It’s hard to understand why some folks are outraged by the decision of the Connecticut Board of Pardon and Parole to grant clemency to Bonnie Jean Foreshaw. It’s not as though she was given a mere slap on the wrist after her conviction for the shooting death of a pregnant woman. Ms. Foreshaw has been behind bars more than 27 years for the killing. In November, she will walk out the door a free woman, having served far less than the 45 years to which she was sentenced.
For once, I see hope, and I am filled with wonder.
Ms. Foreshaw killed a pregnant woman, shooting her dead outside a nightclub, intending to shoot at a man who had followed and harassed her, a warning shot she hoped. Men were violent with Ms. Foreshaw. She overreacted, and made a life-destroying mistake. In an instant, she became a caricature, regarded merely as the sum of her worst moment. She was a killer, sentenced to the better part of her life behind bars. We closed our eyes to her humanity.
Ms. Foreshaw was herself a victim of domestic violence; she armed herself illegally, and when yet another man hovered menacingly by, she shot, missing him and killing a bystander. Hell, horror, meet thy maker.
I can understand why the family of the woman she killed was enraged. They lost a loved one, and the child she carried, as a result of violence which was, if not senseless, then at least horribly mistaken. The dead don’t return, they don’t linger just beyond sight and sound in some eternal repose, waiting for reunification; the dead are a howling wound deafening those left behind.
Locking a killer away for a lifetime doesn’t silence that howling. It never will. It merely creates eddies of despair, whirlpools that swirl and draw down within themselves the spirits of the condemned, their loved ones, and, truth be told, the rest of us. Revenge isn’t justice, it is just revenge.
But locking people up doesn’t bring back the dead, it doesn’t repay money stolen, it doesn’t repair the psyche of all the folks we calls victims. Prison is a confession of failure, both for society and for the individuals who demand long sentences without end for those who transgress. I look at our love of prisons and I see a celebration of a moral cancer. What sort of people celebrates death and disability?
Our criminal justice system is remarkably cruel. We call ourselves the land of the free, yet, with five percent of the world’s population, our prisons contain 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. We are the world’s leaders in incarceration, a shameful statistic. What’s the point of locking away so many people for so long?
Ms. Foreshaw didn’t serve her full sentence because she was determined to have been fully rehabilitated. Keeping her any longer behind bars, the parole board decided, would serve no purpose. So next month, the 66-year-old woman will walk out of prison. Is that a light on the horizon, a new dawn?
I don’t understand why there are not more pardons granted. Surely, the prisons aren’t filled with unredeemable souls. Oh, I’m sure there are some people behind bars who should remain there for the safety of us all. But I suspect the number of folks who actually pose a menace to the rest of us could easily be housed in one prison.
The other day, I sat with a client on the porch outside her home. She was leaving to begin a lengthy sentence later in the week, a sentence the cruelty of which makes me bitter at the judge who imposed the sentence, and at the prosecutors who sought it. Yes, a jury concluded that she broke the law, but years upon years behind bars?
“I have an idea,” she said, drawing on a cigarette. “We should change the law to require all judges and lawmakers to spend some time, maybe a month, in jail.”
“I disagree,” I told her. She looked puzzled.
“A month is not enough. Make it six months; make them taste the justice they serve up.”
Lawmakers and judges toss years, even decades, around as though the sentences were Frisbees floating on a leisurely summer breeze.
A year is a long enough sentence for most folks and, I suggest, for most crimes. It proves the point. Your conduct is prohibited, you sacrifice your liberty, you are held up to public scorn and opprobrium. As a penalty, you leave your home, your family, your job, your community, and you are locked away. A year, four seasons come and gone, a cycle lost as a consequence of breaking the law -- that’s enough.
If we were truly trying to build communities, a year would be enough. Instead we pass out sentences far longer, shuffling surplus souls out of sight and out of mind. A healthy community would not do that. Some day, historians will look back on our time and note the hypocrisy we refuse to acknowledge -- we are not what we pretend, we are not the land of the free, not by a long shot.
So I am thrilled to see Ms. Foreshaw walk out the prison door a free woman. Yes, she is a killer, she is proof that all have sinned. I see pictures of her and my mind turns to other killers I have known, men, mostly, serving 50 and 60 year sentences for acts committed years and years ago, often impulsive, irrevocable acts that no more define who these men are than does a first kiss signal the love of one’s life. Will these men ever get a chance to come home, or will we remain forever content to make them internal exiles?
I hate prisons, and I hate what their presence in our midst does to the rest of us. We become the very thing we say we hate, living in fear, chest-thumping as though the brutal justice we demand does anything other than to imprison us in self-righteous and destructive fantasies that call hatred love and pretend the revenge is justice.
Welcome home, Bonnie Jean.