Archive for the ‘Criminal Justice’ Category

If not me, who?

November 17, 2013

I’m preparing to travel to the prison where an execution will take place at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, November 20. In my role as a ministerial witness, my arrival is to be around 11:00 p.m.

The man scheduled for execution is Joseph Paul Franklin, a hate-crime serial killer. I have known Mr. Franklin for more than 12 years, and I have visited his isolation cell countless times.

Some may ask, Why bother? That question calls to mind a couple of lines from the movie, Longford, about which I have blogged previously. Lord Longford was on a radio show and was being challenged about his long, frustrating and futile efforts to free Myra Hindley, one of the notorious Moors Murderers in the early 60s. The crimes were horrendous, grisly.

Lord Longford: … Forgiving her has proven difficult, very difficult. Not for what’s she’s done to me, that’s neither here nor there; but for the terrible crimes themselves. Forgiveness is the very cornerstone of my faith. And the struggle to deepen my faith is my life’s journey. In that respect she has enriched my spiritual life beyond measure, and for that, I will always be grateful to her.

Lord Longford: If people think that makes me weak… or mad… so be it. That is the path I am committed to. To love the sinner, but hate the sins. To assume the best in people, and not the worst. To believe that anyone, no matter how evil, can be redeemed… eventually.

So, I told Mr. Franklin I would be there for him. And if the execution goes through, I will be.

An Immeasurable distance

January 23, 2013

I must admit that this came forth very painfully. I’m supposed to be writing for my book on prison ministry, but this came out instead.


An Immeasurable Distance

A young black face
In profile
Through the narrow cell window
Just his profile
He was leaning
His back against the wall
Less than two feet away
But the door
The cell door
The solid steel cell door
Imposed an immeasurable distance
Between us
A gulf socioeconomic, judicial, racial
A span of years, experiences, hopes, dreams
Separated us
He spoke softly
“It’s hard,” he said
“I know,” was my only reply
Flowed instantly
Glistening on his dark skin
Catching the light from the small window
Twelve feet away
I also wept … inside
Silently, invisibly
Carrying on my own tears
Hundreds of young men
Hidden behind those doors
For the past twelve years
I’ve stood at those doors
This young man facing life
Without parole
Now 25 years old
He was eighteen
The day I first knocked on his door

 © 2013 Thomas W. Cummins

It is a lonely place

August 20, 2011

“You have no idea what it’s like,” he said to me tearfully.

“What’s that?”

“Being sick, really sick, and all alone.”

A small row of locked rooms comprises the infirmary at the prison. There is no one in the hall, no sounds, not even the murmur of a TV through the solid steel doors.

A correctional officer will come and open a door if I would like to enter for a brief visit.

Some offenders are quarantined if they are contagious. Conversations with those men are held at the door if they can get up and come over. Nothing spreads faster than an illness in a prison, plus one never knows who within the population has a compromised immune system.

Others may be segregated from contact due to unpredictable or violent behavior. Again, those are best held at the door.

Those who are terminal have daily attention from any one of several hospice-trained prisoners, a dedicated group of grace-filled workers. I can visit them as well.

But most in the infirmary are there for a short time, are safe, and can be visited. I don’t stay long, communion may be desired. Emotions are always just below the surface, especially when I ask if I may give them a blessing.

Yes, it is a lonely place, and, yes, I have no idea what it’s like.

Prison becomes a better place

February 24, 2011

A few days ago, I participated on a panel discussing the death penalty in Missouri. I spoke about the recent execution and the transformation I had personally observed in the man who was put to death.

During the question and answer period, one of the attendees asked, “These men who are transformed during their time in prison, what do they do with this newly found conversion? Particularly those who aren’t going to be released? How can they reach out to others?”

I responded, “They minister to each other.”

Prison life is within a community, a community of men struggling to discover who they are and where they are heading. It isn’t a normal community by any measure. Freedom has been taken away; there are countless rules; interaction with the opposite sex is non-existent; the ability to express anger or affection is suppressed.

But a life of meaning can be found once an offender realizes that prison is his life, that he isn’t enduring  a “life interrupted.” Offenders eventually find it to be  unhealthy to dwell upon life-on-the-streets, either before or after incarceration. Today is really all anyone has, and that notion is particularly acute for those in prison.

After a few years, an offender’s focus often turns toward anything that takes him out of his current environment. He seeks a different kind of freedom, freedom of the spirit, a place to dwell that is more welcoming and more comforting than the bleakness and monotony of prison life.

The spiritual life offers that, and the path to conversion begins. Chapel services are attended; meditation classes are taken; prayer time becomes part of the daily routine; bible studies are pursued, and a community of believers begins to become more and more apparent.

Ministry to others becomes part of their prison existence. They begin to notice those  who are hurting, need encouragement, lose hope to the point of near-despair, are grieving over the loss of loved ones through death or through broken relationships.

Transformation does take place. A new creation begins to exist within individual prison cells. Prison becomes a better place.

A senseless activity

February 13, 2011

During the early hours of Wednesday, February 9, 2011, just after mid-night, Martin Link was executed by the State of Missouri. Why? No reason other than he committed one of the few murders which result in a death sentence in Missouri – about 1 percent.

An individual taking revenge on a person who murdered a loved one is an illegal activity. The state taking revenge on that murderer is a senseless activity, completely absent any meaning. Killing someone who is defenseless and poses no threat to society defies explanation.

There are more than 40 men on death row in Missouri. (I invite you to name two.) These are men the state can’t wait to execute. But to what end? Who knows their names or what crime they are guilty of committing?

Mr. Link’s crime needed to be spelled out in several newspaper articles and TV reports over the weeks prior to his execution.  If he was such a menace to the life and welfare of any of our fellow citizens, you’d think his presence among us would have been top of mind everyday for the past 20 years.

To be sure, his crime was most distasteful, violent, and devoid of any public sympathy. I’ll let the reader Google his name for the details. During my 2-1/2 years of visiting him on a regular basis, I was unaware of his crime. Seldom am I aware of the crimes of any of the men I minister to in solitary confinement.

I intentionally choose to not research offenders’ crimes. No matter how hard I try, it is difficult to avoid being judgmental. Meeting them where they are and as they are is what I’m called to do as a volunteer chaplain in two of Missouri’s maximum security prisons.

Getting to know Marty Link was a privilege for me, and to have him as a companion on a small segment of my faith journey. My comments at his prayer service prior to his burial on Friday, February 11 are linked here.

Let us all pray for wisdom and maturity among our elected officials so that an end to capital punishment can be achieved in our states and nation. We are becoming more and more alone in the world in our inability to forgive and open the door to redemption. Denying access to repentance and a life of meaning, even in prison, doesn’t reflect what this country stands for.

A 21st Century Prophecy

February 8, 2011

(This morning I spent time with an offender who is in a holding cell awaiting execution just after midnight tonight. As I sit here this evening, I’m reminded of what I was doing nearly 10 years ago at the end of my first year as a volunteer chaplain at a maximum security prison.)

During the fall of 2001, two events converged: I was taking a course called “The Prophets,” and I was asked by an offender to be a pastoral witness at his execution.

So, I chose the topic of capital punishment and reflected upon what a modern-day prophet might have to say on the topic.

In my paper I included A 21st Century Prophecy which I wrote in the morning before I drove down to the prison on the eve of his execution.