latter.” Goethe (1749-1832)
First of all, justice cannot be juxtaposed with disorder nor can injustice be juxtaposed with order. Actual justice would be universal to all, and it would inspire order. But someone who wants to embrace injustice to have order –as Goethe intimates– has already decided that they will be the dispenser of injustice so they could achieve that “order.” That is an unfortunate mindset that permeates our system today.
That’s why you should care.
SO ALIKE, BUT SO DIFFERENT
This journey seems a bit more tumultuous with every passing day. The deeds of those that came before me intimated that my course of action might hold some pitfalls, but this couldn’t have been foreseen.
Only a fool would choose a path that ultimately end his existence. Where did I lose my way? Surely my parents didn’t guide me to this path. My family surrounded me with an ethical and moral membrane that mimicked a fairytale to instruct children. I can’t seem to grasp the point where I embraced selfishness and eschewed selflessness.
Environment! People in the past have used that excuse, why can’t I? Naw, that’s not an excuse. Regardless of my environment, I had a CHOICE. The environment could be considered an influence, but it’s just that—an influence. There’s ABSOLUTELY no influence that can MAKE you do anything. The fact that I’m pondering my actions is indicative of my awareness of my wrongdoing, so environment and influence don’t control the FINALITY of my decisions; therefore, it cannot be blamed.
I can’t help but think about how I’M affected, even though I’ve hurt my family, my friends, and the entire community. Have my good deeds outweighed my bad? Does fifty good deeds equate one heinous deed? What’s the barometer? Who holds the scales of justice to establish whether my sleight against society is worthy of annihilation?
Aaahh…My actions have brought me shame, but they have also bought me insulation! I’ve played a game that had rules written by elitists. The rules clearly state “Don’t get caught!” Even with that stern warning, I notice that I was told that rule along with the wink of an eye.
WHAT’S REALLY GOOD?
I’ve always had swagger! No, not cockiness, but swagger. It wasn’t always called “swagger,” but I had it. My “personality” was one that wouldn’t exclude me from many groups. I never was aggressive or loud, but I could impress others enough where they wouldn’t mind being in my company. I never had to worry about being in the “in” crowd ’cause I was normally part of it; and if I wasn’t, that “in” crowd just saw me as an individual who wasn’t in their group, not someone of a lower echelon.
You have to respect swagger, ’cause if you don’t you begin to lack humility and you start to exhibit hubris—swagger becomes “swagga.”*I paid no attention to the genuine love I received from people liking my character, and I embraced the swagga that caused me to devolve a bit. Fortunately, I didn’t lose friends because of this, but I lost something else precious.
My friends and family loved me for who I was, not what I could do. I didn’t understand this. I was emblematic of egotistical persons that become “full of themselves.” I began to accrue respect from the streets, and this further enlivened my swagga. I revelled in this false adulation, not realizing that the streets nor individuals outside my realm cared nothing about me.
I went to Dobbins High School, and by then my legend had reached a crescendo—at least in my eyes I was legendary. I had already disavowed the traits that TRULY made me a lovable person, and in doing so I could’ve garnered an ugly personification.
One day my English teacher, Ms. Cohen, decided to call me out in the middle of class.
“Yesterday one of our students was shot during a robbery. Vern, I see you out on that corner, and the same thing will happen to you if you don’t change.”
Damn! In front of the whole class?!
Instead of being ashamed, I felt slightly invigorated. I was just acknowledged as one of the cats who was known to brave the mean streets! Yeah! Forget her! She inadvertently gave me my props and she was wrong. I didn’t…get shot…not dead. Or…did I?*I didn’t get shot, nor am I dead. I’ve lost a lot, though. If this is not death, it’s surely a continual near-death experience. Why did I write this story? Well, I just wanted to talk about misplaced ideologies and priorities.
I don’t think many of you have made a decision that was as detrimental as A FEW of the decisions I’ve made, but some of our actions can be revisited from time to time.
I was mainly talking about following things that had no REAL meaning. We all remember Ving Rhames’ character in “Baby Boy” when he talked about the “guns and butter.” But too often we chase things of little value, or as Ving Rhames said, “Things that depreciate” with time. I’m not necessarily talking about just material things, even though y’all know we’ve been falling for that trick since way back when—have to get that name brand and keep up with the Joneses!
I’m mainly talking about our focus on each other, family, and friends. Let me make this clear, I AM NOT A PREACHER, nor do I profess to know what ails you. I DO have a lot of time to think—too much time—and I think about mistakes that have been made. How can I right wrongs. Who can I stop from making the same mistakes? That’s my aim, to somehow give back to those I love and others.
That stuff I loved from the streets, it was all a facade. Honestly, I detest all of it now. To top it all off, I put effort into an entity that had no concern for me, and I paid for it dearly. All the time I could’ve concentrated on something as precious as y’all; my reward would have been much greater. The fruits of my labor would have been an appreciation in value!
We all love money, nice things, and our own “vices.” But take time to really understand the things you are putting stock into. Make sure it is something of true worth that will grow in value and be beneficial to more than just your immediate appetite. JUST sating your appetite is selfish and can hurt later on.
Look for bigger pictures, not smaller portraits.
“She’s a cryer. She’s real emotional.”
That’s what my father said. His statements didn’t have any disparaging intent. He was just trying to say that she “wears her heart on her sleeve.” It’s not a bad thing, and he wasn’t speaking on it as such.
Crying. People have always used the cliché “you’re crying for nothing.” Crying is NEVER for nothing. Crying can be an emotional response to fear, happiness, pain, tumult, etc.; but it surely doesn’t come from nothing.
Crying always has a provocateur.
She chastised me for stealing, and I ran next door to the insurance company, embarrassing her in front of a company full of white professionals like she was an abusive mother.
She had to take me back to school MULTIPLE TIMES because of disciplinary infractions and hookying from school.
I lay drunk and passed out on my friend’s porch and she tried to awaken me.
I got my jaw broke after getting ganged up on out in the streets.
The day I got locked up, some officers brought me out of her basement with handcuffs on, while other officers had their guns trained on her and my sisters.
The first day after I got locked up, she visited me in jail—her first time ever in a prison.
I got beat down by the guards in Holmesburg Prison, and she visited me and saw what looked like the Elephant Man behind the plexiglass.
A box from the State Correctional Institution Graterford was delivered to her house with the set of “street clothes” that she had last seen me in, giving her the scary impression that her son had passed on and the State was sending her my effects.
She came to visit me one morning, earlier than usual, and saw a civilian woman tell a guard, “I’m not here to visit. I’m coming to pick up my son.” Then, as she descended the visiting room stairs to see me, she saw about 8 men appear in the lobby with their packed boxes, ready to go home.
One day on a visit, she wondered aloud, “Where did I go wrong with you?” blaming herself for my transgressions.
She cried in response to each one of these incidents. I don’t know what the buoying emotion was, but I can gather that none of these incidents incited glee or happiness.
In rebuttal to these negative memories, someone once asked me, “Well, how many times have you made her proud? Did you think of that?”
To me, that doesn’t matter. ‘Cause I NEVER, EVER wanted to make my mother cry! How could I make her wonder “Where did I go wrong with you?”
WHERE AND WHY?
I marvel as I watch the tumbleweed dance across the landscape.
This is crazy. I’ve only seen this picture in the movies. The land looks arid, and it looks like dry, cracked skin. Actually, the land looks like I feel: parched. Amazingly, the atmosphere feels nothing like it looks. Any sane person that saw this picture would think I was in incredibly hot weather. But there’s no heat, no sweating. I am parched, though.
How am I here? WHY am I here? As far as I can see, there’s nothing but dry land. Even that tumbleweed is not visible anymore. Where the hell did it go? I start walking, and I occasionally see mountains in the distance. How do I “occasionally” see them? I have no idea. Maybe they are a mirage. I know I walk towards the mountains, but the they disappear, leaving me with dry, cracked land as far as I can see.
I’m not getting tired, either. I’m thirsty, but my thirst is not hindering my trek. This seems to be a walk that I am compelled to take. ‘Cause God knows that I don’t want to take this journey in this seemingly Godforsaken land. I’m still at a loss as to how I got here, and WHY I am here! Where the hell am I going? One thing for sure, standing pat does not seem to be an avenue of progression, so I’m going to have to KEEP trying to make it to those evaporating mountains.
Man, I’m glad that I don’t feel like the environment dictates I should feel physically. Why am I thinking things as trivial as that since there are more pressing issues here? I guess it’s ’cause I have time to think.
Well, now that I’m resigned to the fact that I’m in an unknown area and I have to move to get somewhere, I start talking to God as I walk. Actually, I started talking to God shortly after I saw that tumbleweed; but that was an initial response that wasn’t a genuine appeal to God. It was a nonthinking response that people casually do when realizing their in WAY over their heads. But my situation calls for more than a halfhearted appeal or perfunctory contemplation.
“Talking” is an inaccurate description. It is more of an inquiry, because the only response I want from God would answer where I am, how I got here, and why I am here?
Suddenly, my mind is afflicted with a montage. This montage is not addressing my immediate concerns, but it interests me, nonetheless. It seems like it’s playing slowly and deliberately. While some highlights are more shocking than others, I recognize that there is an alternate route available in each scenario. I’m quite saddened by many of the routes that were chosen.
The production ends, and somberness envelops me. In spite of the gravity of what I just saw, my being is flooded with a sense of clarity. The first thing I realize is that God has mercifully excused my insolent questioning and given me a tutorial, showed me what I needed to see. That montage was selected excerpts from my life. They were specifically selected to show the impact of my actions over time, mostly the pain I’ve inflicted and its residuals.
“Why am I here?” is no longer my concern. My spirit is now saturated with a new understanding that was born out of the revelatory montage, and now my concern is how I can help those whom I’ve harmed—along with others. My environment is of little consequence right now, but I have this nagging feeling that it is hindering something.
I notice that my thirst is completely gone, but now there is an intense hunger. This hunger causes me to look in all directions for something to sate my appetite. A “scent,” or some force that garners my attention, wafts into my nostrils and causes me to look behind me. When I look, I see road. Where the hell did that come from? Regardless, there’s nothing here for me, and that scent is compelling me more than anything to travel that road. But this yearning to satisfy my craving doesn’t seem like previous knee-jerk reactions to fulfill selfish desires. For some reason this feels…more right. The scent is compelling me, but so is an innate feeling, one that I’ve never noticed before.
I take to the road with no clear decision of which way to go or anything. Wait, I do have a guide: that scent. So that’s what I do, follow the scent.
I walk a little bit and notice a sign in the distance. As I get closer to it, I see what it says.
“You Are Now Leaving REFLECTION. Hope You Enjoyed Your Stay!”
I can’t necessarily say I “enjoyed” my stay, but I feel that my mind was opened in some way. And how do they expect someone to enjoy their stay there? Matter of fact, who are “they”? There was nothing there to enjoy. Well…I guess I “appreciate” seeing things differently now. But my hunger is pushing me down this road at an alarming pace, so I’ll reserve my thoughts about that sign for now.
I continue to walk on what looks to be a long, seldom-traveled road. I see no cars coming in the distance from either way. As I walk more, I notice a family ahead, looking like they’re in some sort of distress. I’m sure I didn’t see them a minute ago, but maybe I’m not paying attention to the time and distance that I’ve been walking. Anyway, I jubilantly stop to help this family, feeling enthused as I am able to help them in their time of need. I move on after I’m done, thankful that the encounter has distracted me from the hunger pangs that plague me.
I’m surprised that my trek is not tiresome at all; actually, my chance meeting with that family left me slightly invigorated. On this road, numerous opportunities to help others are suddenly visible, and I assist in each one. I can’t help but wonder whether these opportunities are just appearing or I’m seeing things through a different lens.
Not all of the chances to help involve families. There are individuals in some of these chance encounters, and sometimes there are entities. Some of the help I provide result in a reward, but not all. I don’t feel the need for gratitude, though, and my assistance is feeling like the proverbial “pot of gold.”
Now that I think about it, helping that family didn’t distract me from my hunger pangs. My hunger was slightly sated after I helped them. And after each encounter after that, my hunger waned more and more. The farther I get down this road, the more satisfied I am, without even eating a morsel.
I don’t know how long I’ve been walking and I don’t know how many people I’ve helped, but I feel like I can go on this road forever. But from the look of that sign up ahead, this road has an end.
“Welcome To Redemption, Population: Hopefully Increasing—Room For All!”
I see the town behind the sign. Redemption? I can’t wait to see what it looks like in there.
The road stops at what looks to be the entrance of the town. I step into the town and I’m inundated with a feeling of tranquility. But at the same time, I’m also having a nagging feeling. It’s my hunger. I’m not incredibly hungry anymore, but I just feel like there’s plenty of room for more. That’s weird. Is it possible to be at peace and hungry at the same time?
“How are you feeling, sir? Glad you could make it.”
Whoa! In the blink of an eye, a woman and a man are standing in front of me with welcoming smiles. I’m so stunned by their instantaneous presence that I don’t even know who it was that spoke to me. I’m stunned but not afraid; I feel their warmth.
“Hey, I just came from—”
The woman cuts me off, but not in a haughty manner. It seems sort of protective, like she’s trying to stop me before I say too much.
“We don’t care where you came from. Everyone in Redemption has come from somewhere. From where they come is irrelevant. Being here is what matters,” she says.
“You just came from Reflection, right? Most people that are here came through there. Reflection is a nice rest stop, but that’s just what it is: a rest stop,” the man says.
“Staying in Reflection for too long may help you see things differently, but it offers you nothing in the way of opportunity,” the woman says, sounding like an attentive, caring teacher.
“And you lacking the opportunity to act on what you’ve learned offers nobody anything, especially those who you’ve harmed,” the man adds.
The back-and-forth between this woman and man sounds like a choreographed pitch, but I appreciate its tutelage and don’t see it as some type of solicitation.
In unison they say, “Come on, sir, let’s get you settled in.”
“But I don’t have any money or anything,” I reply.
The understanding expressions on their faces and the slight nod of their heads convey that they have heard this response before and are prepared to address it. The woman is first to accept the task of assuaging my spirit.
“In Redemption, you don’t need those things. In Redemption, nothing is required. It’s hard to explain, but you’ll understand more the longer you stay here. For right now the explanation is that we have a sort of ‘honor system.'”
“What do you mean ‘nothing is required’? What kind of honor system are y’all operating on?” I ask, feeling completely confounded.
This “choreographed” speech must have left room for improv, because the man begins to speak as if my questions were his cue.
“Sir, we strive to make Redemption the most genuine place on Earth. Requirements are sometimes burdens, and burdens can rob certain situations of genuineness. Would you rather make someone love you or have them love you genuinely from their heart? Even though there are things that need to be done here in Redemption, things that need to be fixed, we’d rather a person do it from their heart instead of being compelled. If a person is compelled to do something, it’s not done wholeheartedly. And if a person gets the opportunity to avoid things they are compelled to do, what do you think they’ll do?”
I’m listening to the man’s words and I think of how both of their speeches seem to sound melodic, and I feel like I’ve been entranced by them. But a bit of my old, unthinking self still existed, and this stuff wasn’t registering completely with me.
“Honor system? This town just relies on the people to pretty much offer assistance, money, or whatever else? You don’t ink people will take advantage of that?” I quiz, trying to inform them under the guise of questions.
“Vernon,” the woman says softly, and to my surprise, “Redemption is not predicated on what another force wants to do for us or against us. Redemption thrives on our innate desire to do good, consequences be damned. That desire was born out of a realization that some of our past deeds were selfish and hurt people. So now we want to use our selfishness to help others. I call it ‘our selfishness’ because our actions ultimately are results of our desires to do something; but I think being selfish for the sake of others offers more to the world.”
That last sentence must have been a segue for the man.
“Vernon, when you helped people along that road, did you want something in return?”
No, I wanted nothing in return for my aid. I felt I needed to do those things. The compulsion came from within, from my gut. That time in Reflection made me realize I owe. I owe those I’ve hurt and I owe humanity. The hunger that I had is within me and nudging me subtly. And the town of Redemption is making me notice it more.
“You know what? C’mon, I think I’ll stay a while,” I say, happily relenting to their pitch.
I owe humanity, as do we all. Some more than others. But redemption can only start from within. If we think we can make someone redeem themselves, then we are searching for disaster.
Redemption is open to everyone—at least it should be!
Vernon Robinson 27 served, 1991
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Smart Communications/PA DOC Vernon Robinson, CB3895
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