Reflections on Redemption

Recently, the Supreme Court ruled that prisoners sentence to life without parole for crimes they committed as teens would be given the chance to argue for their release from prison. This decision will have a huge impact on Pennsylvania, as there are currently 400 juvenile lifers serving sentences here. To be honest, this decision would have had little impact on my life a year ago. If someone had told me about this decision, I would have said “that’s interesting!” and moved on. But last semester, I took a course titled “Crime, Justice, & the Media” and now this decision means more than I could ever have imagined.

I decided to sign-up for this special topics Communications course because the title sounded cool, and because one of my favorite professors was teaching the class. I’m passionate about justice, and I love media..that much I knew. What I didn’t know was that this course would basically be split into two parts: studying the underlying theories and beliefs about crime and the media, and working through The Redemption Project. The Redemption Project was started collaboratively by my professor, Mike Lyons, and three juvenile lifers: John Pace, Kempis Songster, and Aaron Phillips. It’s mission is to document and share stories about the lives of juvenile lifers and to increase public awareness about mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles.

Taking in all of this information on the first day of class was a lot to handle, but I couldn’t have been more excited. I am passionate about social justice and learning about issues that are new to me. I had never learned exclusively about JLWOP, so I was ready for the experience.

I didn’t know what to expect on my first visit to S.C.I. Graterford. I knew that we would be able to meet some of the men that The Redemption Project was working with, but I wasn’t sure how this meeting would go. I was anxious to dive into conversation with these men, but I worried that I wouldn’t know where to start or how to begin. After a nerve-racking experience signing in and going through security, I was suddenly walking by myself into the visiting room of a maximum-security prison. After a brief “how did I get here?” moment, I was greeted by John Pace. John couldn’t have been more excited to greet me. With a huge smile on his face, he politely asked me how I was doing and led me over to where the rest of the group was meeting. I was introduced to Kempis “Ghani” Songster and about seven other men who were serving life sentences for crimes they committed as teens.

What happened next would become one of the most thoughtful, insightful, and moving conversations that I’ve ever engaged in. For the next few hours, we each took a turn introducing ourselves to each other: our names, hobbies, career goals, hopes, and dreams. We dove into discussing the work of the project and the public’s awareness regarding juvenile life without parole. I was so impressed with the ease and eloquence with which these men spoke, and their incredibly optimistic outlook on life. Many of the men had pursued education while incarcerated and received their GEDs and for some of them, Bachelor’s degrees. They were involved in peer-mentoring programs. One man passionately described his love for his work – he helps out with a program that provides young students with school supplies.

On the way back from this first visit to Graterford, we were silent. In the coming weeks we would have much to say and to ask about our experience, these men and women, the justice system, and what “redemption” truly means…but in that moment, there were no words. For me..maybe it was a “change of heart” or maybe it was a better understanding of what it means to be human and the human spirit. But I knew that I wanted to learn more about all sides of this issue and continue the “good fight” as Ghani calls it, for these men and women.

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I will continue to blog about this experience throughout the semester.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tù eres mi otro yo

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My sophomore year of college, I was undoubtedly experiencing what can only be referred to as a funk. I was funky. The excitement of freshmen year, new friends and classes had passed and I was struggling to find meaning in many of my classes and activities. I was involved in service activities on campus, but I felt myself needing more – wanting to learn more.

I had gone on an immersion trip to the Appalachian region my freshmen year (through a popular program here at SJU called the Appalachian Experience), and my eyes were opened to the poverty and injustices that exist in our very own country. At the same time, I was genuinely amazed by the joy that the people of Clinchco, Virginia exuded out into the world each and every day. The people that I met on this trip didn’t find their happiness in material objects. They found joy in each other…their land…good, fresh food..a sun rising over the Appalachian mountains on a chilly morning.

I knew that I needed more experiences like this; experiences that shattered my heart into a million tiny pieces and put it back together with joy and love.

On a whim, I decided to sign up for a trip to El Paso over winter break. I would be staying in a Lutheran Church on the Mexican-American border and immersing myself in the lives of undocumented immigrants. I had been hearing so much in the news about immigration, and at the time I was (emphasis on was) a Spanish minor, so I thought this trip would be a cool experience for me.

I had no idea what I was about to experience.

When I think back to this week in EP, I always remember the first moment that the Texas sun hit me. I was walking out of the airport and into the van of the Border Servant Corps member who was picking up my group, Gretchen, and I was hit by the brightest sun I had ever experienced in my life. I didn’t know it yet, but this moment would become symbolic of the incredible light that shined through each and every person I encountered throughout my week in EP.

The agenda of our week was packed. Each and every minute was planned out. We volunteered at a local food pantry, worked at an after-school program, visited an asylum seeker’s shelter, toured a detention center, went sand-sledding, attended mass, met with local immigration lawyer’s and nonprofit organizations, and shared meals with various community members.

Getting to hear the stories of undocumented immigrants was an incredibly moving and life-changing experience. We are constantly hearing about immigration in the news – facts, figures, policies, procedures, etc. I think sometimes it’s forgotten that there are actual human beings behind these stats – living, breathing people with incredibly moving stories to share.

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For me, the most touching moment of our trip occurred on one of our last days in EP. We received permission to have a small prayer service at the border. Men and women from the other side of the border, living and working in Juarez, Mexico, were able to meet us and chat with us through the fence. We formed a circle with these men and women, and I was able to slip my finger through the fence and around the hand of one of the men on the other side, so that our circle would not be broken. I will never forget this moment – I replay it in my head every day. I learned something that day, not only about the human spirit but about the bond we share with each other, no matter where we come from or where we are born.

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While working in the after-school program at the Church we were staying at, we learned about a poem from the children. The poem is by Luiz Valdes, and is based on the Mayan greeting “In Lak’ech,” which translates to “I am another yourself.” They told us that they recite this poem each day, before they begin their time at the program:

In Lak’ech

Tú eres mi otro yo (You are my other me.

Si te hago daño a ti (If I do harm to you)

Me hago daño a mi mismo (I do harm to myself)

Si te amo y respeto (If I love and respect you)

Me amo y respeto yo (I love and respect myself)

The people that I encountered in El Paso are a part of me. They are another me. I hold a piece of them with me everywhere that I go.