James Hough on redemption within a punitive system

ScanLetter from James Hough on July 1, 2014

Interview #1

Please tell us something about yourself. Feel free to include whatever you feel comfortable or interested in sharing.

My name is James Hough, but all my family and friends call me Yaya. I’m originally from Pittsburgh, PA and I’ve lived in other cities prior to ‘coming’ to prison. I’ve been incarcerated since I was 17 years old – serving LWOP. However, I live as though I will be released from prison. I don’t follow any specific religion, but I am spiritual. I prefer peace and nonviolence in all my interactions. I’ve had more than enough violence for one lifetime. With the exception of diet, I live as healthy as I can (no smoking & drinking- no drugs & gambling). My only regret is taking the human life that put me here. Everyone lost in that event. It always humbles me.

What’s one thing that people would be surprised to know about you?

I think people would be surprised, hopefully in a good way, to know that I work as a muralist (while incarcerated) w/ the Philly Mural Arts Program and I’ve been blessed to work on several fascinating and beautiful murals on walls in the city of Philadelphia. Along with painting, I’ve had the opportunity to meet many folks across many lines: politicians, teachers, foundation leaders, students etc.

What’s one thing the public needs to know about either life sentences or the individuals who have been sentenced to life sentences?

That people can change for the better—lives can’t be replaced, but they can be redeemed; in order for society to heal we need that. The penalty is too harsh for over 50% of the people serving it. In many cases the DA pushed for the max and got it due to superior legal skill, not the actual level of guilt/depravity of the offender, so we end up with a person who became good after 20 years serving 35+ and dying… that’s a death sentence. Once found guilty of 1st/2nd degree there’s no lesser sentence or mitigation.

What do you think it will take to end the use of Life Without Parole sentences here in Pennsylvania?

It will take a concerted effort of all PA Lifers male/female and lifers; families, with the organizational power of Decarcerate PA and others and the victims groups who are progressive. It will take an economic boycott—labor stoppage on behalf of LWOP (thousands of prisoners). It will take a voting agenda and strategy. Politicians, DA’s and Judges will have to support ending JLWOP/LWOP to be reelected. Plus other struggle oriented actions.

What are some of the strategies, tactics or practices that you and people you know use to support one another and to challenge the conditions/realities that you experience?

When confronted with challenges here, the first thing we do is:

  1. Decide whether the issue is worth dealing with, we try to think it through instead of working from emotions.
  2. We try to solve it informally, but permanently, via relationships between the administration and prison leaders.
  3. We initiate a multi-pronged counter by organizing others to resist, filing legal challenges, using media to expose the issue, etc.
  4. We persevere and win.
  5. The whole thing repeats.

What do genuine justice and healing look like in your ideal vision of each?

Justice, in its true form, is love-based, meaning it is connected to mercy, meaning there’s forgiveness in it. Justice always entails reparation on the part of the offender.

Healing is physical, mental, and spiritual. People harmed by people committing criminal acts should be made whole. Offenders must sincerely apologize and seek forgiveness.

Justice and healing must involve a way to release offenders that are no longer a danger to society.

How does the vision you’ve just described differ from the current criminal justice system?

The current criminal injustice system is corrupt, ultra-politicized, ultra-punitive, racist, classist, etc. The current system is surrounded in mystery because it cannot operate in sunlight. The current system consumes people and money – 50,000+ people and over 2 billion dollars annually. It knows no solutions except to grow larger. A modern slavery.

If you could have dinner with any person (living or dead) who would it be and why? What would you most want to discuss, learn from , or tell them?

I believe that nobody dead is more interesting than anybody alive, however to answer the question I’d say for dead it would be Gandhi, because he led a mentally-physically-spiritually enslaved nation to independence while evolving as a human being. For a living person it would be Harry Bellafonte because he has an in-depth knowledge of our American civil rights struggle and he’s still a person engaged in the struggle.

These final two questions are fill-in-the-blanks, but we hope that you will also take some time in your response to expand upon your answer and speak to why it is important to you. Feel free to treat these two questions either on a personal/small scale or to respond to them at the larger generational scale (i.e. as in something that you hope either begins or ends within our collective lifetimes).

I want ______________ to begin with me (or with my generation).

I want a new era to begin with me (or with my generation).

A new era to me is the ending of all the bull that has been holding us back from achieving our best:

  • old thinking at ourselves and society – we need new thinking.
  • Chasing dollars instead of building a new world – greed.
  • To begin creating the world everyone dreams of we will have to be willing to shed the current failing one. This will take courage and vision.

I want ______________ to end with me (or with my generation).

I want senseless violence to end with me (or my generation).
The senseless violence that comes from unresolved abuse/anger and self hate has to end. It would stop the pain and suffering that only causes more violence. All that negative energy is much of what’s needed to build a new reality- a positive society and world if it can be rechanneled to a positive use.