National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Special Report
Issue Date:  May 23, 2003

Personal contact lays groundwork for systemic change

Carol Strick was just looking for pen pals when she wrote to inmates Robert Knott and Harold Thompson in 1990. She got more than she bargained for: A small army of correspondents now sends her, on average, 150 pieces of artwork a month. Most of it isn’t appropriate for the shows she stages to draw attention to prison artists. Even so, she’ll send back an art book or monograph on a particular artist if she thinks there’s a connection with the contributor’s work. Some of the artists she has been showing for years have become friends and partners in an ongoing exchange. Frank Fernandez, who focuses on Mayan art, is a particular favorite.

“Frank I write to all the time,” said Strick, who made a 20-year career of creating reproductions of Egyptian jewelry and artifacts for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “Like I was with Egyptian, he’s like that with the Maya.”

In Dead Man Walking, St. Joseph Sr. Helen Prejean describes how a loving relationship with a single death row inmate gave her the strength and vision to start a national movement against the death penalty. At Critical Resistance South, it was evident that that sort of personal encounter continues to be an important source of the activists who are building the movement against the prison industrial complex.

It is a movement that calls for prison abolition, not reform. Despite its radical stance and frankly angry analysis of the profit motives driving the imprisonment of 2 million-plus Americans, it has drawn in scores of moderate people who, like Strick, say they were essentially unconcerned with politics until they got involved with this issue.

One such person was Julie Falk, who for the last four years has served as editor of Southland Prison News. Falk was just a year out of Swarthmore College and looking for a job in journalism when she responded to an ad for a co-editor of a small newspaper. She sent her resumé and cover letter to Southland publisher Joseph Houck, a former English teacher incarcerated in Virginia. Houck made his decision from the penitentiary and notified her by mail, sending back, as Falk recalls, an 18-page letter.

In addition to producing the bimonthly publication, which reaches about 350 subscribers, Falk now attends conferences criticizing the prison system. At Critical Resistance South, she stood up in a forum on Prison Journalism to bring attendees up-to-date on the restrictions facing incarcerated journalists, including bans on using the Internet for research. Those restrictions, she said later, make it virtually impossible for a prison journalist to function now without an outside partner.

Harmon Wray, a Methodist minister and antiprison organizer based in Tennessee, counts on people like Falk and Strick to build a committed movement. Wray began organizing visits to death row inmates in Nashville’s Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in 1976. His program offers prospective visitors a three-hour training that drives home three essential guidelines (“No proselytizing. No romance. No lay lawyering,” said Wray), then pairs them with a specific death row inmate. Volunteers commit to visit “their” prisoner at least once a month. No political commitment is required, but individuals are offered an opportunity to talk about their experiences in an ongoing support group that is part of the program. If those discussions lead visitors to activism against the death penalty, Wray views that as a happy bonus.

“Sometimes individual work leads to political work,” said Wray, who guides those interested in doing more to the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing, or T-CASK. Those who don’t take that extra step, however, still make an enormous difference to prisoners. “They just want to see somebody who doesn’t hate them,” he said. Wray, who is also an instructor at Vanderbilt University’s School of Divinity is now bringing inmates and outsiders together on a whole new level by offering a masters’ level course on the theology and politics of crime and justice in America. The class meets inside Unit 6 of Riverbend and includes five college-degreed inmates among its 17 students.

What about the offenses that put prisoners in prison? Both Strick and Falk say that it just doesn’t matter to them. “They’re just people like you and I,” said Strick. “I don’t really care what they did. There are prisoners I’ve been writing to for more than 10 years and I still don’t know what they did.”

Strick recalls first being outraged by prisons at age 9, when a drive past the infamous Sing Sing in Ossining, N.Y., introduced her to the concept of “zoos for people.”

“In my scheme,” she said, “the more heinous the crime, the more hurt the person who did it.”

-- Lili LeGardeur

National Catholic Reporter, May 23, 2003

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