I’m at a loss to explain to my client why she cannot have the book I sent her. But it is so. The warden will not permit her to accept a Daily Roman Missal sent to her from Amazon. Why? It is bound in leather, the reasoning goes. Really? Do prison officials expect her to fashion a weapon from the binding?
Beth Carpenter is a former lawyer, and a client of mine. She’s been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole after being convicted of conspiring to commit murder for hire. My office has been working with her for more than a decade trying to get her a new trial.
Prisoners live hidden lives, out of view, out of sight and, for the most part, out of mind. We warehouse them for a variety of reasons, ranging from punishment to rehabilitation to deterrence. It is a rare prisoner, however, who enters prison doors under a sentence that requires them to remain behind bars until they die.
Some prisoners accept such a fate with something like equanimity. One man, whom I shall not name, is serving a 60-year sentence. Years ago, I represented him on appeal. I stop in from time to time to say hello; he’s become a friend, a man I respect, and, yes, admire. His crime? Murder.
But know this: This man has more class, more equanimity, than your rage.
“How do you do it?” I asked him several years ago.
“Do what?” He was seated across from me in a cinder block visiting cell, each of us across the table from one another seated in plastic chairs.
“I’m the one who is free, with a good job, and all the trappings of success. Yet, when I see you, I see a man more at peace with himself than I am. How you do it?”
He smiled, and tapped his head.
“They can imprison my body, but they cannot have my mind,” he said.
It sounded trite, but the evidence was undeniable. He was a prisoner at peace; I was a freeman in chains.
Other prisoners aren’t so lucky. They don’t do their time, as the saying goes — their time does them. Beth is having a hard time.
A colleague and I stopped in to see her not long ago. We’ve years to go before we will have had the run of all the courts we can visit in our efforts to get her out of prison. Hers is a case you live with year by year, hoping that one day, one court will listen.
Visiting prisoners takes spiritual resources I lack. I am a man of unclean lips; I lack the gift of healing words.
But I know where to find such words, and I’ve learned a thing or two about hope.
Last December, my wife and I visited Rome. I was overwhelmed by our visit to the Vatican. I imagined a silent voice whispering to me to “come home.”
What can that mean to a man who professed godlessness?
I stopped in the Vatican bookshop and bought a Catechism and a Daily Roman Missal. Each morning since our return, I’ve arisen an hour earlier to work my way through the Catechism, and I’ve learned to follow the liturgical year of the Catholic Church with the Missal, a book devoted to prayer, to readings from the Old and New Testaments, and to the rituals of the Catholic Church.
I’ve worked my way through the Catechism, and have found a source of quiet satisfaction in the Missal. Indeed, on the Saturday after Good Friday, there is no daily reading in the Missal. That’s when Christ was buried, and absent from the world. I felt that absence directly that day, and thought of it throughout the day. It was as though a light had been dimmed.
This year’s been quite a homecoming.
Several weeks ago, I decided to send Beth a Missal. I know enough about the world to know that faith is a gift of grace. Would Beth respond?
The Department of Correction is squirrely about accepting books. Years ago, I tried to donate a bunch of used books from our bookstore, Whitlock Farm Booksellers, to the prisons. We couldn’t get the books in the door. How would prison officials know what was hidden in the bindings if the books came from the general public?
I understood that, even if I could not accept the fact that the prisons were turning away thousands of books — books that could transform a prisoner by the simple act of reading. I learned that the only way you can send a prisoner a book is to send it directly from Amazon or from the publisher. The odds of contraband being hidden away between the pages or in the bindings is remote when delivered direct, I suppose.
I’ve sent books to prisoners from Amazon before.
But this is the first leather-bound book I’ve tried to send.
I wanted the book to be durable, you see. Beth may spend many more years in prison; this durable symbol of hope must last, even as she struggles against the passage of time.
A prison official called my office. She cannot have the book.
Why? The decision seems cruel, even inhumane.
We’re asking the warden to reconsider the decision.
I am often asked how it is I can represent folk accused of horrible crimes. That’s the wrong question. Knowing what I’ve come to know about how we treat those in prison, how can anyone choose not to represent the accused? How is it we so easily turn our back on the convicted?
All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. I know I certainly have.
But I’ve learned a thing or two about grace and the mystery of faith. I simply do not see why that cannot be shared with another human being from whom we have sought to strip all semblance of hope in the world we share in common.