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You Tele-Conferenced Me in Prison: Once a Cold Heart, Always a Cold Heart

05/21/2015 03:33 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2016

One of my students--let us call her Brenda--had a clemency hearing this past week: she committed years ago a serious crime that led to multiple and deep harms, and also to a twenty-year prison sentence. She was eighteen at the time.

Brenda's mother bore her when she was only seventeen. Unable to care for her, Brenda was raised by grandparents and aunts and uncles, and began getting caught up in the sorts of dangers and dysfunctions which would surprise no one, given the deficits her life handed her through no fault of her own. And then one day she wanted some money, and did not want to work for it, and that illicit desire led to serious and troubling harm.

There is much that is odd about the chilling mass imprisonment of human beings that is occurring in our country. In general, no one seems aware of the industry that has arisen in our land--much of it driven by privately held profiteering off the incarceration of human beings. The prison-industrial complex is a scourge which rips apart communities and rips to shred young lives. The United States, which has 5% of the world's population, is reported to house 25% of the world's prison population. And there are all sorts of problems, systemic and racial and economic problems, with what is happening in our midst, and by and large, very little is being said about it. (For several important and significant exceptions, see Alexander, Stevenson, and The Sentencing Project.)

But there's no question: Brenda's crime was foul and cold. Eighteen year olds often are. And Brenda's crime was compounded with the yet more foul and cold actions of some of her compatriots in that crime.

Along with the chilling nature of the crime came a cold clemency hearing: the hearing itself could have been another chapter in Foucault's famous Discipline and Punish: the hearing was conducted by tele-conference. Brenda, along with many of her professors--including myself--plus her mother and her aunt, we all gathered in a small room at the Tennessee Prison for Women. The committee authorized by the governor to conduct clemency hearings, along with those opposed to any such clemency, were gathered in an office building somewhere off-site in Tennessee. We all looked at each other through the large flat screen television hanging at one end of the room. We were discussing whether this woman, now aged thirty-two, should be released from prison, after serving fourteen years.

Brenda was treated, nonetheless, with all appropriate respect-via-tele-conference by the chairman of the committee. She was asked to tell her story. She did: key significant factors of her childhood, the bad decisions she began to make, the day of the crime, and the crime itself.

I had never heard her story. She was my student only one semester in a course at the prison. She made an A. As a matter of fact, she has made all A's in the University courses she has taken in the prison, which my colleagues make available, which my University makes available, at significant sacrifice to all involved. But I had never asked her her crime, nor asked how she had come to be incarcerated so terribly long.

It is painful to hear true confession, often accompanied by grief and shame, to lay before others one's worst deeds. Dear God, I thought, what courage to make such a confession, before her professors and--oh ungodly technocratic objectification of human beings--before a panel of inquisitors seen only on a flat screen television, with no comfort of presence.

Two of my colleagues, then the aunt, then the mother--all spoke on behalf of Brenda, the remarkable changes which had occurred in her, the industry and accountability with which she had taken to effect change in herself, the hard work in university education and in social skills and emotional health. She is not the same person who did this sorry deed, they said, in cumulative effect.

The son and daughter of the victim spoke. They provided yet more details, and made it all the more clear that the deeds of eighteen year old Brenda were indeed cold and calloused, selfish and self-serving. It was painful to hear their pain: their father had not been merely robbed of easy cash; he had been robbed of dignity, health, and the capacity to enjoy life, to enjoy fishing, to enjoy his grandchildren. He would die having never recovered from the injuries inflicted upon him in that quest for easy money.

Their hearts were still broken, and understandably so. And they were still angry, and resentful, and advocated for no clemency. And understandably so. I have never had to deal with such injuries to loved ones, and the resentments I have often carried about with me for long periods of time have not had such offenses as Brenda's to legitimate my long-held angers. I have never been in their shoes. I hope I shall never have to be. I do not stand in judgment upon them. I was pained for them, too, hurt with them too, and pained that such bitterness still dogged their days.

Then came a theological assertion that I did not expect.

"Once a cold heart," said the daughter of the victim, staring into the camera so as to make herself perfectly clear, "always a cold heart." She continued: "I don't believe in rehabilitation, and prisons don't work."

I'm pretty sure, too, that "prisons don't work."

But the great question before us--in the midst of our cultural celebrations of the deep throbbing of offense and retaliation, of violence and the myth of counter-redemptive violence, and of the cold, industrialized vengeance we inflict upon our supposed enemies--is whether there is a possibility of redemption, the possibility that we are not forever committed to being our worst selves.

Woe be unto us if there be none.