Too cruel and not unusual

By: Judith Tannenbaum

“Too Cruel, Not Unusual Enough”, edited by Kenneth E. Hartman. The Other Death Penalty Project, 2013, $14.95

This important anthology about Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP) sentencing contains two dozen essays, memoirs, poems and journalistic reports written almost entirely by people serving the sentence.

Too Cruel ends with an exhortation in which readers are offered five suggestions for action. The first is: “Sit down and write a letter to one of the big death penalty abolition groups and ask them to stop supporting life without the possibility of parole as an ‘alternative’ to executions.” As a death penalty abolition group that did not support California’s recent Proposition 34, largely because of that initiative’s support of LWOP, CEDP understands.

CEDP understands—and Too Cruel, Not Unusual Enough gives intense personal detail to this understanding—the definition that writer and activist Luis Rodriguez offers in his preface. LWOP, he tells us, is “capital punishment on the installment plan. It’s without the possibility of redemption, initiation or restoration.” The reality of Rodriguez’s descriptions is echoed even in the chapters’ titles: Making the Case for Suicide (Michael L. Owens), Slow Death Row (Patricia Prewitt), Dead Man Living (Spoon Jackson).

Many writers describe their youth, which was when they first came to prison, and how they’ve aged since. “I grew my first beard behind bars,” writes Dortell Williams. “I discovered I had a forte for writing in a four-man cell.”

Difficult childhoods and the recognition of human value are common themes: “I have learned to appreciate my life,” writes Robin Ledbetter. “I’ve learned that I am worthy of love and care and being treated like a person. I learned that I didn’t deserve the things I endured growing up…In that process, I’ve learned the true value of human life and with that knowledge, I came to understand the devastation of my crime.”

We’re told of the deep recognition of the consequences of our actions by John Purugganan: “When you visit your children in your dreams, they are the age they were when you last saw them. Each time you awake from such a dream, you want to go back to sleep, to return to that time in the past.

“There are moments when you’d like to go to sleep and never wake up. But you must go on. You must live with the pain you have caused others, knowing you can never make amends. You cannot give Carl T. back his life. You can never return Mr. and Mrs. T’s son to them. You will never be able to make up for all the times your children needed you and you weren’t there.”

In the section that closes the book, readers are urged to write letters to governors asking for commutation of all death sentences (including LWOP) to life with the possibility of parole, to elected representatives asking for legislation that would ban all forms of the death penalty, and to religious leaders asking them to speak out. The Other Death Penalty followed its own advice and mailed 400 copies of the anthology to policymakers, thought leaders and the media.

I hope every reader of Too Cruel—the influential recipients of the book from The Other Death Penalty Project, along with each of us—will open our hearts and minds as we read about human beings who have worked hard to grow.

Essay after poem after memoir brings us to this precise paradox. As those serving LWOP come to recognize the full value of life—their own life and the lives of others—they also realize that those in power (as well as the voting public and often death penalty abolitionists) don’t really care. Regardless of their own rehabilitation and redemption, the world is still willing for them to die in prison. We on the outside are the ones who must change this.

And yet, the gift of growth belongs to those who did the growing, as these writers show us. As Martin Williams writes: “I no longer tried to escape, or fit in, to the without-paroleness of my sentence. Life called from the silent concrete pre-fab…I wanted life, with or without anything, crazy life, unknowable life, gameless and placeless life.”

Judith Tannenbaum is a writer and teacher whose publications include: Disguised as a Poem:  My Years Teaching Poetry at San Quentin and By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives (with Spoon Jackson). She currently works as training coordinator for San Francisco’s WritersCorps.

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