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. 

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Jacob Davis, Reflections, Solitary Confinement, Stories

CONFINED

by Jacob L. Davis

Jacob Davis is currently incarcerated in a Tennessee prison with a 51 year life sentence. He wrote the following story about his experience in solitary confinement at Riverbend, before being shipped to a different facility. This story was presented at Tenx9 by a friend, reminding all in attendance the dire importance of hearing the voices of insiders. The movement to reshape and re-imagine social separation is guided by the minds and mouths of men and women confined inside these institutions of carceral slavery. If we want to know how to abolish slavery, we must listen to the slaves. Here is one slave’s story. 


After 16 years of living as a model prisoner in minimum security honor units, I discovered that my efforts and struggle for dignity and community meant nothing when I was found guilty of a Class B disciplinary offense. I did nothing violent or threatening to anyone, certainly nothing to justify being treated as dangerous. My infraction, rather, was perceived as a threat to the system itself, and so I was held in solitary confinement for two weeks and then banished to another penitentiary, away from the community and family I love. Yes we have family and community in prison, and those already in hell can be further exiled into deeper hell. My sojourn into solitary confinement left me with the surest deepest understanding that we as prisoners today are engaged in a struggle for our very humanity.

In my two weeks in solitary confinement, I learned that a stripped-down, burned-out concrete box with a steel door and a toilet without toilet paper are all that are required to bring me to the point of kicking the door and screaming to get attention in desperate frustration. This type of outburst is a behavior I had witnessed before from the other side of the door as a minimum security inmate. Back then I was comforted by the thought that I could never be brought that low. The brute fact is that had I not acted out this way, the man in the cell next to me and I would have remained soiled with our own feces. I had to throw a fit to receive toilet paper. Aside from shoving food through the double-locking pie flaps that eliminate human contact, the guards ignored our cells, as if they were empty. And I might have used my hand or shirt and held on to my dignity out of sheer stubbornness, but the man in the cell next to me was my best friend of 14 years, and I knew he would not act out that way. It was my fault he was there, and I could not bear the thought of him being reduced to having no toilet paper.

I tried every manner of normal, polite behavior, confident that the officers would respond in kind to someone making the effort to remain civilized in the midst of the hammering cacophony. But what I learned instead was that polite, normal requests almost never receive a response. Only those willing to act out in the most vile, inhuman, animalistic ways could even get the slightest attention from the staff for the things they needed or wanted.

Confined in that kennel, listening to the supernaturally loud noise of all the other animals competing for what they could only receive from the officer milling around and ignoring them outside in the dayroom, the bare facts of the situation reduced my humanity to a simple choice: kick and scream like an animal, or do without the necessities of civilized life. Either way felt like a most bitter defeat.

I struggled over such choices the entire time I sat in that hole. Every moment I imagined all the people who know and love me – my family, friends, the good people that attend church services with me, both free and inmate, my spiritual mentors, my professors and allies in the community – and what they would think or feel if they could see me in this situation, squatting like an animal, held captive by my own body’s functions in a concrete box that still bore marks on the walls where a previous inhabitant literally tried to destroy his confines. He went so far as to tear the metal out of the walls, set the place on fire, and covered the walls and ceiling with feces.

The literal function of these cages is to ignore and degrade the humanity of those placed within them. The authorities who claim solitary confinement is necessary contend that the cages are required for prisoners who display a lack of humanity, who are a danger to others and to the system itself. I, however, found that the use of the cage very quickly and effectively functioned to diminish my humanity.

Terrifying.

The threat of this power continues to loom over me. Recently my entire world has suffered apocalypse, but I will not return in anger. I know that some people celebrated a job well done when they destroyed my life and gutted a whole community. Some people have lived in the one-sided cartoon world of cops and robbers for a long time now. But I remain dedicated to the principles of reconciliation and live with hope for a better day precisely because, other than the humanity which they may one day take by force, hope and the bonds of love which cannot be broken by a tragically ignorant system defending itself are all I have left.

Those 15 days come back to me now months later in waking moments and in my dreams. There are many ways to confine an animal, to try and break its spirit. The efforts are more subtle in my new surroundings in a different prison, but the more subtle technologies of dehumanization are no less effective than cages and feces, torture takes many forms.

Days ago the unit manager stands outside my cell during morning inspection. “Good morning,” he said to me in front of my cell when he went in. “Good morning,” I replied while I suppressed the basic human instinct to resist having one’s only personal space casually violated, judged, and raked over, after just the promise of it happening in the future had been enough that morning to cause me to rearrange every single possession I own in a way not intuitive or convenient. Then I also suppressed the question which naturally arose in my mind as a man who has served sixteen years already and faces the need to live permanently somewhere on this earth, whether my basic human dignity will endure the Chinese water torture effect of such daily assaults for the rest of my long life, or whether I and everyone else will simply go mad long before then.

Two minutes later the unit manager emerged with a rolled piece of maroon upholstery fabric in his hand, about six inches wife and twenty-four long, which my cellmate uses to cover the cell window when he uses the toilet.

“See this?” He holds it out to me, and I nod.” “Not good. It’s not good to have colored pieces of cloth like this in your cell!”

At that moment, an elaborate response played out in my head, and I suppose I may be the worst kind of coward for writing about it now instead of just saying it out loud. This is how it went in my head:

“But Mr. B____, how can a piece of upholstery cloth be good or bad? Is God looking down upon us right now and declaring ‘BAD!’ The human race struggled for millennia to produce the technology to manufacture such embroidered cloth, but now there are a trillion shreds of such material in our landfills. Nobody cares. And you’ve been around longer than me, so you remember just as I do only fifteen years ago all over the state men in our prisons had bits of carpet on their floors, cushions on their toilets, bedding from Wal-Mart, and even wall hangings to warm the walls. Nobody cared. Why would they? We were still the poorest, most pathetic people you knew, barely scratching out an existence on the planet, merely trying to take some pride in our hovels. And the thought of holding up a bit of cloth and calling it ‘bad’ would have seemed ridiculous to men such as you and me. What has happened to us? Why this obsession with the way things look instead of the way they really are? Why not inspect the inmates themselves instead of their uniforms? How about that guy with the cuts all over his face? What happened to him while the inspectors weren’t watching?”

Instead, I said nothing and looked at him and looked at the piece of cloth and nodded. I know it does no good to protest to the person who has a job to do. After all, he is also following orders. “Look, I hear what you’re saying,” he would say, “but you know I’m just doing my job. I’ve got people watching me and they expect me to get it done or they’ll find somebody else who will. I got mouths to feed. So let’s make this as painless as possible, okay?”

As painless as possible. But for whom?

In the movie Saving Private Ryan, there’s a scene in which a German soldier kills one of the American heroes by driving a knife slowly into his chest. “Shhh,” the German urges as the American’s strength fades and the blade slowly sinks deeper. “Shhh. Shhh.”

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Stories

Scars

No Exceptions co-founder Michael McRay shared a story at Tenx9 Nashville’s night of storytelling on the theme “I Was in Prison.” He tells of seeing the scars on a man in the mental health pod of Riverbend Maximum Security Institution and what that illustrated about the depravity of prison. 

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Stories

The Death of Jason Toll

Jane Luna is the mother of Jason Toll, the 33 year old man killed by corrections officers during a cell extraction at Riverbend prison here in Nashville on August 17, 2010. The following story is a mother’s description of her son’s death, compiled from numerous viewings of the video of his killing. She transcribed the events of his final moments minute by minute, watching the video in excruciating and prolonged detail. That transcription, with the help of Amanda Haggard, has been turned into narrative. On April 16, 2015, Amanda presented this story at Tenx9 Nashville’s storytelling night “I Was in Prison.” Amanda Haggard is the Lead Staff Writer with The Contributor, one of America’s leading newspapers on homelessness. She has covered numerous stories on the prison system in Tennessee.

I’ve never actually been to prison.

The closest I’ve ever been was while watching a video of my son while he was in prison.

He was actually in prison here in Nashville for just nine months on a parole violation, and the video I’m talking about is one that lasted less than hour. And sure, if you’re wondering, I’d been there to visit my son.

I just had never felt like I was in prison myself until I watched him die on that video.

Minute by minute, second by second, this is what MY prison feels like:

At 9:23 p.m., and five seconds: Guards show up to my son’s cell for a “cell extraction.” This means he was in trouble, and they wanted him and his things out of his cell at that very moment.

9:24 and five seconds: The camera shows my son blocking the door with his face covered.

9:25 and fifteen seconds: He screams “Let’s get it on, goddammit!”

9:25 and fifty seconds: A team of five guards enters.

9:26: Guards scream, “Stop resisting!” I hear a struggle, but I can’t see my son. Guards surround him.

9:26 and twenty seconds: For the first time on the video, my son says he can’t breathe.

9:26 and thirty-six seconds: A guard says, “Put your arm out or I’ll tase you,” and my son says, “I can’t, goddammit.”

9:27 and eleven seconds: For the second time, my son says he can’t breathe. Guards tell him not to resist. For the third time, he says he can’t breathe.

9:28: My son screams for the fourth time that he can’t breathe.

9:28 and thirty seconds: A guard says to take everything out of my son’s cell, and gives directions to drag my son to the rec yard face down.

The other guards comply.

9:29: My son is turned over on his back, and a guard tasers his stomach.

9:28 and four seconds: For the fifth time, my son says he can’t breathe. A guard says, “Yeah, you’re not gonna be able to breathe.” My son is asked to flip onto his stomach, and in the process I see his face for the first time.

9:29 and twelve seconds: On his stomach again, he’s drug out on his face.

9:29 and thirty seconds: He says for the sixth time he cannot breathe.

9:30 p.m. The video goes dark.

9:30 and twenty-four seconds: My son screams in pain.

9:30 and forty-three seconds: My son says “stop.” And for the seventh time says he can’t breathe.

9:30 and forty-nine seconds: Some light shines into the frame and shows a taser shield pressed on the top of my son’s head and back.

9:30 and fifty-six seconds: A guard says: stop resisting. My son’s body shakes, and he screams out in pain.

9:31 and ten seconds: Taser shield is still pressed on the top of his head. A guard tells him: “There’s nothing wrong, Mr. Toll…Calm down, Mr. Toll. We’re here to help.” Guards are given direction to strip search my son, and you hear him cry out in pain.

9:31 and twenty-five seconds: The taser shield comes off my son’s head.

9:31 and thirty seconds: A guard says they’re going to take his restraints off, but that if my son resists, they’ll tase him. My son says he understands.

Now might be a good time to tell you that my son had a history of issues with mental health. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, depression, and finally a schizoaffective disorder. He was one of the more than 40 percent of inmates in prisons that suffer from mental illness. He was just 33 years old when he was killed.

At 9:32 and nine seconds: Guards are told to remove all my son’s clothes, but his boxers. He remains facedown and completely still as they remove his clothes.

9:32 and thirty-five seconds: My son cries out in pain, and guards tell him to stop resisting.

9:32 and forty-five seconds: A guard says: “Did you forget what I told you? Would you like me to reiterate what I told you?”

9:33 and fifteen seconds: My son sounds like he’s snoring. This is the last noise you hear him make on the video.

The snoring noise heard on the video is likely my son slipping into a coma, experts tell my lawyers and the media.

9:34 and twenty-five seconds: A guard says to remove his leg irons, and another says to remove his handcuffs and roll him over.

Two minutes later: My son convulses on the floor.

9:37 and forty seconds: The guards remove my son’s silver necklace from around his neck. He’s rolled onto his back.

9:38 and fifty seconds: Someone says: “Have medical come here and check him.”

9:39 and three seconds: A nurse says: “Mr. Toll? Mr. Toll? Mr. Toll? Mr. Toll?” You see his face from the side as the nurse checks for his pulse.

9:40 and ten seconds: The nurse begins mouth-to-mouth.

9:41 and twenty seconds: One guard says my son might be dead, and another says “Please don’t say that word.”

9:41 and thirty seconds: My son’s upper body is moving.

9:42 and thirty-five seconds: A guard says, “You gotta be kiddin’ me?!”

9:42 and forty-eight seconds: The nurse is still giving him CPR and asks if they should call an ambulance.

9:43 and ten seconds: A captain comes in and asks: “What happened to him? Did you taser him or what?” Another guard tells the captain my son was never tased.

9:43 and fourteen seconds: The nurse tells the group that my son doesn’t have a pulse and is not breathing.

9:43 and twenty-six seconds: The captain asks again what happened, and guards say my son was conscious when they got him into the rec yard.

9:43 and forty-nine seconds: The captain tells his guards to take off their helmets to “breathe.”

9:44 and twenty seconds: They attempt to use a defibrillator machine, but it doesn’t work. They continue CPR on my son.

9:46 and thirty seconds: My son is attached to a breathing machine. You now see a cut on his right temple.

9:47 and twenty-three seconds: They try to use a defibrillator machine again and it doesn’t work.

9:49 and thirty seconds: A guard says: “The inmate was combative when we got through the door.”

9:51 and thirty seconds: They try to use a defibrillator again and it doesn’t work.

9:52 and twenty seconds: A nurse says: It’s “a neck injury or something. I don’t know.”

9:54 and twenty-nine seconds: You hear the guards say my son was “awake and coherent” when they got there, and that he was a diabetic who took a lot of Tylenol.

9:55 and twenty-one seconds: A guard says: “It’s very unfortunate, I think.”

Three more times in the next seven and a half minutes they try the defibrillator machine, and it doesn’t work.

10:08 and thirty-three seconds: Paramedics show up. Guards give this summary: We were “in a cell extraction and he was raising hell in his cell and he walked out there 30 minutes ago and he fell out and he’s been out every since.”

10:09 and thirty-five seconds: My son is lifted onto a gurney.

10:11 and twenty seconds: My son is rolled through the prison. Inmates are yelling. The nurse is no longer doing CPR.

10:12: My son is rolled into the ambulance. The doors close.

10:12 and thirty-seven seconds: The tape clicks off.

My son is dead.

I was in prison once.

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