© Jeremy D. Nickel 2012. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
March 25, 2012
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Preface: In this message I am going to be talking about my time visiting with Dennis in San Quentin. It has been an honor to have this time with him, and I want to share some of that experience with all of you. One thing I want to note before I begin is that large parts of this sermon are based on reconstructed dialogue and is not a perfect verbatim report of what was said, but represents my best attempt to do that.
Prison Ministry is not something I ever intended to get involved with. Although I am strongly against the death penalty and have long been aware that the Prison-Industrial Complex was an enormous problem from both a fiscal and justice standpoint, it was not one of the struggles I felt personally called to be a part of.
But one day, quite unexpectedly, that all changed. I was sitting in one of my first meetings with our local Tri-Cities Interfaith Coalition, listening to the story of one of its members. As he described the ins and outs of his ministry, he began talking about his experience visiting a member of San Quentin's death row.
For the most part, my decisions about what kind of ministry to be involved with come after much thought and are very deliberate decisions. But something suddenly stirred deep within me as I listened to this man describe the way he had been affected by his time visiting this man who was labeled as condemned.
Before I knew it, I was filling out forms for security clearance and anxiously awaiting a letter that would let me know I had been matched with a prisoner. All I knew at that point was that to be eligible for this program, the prisoner must not have had a visitor outside of their lawyers for over 10 years. It turns out that the wheels of San Quentin move slowly, and it was many months before I heard back. I had almost given up ever hearing back from the program and wondered if my legal history of being arrested for civil disobedience on numerous occasions had flagged me and disqualified my participation. And then the letter arrived.
It was not from the program itself, but from Dennis, who had been told a few weeks before I had, that we had been matched. I pored over his letter, written in perfect cursive that any 5th grade teacher would be proud to have inspired. It was six pages long and mostly detailed his love of tools. This would become a running theme of our early visits, before there was trust to go deeper. We talked endlessly about socket wrenches and tractors and mixing cement. Dennis not only told me about the many things he had helped build before his incarceration, but also about the many things he figured out how to fabricate behind the walls of San Quentin. His proudest accomplishment was a set of drawers he had made out of cardboard and floss. It was a design that quickly became the envy of his entire unit and he was proud to have brainstormed such a solid and appreciated piece of prison furniture.
The time I spend with Dennis each month began to take on a familiar pattern. After navigating the myriad levels of security, we would meet in a cell about the size of a bathroom stall, with two chairs and a small table crammed in. We would share a bag of microwave popcorn, while Dennis enjoyed a Pepsi and I had a mango juice drink. For the first hour or so we would talk about unimportant topics: the weather, the news, his tools. But sometime in our second hour, we would back into something real - a snippet of his past life, a story about the night everything changed, his frustrations with his legal team.
Then, one day, I asked him what he could see from the window of his cell. I had just visited Alcatraz as a tourist for the first time and was struck by how much the prisoners could see and hear and even smell from the life that continued just over the water in San Francisco.
Dennis got unusually quiet for a minute. And then told me it was not so much what he could see, but what he couldn't. His view was by some measure breathtaking. It looked out over the bay, and he could see the water clearly and even a bit into the city. But because he was on one of the lower tiers, he could not see the sky. He got quiet again, and then looked up with me with eyes that looked sadder than I had ever seen them. He told me that he had not seen the night sky since 1997. Not one star, not a glimpse of the moon or an orbiting planet. But he did see them in his dreams. He dreamt often of camping, of lying in his sleeping bag on his back on a cloudless California evening and staring into the infinite mystery of the night sky. But in his dreams, that vision was fading, much as the memory of a loved one's voice grows distant years after their passing.
We sat there together, just holding this painful truth. It was one of those moments in ministry when you know that you cannot fix the problem, that all you could offer was your presence and love.
I could see in his eyes that our conversation had transported Dennis to some other far-off place. I didn't want to drag him back to death row one second earlier than I had to. After another minute or so of silence, he began to speak again.
"Jeremy," he began, "it is not just the night sky I miss. Have I told you about the crack in San Quentin?"
This sounded like dangerous territory. Was Dennis trying to pull a Shawshank, did he have some long-hidden plan to break out of the maximum-security prison we currently sat within?
Cautiously, I replied that no, he had not.
"Jeremy," he began, at a pace much slower and more deliberate than I was used to, "there is not one piece of organic life in this entire place besides the guards and prisoners. Not one plant, not one shrub or blade of grass. It is just 100% cement and steel. I have not touched a growing thing for over 15 years."
The absurdity of that statement hit me like a ton of bricks. As we sat in our tiny cell on this incredible earth so full of vibrant life, Dennis had not touched a living, growing thing for about half of my life. I couldn't help but think about where I was in the mid-1990s when Dennis was arrested and his incarceration began. I was just beginning college in Indiana, and since that time I have been to so many places, heard so many things, touched and smelled and felt the dance of life in so many incredible ways. And all the while Dennis sat in San Quentin, surrounded by cement, steel and angry men.
Then he once again broke the heavy silence that surrounded us, "But that is not entirely true, because of the crack in San Quentin. You see, in the yard, the only place we get to be outside, it is entirely paved over, and has been since long before I got here. But right down the middle, there is a giant crack in the cement. (I couldn't help but think of our own crack here in Cole Hall) For a long time they were always trying to patch it up, but they gave up over a decade ago. Then, for us, somewhat of a miracle occurred. Somehow, one day a seed from somewhere fell into that crack. It must have gotten a little rain in there, and got all inspired, and suddenly sprouted. Jeremy, this was like if a neon sign suddenly sprung out of the side of your church building. For us, this tiny little plant was the biggest, loudest thing in the yard. We could not keep our eyes off of it. But you know how this area is. Whatever moisture had gotten in there had suddenly disappeared, and after a few days we realized the little plant wasn't doing too well. And we decided it must be saved. So all of us began taking turns watering it. But in San Quentin, even something as simple as watering a plant is difficult. So we began asking for drinks of water just before yard time and then holding that water in our mouths for the 10 minutes or so it took to go through the process of getting out in the yard. And then we would spit that water onto the plant.
"And it began to thrive. Not only did it begin to thrive, but some little blades of grass began to grow in the crack around it. We realized that there was all sort of life in that crack; we just had to water it. So more and more guys began keeping water in their mouths on the way to the yard, and we were watering more and more of that crack every day. We had what felt like to us a real garden growing, springing right out of the middle of that concrete and steel place of death.
"Then one day when we came out, it was all gone. A guard had ripped out the main plant, the first one we had all been growing all that time, and had pulled a stick through the crack to pull out all the grass. They said we could have made a weapon out of whatever plant grew there. But we knew they just couldn't handle us having something that made us all so happy."
And in that moment I really felt Dennis's pain of separation from the world. Not just from organic life and plants and grass, but from all of life, from laughter and light-hearted moments, and the endless mystery of the night sky on a camping trip, separation from family and friends, from just about anything you or I would consider life. And it finally, and for the first time, clearly illustrated to me the absolute failings of our criminal justice system.
When consequences are strictly focused on punishment, the results are to push people farther away from what is best about our human nature. That crack opened up a world that had been forbidden to those men. It revealed just a sliver of the life that continued to go on without them on the other side of those walls. It spoke of hope, and growth and the vibrancy of life. The sad truth is that there is no space for any of those things in our criminal justice system, not even one tiny crack.
I know that another way is possible. I myself am a huge believer in the idea of restorative justice, a philosophy of justice that believes that the victims, the perpetrators, and the community affected by the crime must be considered in the healing process or it will not accomplish anything but adding more pain and further suffering to the equation. It is a holistic approach to justice that seeks to heal all the wounds created rather than simply focusing on punishing the offender.
The most famous example of restorative justice was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission used by South Africa to move from apartheid to a more just society. Through this process, all parties involved with the decades of brutal repression were allowed to tell their stories in an open and transparent environment. The pain and bondage of the victims as well as the perpetrators was aired, rather then simply swapping those who had been held in bondage for years with a new enemy.
It is also used by many local communities and organizations and could teach our current criminal justice system a lot about actually reforming the men and women who end up within the walls of our prisons.
This is not the way it has always been, nor the way it will always be. On that same trip to Alcatraz that inspired me to ask Dennis what he could see from the window of his cell, I also was exposed to a wonderful exhibit housed on that island about the history of prisons. I learned that it is only in the last two hundred years that we have moved to a strictly punishment-based philosophy of justice, and that the main driving force behind this change was not good science on how to reform people, but rather a matter of capitalism - how to turn justice into money. There will come a time when we finally evolve from the senselessness of our current system. But in the meantime, all I can do is to keep visiting Dennis.
One thing you can do is to educate yourself about the death penalty, as I strongly believe this is one small part of what is broken about our system. This election season we will vote in California on a ballot measure that seeks to convert all death penalty verdicts to life in prison without parole.
In the meantime, I will continue to be at least one small piece of organic life that walks into San Quentin once a month and reminds Dennis that despite his mistakes, he still matters, that he still has inherent worth and dignity. And to remind him of what the night sky looks like. Amen.
May it be so. Ashe.
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