Prison is a kicking. They kick you, and they kick you, and they kick you. If you die behind these walls, they kick you again to make sure you are dead. It is a figurative kicking, but it is a kicking all the same.
In 1997, at the age of 44, I was convicted of second degree murder, and sentenced to (parolable) life. It was my first and only offense. I asked Judge Schma, “When might I go home?”. He said, “Seventeen years”.
The awful crime I committed is forever with me. To quote the 16th century writer Miguel de Cervantes, “There is a remedy for all things except death”. I took Lillie’s life. No amount of introspection and remorse will undo the pain I have caused. Nothing will change her state of existence. The most I can do is say, “I knew her. She was an exceptional human being. She forgives”.
I set myself up with a task: seek redemption. Do good work. Make it difficult for them to hold me in prison beyond Judge Schma’s “seventeen years”. Seek more redemption. Jesus said, “Go forth, and sin no more”. I want to do that.
In the year 2000, I earned a master’s degree from Western Michigan University. In 2002, I became a braillist, certified by the U.S. Library of Congress. In 2005, I published my first novel. In 2008, I published my second.
Meanwhile, I maintained excellent work reports and block reports, and tutored fellow inmates. I also lent a hand to community institutions, such as the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, and the Woodland Park Historical Committee. Most importantly, I strove to help the mother of my family, Jane Carter, raise our children and grandchildren, even from such a terrible distance.
When 17 years had passed, I stood for my first parole hearing in 2013. The interviewer, Jayne Price, acknowledged my efforts, stating, “You’ve done a good job, Mr. Carter”, then added, “But we’d like to see you do more time”. They gave me a five year continuance. Apparently, they had no reason to keep me in prison, except it made them feel good. Five years later, in 2018, they gave me another five year continuance.
There is a human cost to these prolonged sentences. Prison breeds a multitude of illnesses- physical, mental, emotional; illnesses rooted in the separation of man and woman from their fundamental, God-approved needs. During one bad stretch in 2020, my blood pressure soared to 203/110. The nurse sent me back to my cell. The next day, it registered 190/105. The nurse replied, “That’s better”, and sent me back to my cell again. So when, during a routine lab check on September 27, 2021, my blood pressure registered at 154/85 and Doctor Sices – a nice fellow – suggested raising my dosage, I declined. I suggested to him that over medication in the prison system may simply be a subconscious effort to cloak the ills of over-incarceration. Besides, medication is not the remedy. Freedom is.
The nation claims to be composed of people “who believe in second chances”. That sounds good, like proclaiming yourselves “freedom-loving people” when it is your own freedom that gets all of the “loving”. In fact, it is a vindictive people who would lock up two million of its own citizens, and hold a quarter of those two million people beyond their earliest release dates. It makes those “guardians of freedom” feel good, because it makes them look “tough”.
When it comes to locking people up, America makes despots proud. What is wrong with us? We talk about “freedom” in such grandiose terms, yet this nation has never proven that it gets what “freedom” means. From America’s conception, the founding fathers declared “freedom and justice for all”, while holding four million Black people in a veritable prison that stretched from Maryland to Texas. Today, the state of Michigan hands out five year continuances like it’s passing out donuts. Should people who seem to hold so little regard for freedom be left in charge of taking freedom away? Instead of devising more ways to expand America’s prison industry, a true “freedom loving nation” would be devising more ways to set more people free.
My son, Lawrence, a sergeant in the army who served three tours in Iraq, and two in Afghanistan, asked me the other day, “Dad. when are you coming home?”. I said to him, “I don’t know”. How could I know in America?
To be free, to be human, is to be free to make mistakes. That does not mean freedom from consequences. It means freedom from damnation – freedom to grow, to learn, to redeem. That is what America has lacked in its treatment of its darker skinned peoples. For them, there has always been slavery, reservations, internment camps, and now a network of prisons such as this Earth has never seen.
Imagine having to wait for someone to tire of keeping you enslaved, interned, incarcerated. Imagine there being nothing you can do, though you would do anything they asked, anything to be free. Imagine dying waiting.
There is a disturbing dichotomy to our boasts of “Liberty!”, and our brazen practice of putting people in chains. Can this chasm be reconciled? Or, will the freedom of the State continue to devour the freedom of the State’s lowliest citizens, until this great freedom, like Shakespeare’s “Universal Wolf”, last eats itself up?
Prisoners must serve their time, they owe that to the State. The State owes it to itself to set its prisoners free. Stop kicking these people. Let them go home to their families. All life is precious, so is theirs. Give them a chance to make the best of what is left of their lives. Let them go. Let me go, too.