Death Penalty

Witnessing the Death of Redemption

A good man, a transformed man, was murdered by the State of Tennessee on May 16th. It has been an exhausting week of sacred struggle alongside dear friends, abolitionists all. What do I say about Don Johnson, one of the men responsible for bringing me into the prison full time, and embarking with me on a journey that would be five years of the most holy, beautiful, terrible, and traumatizing work of my life? What exists behind the walls of a prison? Community, sorrow, love, exile, hope, trauma, grief, laughter, did I mention love? If you cannot see God in the eyes of a prisoner, a condemned person, an exiled person, then you cannot yet see God.

For two days straight we walked to the Capitol and asked to see Governor Lee. We were messengers from the men on death row, and there in our own right as faith leaders. The request from our brothers and comrades on the row was simple: “Before you let Don die, pray with him.” The governor has spoken on multiple occasions about how visiting prisoners changed him, and surely that is why he ultimately refused. The governor feared transformation; Don Johnson embraced it.

If the governor was going to take on the terrible burden of allowing a man to die, which make no mistake is the same as killing him, the men condemned to die after Don know, as we who have been transformed know, you cannot kill your brother after looking him in the eye and understanding that he too is made in the image of God. Imago Dei, Don Johnson. Last night we killed the image of God.

There is no disrespect to victims in saying this. It is simply true that no one is frozen in time bound to their worst moment. Humans are creatures of evolution and transformation, for better or worse. And why would we not rejoice in this, this ability to continually grow and become our higher selves? Because it is inconvenient to the myth of redemptive violence, it destroys the myth of the monster in the cage we must all be protected from, and it lays bare the lie and bitter venom of retributive systems.

There is one other thing you need to know. Each day as we went to the governor’s office, the door was barred to us and guarded by state troopers. Each day we went to plead for the governor to simply pray with Don in person, and to ask for five minutes of the governor’s time, we were refused. But on both days the governor sent out a man named Don Johnson to take our written prayers and hear our petitions as we begged for our friend’s life. Sit with that for a moment.

Standing in the field last night, looking at the lush grass and beautiful hills that I have spent hours gazing upon in deep meditation from the bench in front of the chaplain’s office, I struggled to hold two realities – the reality of a heartbreakingly beautiful evening, under an almost full moon, engaging in the most terrible and beautiful service of my life, versus the ugly wretched reality of a sanitized state murder two buildings away. The freedom of the hills and river offered a stark alternative to the confinement of the cages in their shadow; while the multiple checkpoints stood as reminders of our ever-expanding police state and the militarization of police forces. It is frightening how quickly these militarized checkpoints are becoming normalized. The coercive violent nature of the state was on full display.

I could also write of the grace and love so powerful in that field that I thought surely these prison walls will come down. And I will at another time, but today I need the earth of my garden, and the healing warmth of the sun. And I need silence more than words. But one thing is certain, the fight for abolition – and I mean abolition beyond the abolition of the death penalty – was reignited and set aflame in that sacred field across from the death house last night. The moon, the geese, the hills, and the trees, all bore witness to the vow that we will not sit back in restraint or silence and watch our friends and loved ones die. Don Johnson, Presente!

Advertisements
Standard
Amend 33, News

Victory to Amend the TN Constitution

On April 22, 2019, after years of work, SJR159 passed, which is the first step in making the abolition of slavery universal in Tennessee, with no exceptions. A friend in prison convinced me years ago that mass incarceration will never end until we can no longer apply slavery and involuntary servitude to those who are convicted of a crime. Four and a half years ago when I pledged that No Exceptions would lead the struggle for universal abolition, I was told by numerous individuals that it would never happen in Tennessee. It’s happening. Thank you to all of you who believed. Stay tuned though, we aren’t close to finished, this is the first step in a multi-year process in Tennessee, and once it is on the ballot we will need folks fighting for this constitutional amendment across the state. Additionally, we are taking this fight to the federal level. The 13th Amendment doesn’t actually abolish slavery as most of you know by now. In collaboration with other groups at the national level, we’re going to change that reality. A huge thank you to our partner in this struggle Rep. Joe Towns, who never quits; and also a big thank you to Sen. Akbari for working this through the Senate.

Standard
Private Prisons

BREAK THE BLOCK

trousddaledeath

The above image shows vultures in front of CCA’s Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility in Hartsville, TN. They know how to find houses of death, and landscapes of destruction.  CCA is always and only a house of death. Some systems cannot be reformed; they must be stopped. Such is the case with private prisons. Because there is no place in a free society for carceral slavery, help us break the largest human auction block in America.  No Exceptions—through collaborations with sister regional organizations—will expand its focus to end private prisons and carceral slavery. Please keep up with us on FB and Twitter for future actions.

Standard
No Exceptions Harriet Tubman House Nashville Tennessee Prison Ministry Jeannie Alexander Mass Incarceration Abolition Sentencing Reform 13
Life Sentences

Facts about Tennessee’s 51-year life sentences and why it should be repealed

Tennessee is the only state in the U.S. with two life without parole sentences. HB1128/SB1181 seeks to change that, and here’s why.

In 1995, after only twenty minutes of discussion, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to increase the mandatory minimum number of years for a life sentence with possibility of parole from 25 to 51 calendar years.

Though brief, the discussion did also include the presentation of reports which stated that because long-term incarceration reduces life expectancy by about 25 years, prisoners serving the 51-year life sentence were not expected to survive its duration. In fact, experts have determined that only 1.5 percent of individuals might survive the entire 51 years.

Therefore, a person who is sentenced to 51 years is effectively sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.

The majority of states in the US have two life sentence options: A life without parole sentence, and a life with parole, in which a person is sentenced to a mandatory 20 to 25 years, on average, prior to going up for parole. No state has two life without parole sentences. Tennessee’s 51 year life with possibility of parole sentence is the only such sentence in this country. The national average is 25 years for life with possibility of parole.

Key Considerations

There are two important questions to consider when determining the appropriateness of the 1995 decision.

What is the economic cost of implementing two life without parole sentences?

For the additional 26 years over and above our historical 25 year life sentence,  are we actually purchasing an additional 26 years of safety? Do these individuals realistically present a continued risk to the public after serving for 25 years? If so, would that risk justify the economic cost?

Economic Impact

In consideration of the vote to increase the mandatory minimum of years for a life sentence with possibility of parole from 25 to 51 calendar years, the projected increase in state expenditures was approximately $60 million for all 11 sentences that were increased.

But the estimation was woefully inadequate.

There are currently about 1,200 individuals serving the 51-year life sentence with option for parole. The annual cost to incarcerate an individual in Tennessee is slightly more than $26,000 per year per person. Keep in mind that for those over the age of 50, incarceration costs double; costing instead an average of $50,000 per person per year.

Shockingly, the actual cost of keeping these individuals locked up for life will be a staggering $2.097 billion.

Lastly, when we adjust for a rise in incarceration costs over time, that amount will continue to climb.

At the time of enactment, the General Assembly didn’t budget for the reality of this $2.097 billion price tag for the 51 year life sentences, in fact, the estimated price tag for all 11 increased sentences was only about $60 million.

HB1128/SB1181, will adjust the life sentence with possibility of parole back to 25 years, saving the state of Tennessee as much as $1.27 billion.

Parole statistics show us that on average individuals serving a life sentence with possibility for parole under the 1989 sentencing structure will serve about 28 years. Even with this adjustment, the state would still save at least $700 million.

Recidivism

Is having two life without parole sentences worth the economic cost to citizens? Does the mammoth cost of excessive sentencing yield any real benefits to public safety?

In fact, data shows that those who have served life sentences with parole are the least likely to reoffend and return to prison upon parole.

A 2011 Stanford Law School Study looked at 860 individuals who had been convicted of homicide, served 25-year life sentences, and were released in the state of California on parole.

Over a 15 year period, less than 1 percent of those paroled lifers returned to prison or jail because of new offenses, zero percent of which involved taking a life.

In 2002, a more comprehensive review by the U.S. Bureau of Statistics examined 272,000 lifers, paroled from 15 states. This group had a meager 1.2 percent recidivism rate; dramatically below the estimated national average of more than 60 percent.

Lastly, a 2007 recidivism study conducted by The Department of Corrections found that across categories, felons who had committed person offense — including homicide — have the lowest return rates, system wide.

This extremely low recidivism rate is why the national average for a life sentence with possibility of parole is 25 years.

Policy Considerations

Sentencing limits exist based on the guiding principle that public policy should be guided by justice, not vengeance. To consider justice means to consider the common good of society. In other words, laws and policies should promote stable families, and stable communities.

Studies have consistently shown that people age out of crime, particularly violent crime, and more specifically, murder, which is most often a crime born of a particular circumstance often involving high emotion, and the psychological break of an offender between the ages of 17 and 27.

The Stanford Law School report showed that most acts of violence are, in fact, committed by people under age 30; that number declines drastically after age 40; and even more so after age 50.

While the likelihood of re-offense declines dramatically as one ages, the cost to incarcerate individuals over the age of 50 more than doubles.

Thus, it is evident that the 51-year life sentence with parole is based not on justice, but on vengeance. It disregards the good of families, communities, and the economy.

Finally, the possibility of parole means that 12 citizens have the option to consider whether the individual being sentenced may one day re-enter society, rejoin their family, and make meaningful contributions to their community.

When a jury elects a life sentence instead of a life without parole sentence, it is clear that they intend for that individual to at least have the chance for parole. The option to select a life sentence with possibility for parole must reflect the wishes of the jury accurately. As it currently stands — the 51-year life sentence — does not.

If HB1128/SB1181 passes, prosecutors will still have every option to pursue a life sentence without parole if they believe that the crime warrants it, and if they can prove the aggravated circumstances required by law.

Solution

HB1128/SB1181 will repeal the 1995 law and restore Tennessee to the 1989 law, reducing the minimum life sentence with possibility of parole to 25 years.

For more information contact us:

Rev. Jeannie Alexander

Director, No Exceptions

jeannie.noexceptions@gmail.com

 

Standard
Amend 33

#AMEND33

Article 1 Section 33 of the Tennessee Constitution reads: “That slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, are forever prohibited in this state.”  We the undersigned individuals and organizations believe that the time is long overdue for the State of Tennessee, and indeed the United States of America, to permanently abolish all forms of slavery with no exceptions.  To that end we call on the Tennessee Legislature, the Governor, and the citizens of Tennessee to amend Section 33 to henceforth read “That slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited in this state.” The only moral response to slavery is abolition, and we refuse to continue to participate in this immoral order which is nothing short of a crime against humanity.

Supporters:

Children’s Defense Fund

Dawn Deaner, elected Public Defender Nashville

Gideon’s Army

Harriet Tubman House

H & S Farm

Human Rights Defense Center

Just City, Memphis

Mercy Junction,  Chattanooga

NAACP – Nashville Branch

No Exceptions Prison Collective

Open Table Nashville

Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth & Reconciliation

Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ)

Add your name or organization in support of the #Amend33 campaign.

Standard
News, Stories

New Book from No Exceptions Co-Founder

Cascade Books has just released No Exceptions co-founder Michael T. McRay’s new book Where the River Bends: Considering Forgiveness in the Lives of Prisoners, with a foreword by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.

CASCADE_TemplateMyriad works discuss forgiveness, but few address it in the prison context. For most people, prisoners exist “out of sight and out of mind.” Their stories are often reduced to a few short lines in news articles at the time of arrest or conviction.

But what happened before in the lives of the convicted? What has happened after? How have people in prison dealt with the harm they have caused and the harm they have suffered? What does forgiveness mean to them? What can we outsiders learn about the nature of forgiveness and prison from individuals who have both dealt and endured some of life’s most painful experiences?

Expanding on his MPhil dissertation Echoes from Exile (with Distinction) from Trinity College Dublin, Michael McRay’s new book brings the perspectives and stories of fourteen Tennessee prisoners into public awareness. Weaving these narratives into a survey of forgiveness literature, McRay offers a map of the forgiveness topography. At once storytelling, academic, activism, and cartography, McRay’s book is as necessary as it is accessible.

There is a whole demographic we have essentially ignored when it comes to conversations on forgiveness. What would we learn if we listened?

Here’s what some folks had to say about it:

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, from the foreword

[T]his book is important … We cannot encounter these pages and remain unaffected. But what will happen to us if we listen to those we tend to ignore? This book is one way to find out. I encourage us all to listen.”

Michelle Alexander, author of the best-selling The New Jim Crow

“At a time when our nation leads the world in incarceration rates, and activists as well as politicians across the political spectrum are questioning for the first time whether the ‘get tough’ movement and the politics of punitiveness have taken our nation down the wrong path, we would be wise to pause and consider whether forgiveness might hold transformative power and potential. We can theorize about what forgiveness really means, or we can talk and listen to those we have viewed as unforgivable.
Where the River Bends does both, and thus offers depth of insight and perspective that is rare yet essential if we are going to move to higher ground.

Shane Claiborne, activist, abolitionist, and author of Executing Graceand the best-selling Irresistible Revolution

“In this book, Michael McRay shares the stories that should make the headlines, but usually don’t. These are the stories of grace, mercy, and forgiveness—both the rewards and challenges. They are the stories of offenders who made victims and were also victims themselves. These stories are about folks who desire forgiveness but not forgetfulness, whose memories demonstrate the power and pain of mercy. On these pages, Michael McRay proves that our wounds have the power to hold us hostage to the past or to compel us to build a future where grace gets the last word. Here is a book pregnant with the hope that comes through the power of forgiveness.
Don’t just read this book–let it move you to become an agent of mercy in a merciless world.”

Everett L. Worthington, Jr., author of Moving Forward: Six Steps to Forgiving Yourself and Breaking Free from the Past

 “Michael McRay has written an extraordinary book. It tells the grand narrative of how justice, forgiveness from God, seeking and receiving forgiveness from others, and struggling with forgiving the self come together like a turbulent river. The origin of this particular river is in McRay’s understanding of forgiveness, and McRay draws most heavily upon the superb theology and psychology of theologian Miroslav Volf, and peacemakers John Paul Lederach and Desmond Tutu. Then, fourteen prisoners’ personal stories form ‘tributaries’ that arise from the turbulent river. Those stories recount crimes, address justice, and describe self-recrimination. It is forgiveness that often bends the flow of narrative into the grand narrative that forgiveness of self and others changes lives.
This book could actually change your life.

Donald B. Kraybill, co-author Amish Grace

 “This book stands tall among the tomes on forgiveness. McRay takes us deep into the souls of prisoners, who explain the hard grubby work of releasing rage. Their stories make it clear: the recipe for forgiveness is not simple or easy. Yet the gritty work of letting go, opens the door to freedom even behind bars.
Caution: reading these heart-wrenching stories may change your life.

The book can be purchased on Amazon for paperback or Kindle, as well as at Wipfandstock.com. Type in “Noel”  at purchase to get 40% off. 

Standard
News

We Need Your Help

10670284_10205531599828358_7482758618218854964_n

Michael and Jeannie at The Hermitage, creating NEPC – Oct 2014

No Exceptions Prison Collective began in October 2014 when co-founders—Jeannie Alexander and Michael McRay—transitioned from their work on the inside of Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, to the world outside in order to engage in full-time advocacy to end the American nightmare of mass incarceration they had both witnessed. The framework for NEPC was formed and committed to in collaboration with prisoners, and thus the work of NEPC is more than a mission: it is a promise to prisoners and their families that we intend to keep.

Over the past seven months, we have dedicated ourselves to the work and established No Exceptions as a well-respected and well-known abolitionist organization. We have formed an outstanding radical Collective Council (i.e., board) made of both insiders and outsiders; built local, regional, and national partnerships; taught college courses; spoken in churches and universities; presented at regional and national conferences; served as planners and sponsors of a major national conference; continued our advocacy for insiders; and traveled the state to meet with prisoners’ families; and organized lawyers, legislators, faith leaders, policymakers, educators, and students to end mass incarceration in Tennessee through specific targeted means.

In this productive busyness, we have had no time for fundraising, fronting all personal and business costs out of our savings. This, however, is no longer sustainable. Having put No Exceptions “on the map” and seeing the work snowballing, we now need to focus more on making the work sustainable: i.e., acquiring funding.

That’s where you come in. The battle to transform social segregation and end carceral slavery in Tennessee is a communal one. We cannot do this alone; we need your continued support, both in physical and financial numbers. We are in the process of becoming a registered non-profit, thus all donations are tax-deductible. We gratefully welcome any contribution, regardless the size. By offering your donations here, you can make a deeper investment in the work of No Exceptions. We would be so grateful for any spreading of this notification.

You can give my clicking on the “Donate” button or by visiting this link: noexceptions.com/donate/

Donate Button with Credit Cards

We know you believe in this work. We do too. We want it to continue for years and years to come. You can help us do that.

We need you and thank you.

Peace,

signature        Jeannie signature

Standard