Clinton Nkechi Walker on the Failure of the Punitive Model of Justice

Letter from Clinton Nkechi Walker on February 2, 2015

Interview #3

What does successful inside/outside collaboration look like to you? What are the features or qualities that mark its success or effectiveness? Are there any particular examples of such collaborations that rise to the top in your mind?

A successful inside/outside collaboration to me would be when both parties have a clear understanding of their goals, how to begin their goals and how to reach the end result. It is a collaboration of like minds that has an understanding that one cannot be truly successful without the other.

The features/qualities of a successful inside/outside collaboration is sincerity and honesty. Everyone involved has to be honest about what the collaboration stand for, what the mission is and how far the collaboration is willing to go to complete the mission. I believe hard work, sincerity and honesty combined with precise organizing is the key components to a successful and effective collaboration.

I don’t know of any particular examples of such collaboration other than the one that I’ve came across while I’ve been in SCI-Graterford called the “U-CAN” program. Its aim is to really bridge the gap between fathers on the inside and their children on the outside. It’s a program that you may want to look into the mechanics of.

In your last set of responses you describe a system and approach to young people (and particularly toward urban youth of color) that has become “tough on potential.” Layne and I thought this phrasing was very powerful. We wanted to follow up by asking, what does it mean for a society to be “tough on potential” and what are its impacts? What would a different approach that alternately encouraged human potential look like?

A society is tough on potential when its first course of correction towards its citizens is punitive.

The essence of tough on potential begins and ends with the children of its society. I believe education is a direct root to all potential. When society and its electors allow its educational system to fail in value and care, it do so with deteriorating the growth and possibilities of its children. It’s the epitome of being tough on potential when society allows its children to be subject to the harshest penalties of the judicial system such as a Life sentence in prison. It’s tough on potential when an ex-offender returns to society only to be confronted with a depressing and discouraging reality, that many opportunities to become a productive citizens are limited or stripped from them, opportunities such as adequate employment, state and federal benefits and the right to vote. It’s tough on potential when society and its elected refuse to recognize and exercise the ability to forgive and allow a second chance to those who have been incarcerated for decades and has achieved the highest degree of rehabilitation. Finally, it’s tough on potential when the lawmakers and members of the court who make up the judicial system blatantly disregard the lasting effects of sentencing a person to a prison stint of no return. These effects consist of displacement of families and the dismantling of communities.

Those who have endured and experienced hardship should be the first to be called upon for the task of deterring others, such as troubled youth, from experiencing that same hardship. With a sentence of no return, it eliminates a potential outlet to redirect the mis-directed potential of communities and their youth.

An approach that would encourage human potential in PA would be an approach that would adopt serious methods and strategies toward rehabilitation in all prisons. It would be an approach by the entire prison industrial complex to encourage programming that strengthen bonds within the family and community structure, and not tear them apart.

The conditions of poverty, gritty street mentality and the lack of economic know-how to capitalize off of opportunities are major problems within our communities. It would do the overall community justice to offer some kind of training in entrepreneurship within the prison structure to counterattack the criminal element, which will simultaneously attack what has become mass incarceration in PA and beyond. I believe another approach to encourage human potential would be to reform our broken schools. In turn, it will decimate what has now become the school to prison pipeline. It’s imperative that society and its inhabitants re-sensitize themselves to the ruthless and reckless criminalization of today’s youth. Doing so would be the ultimate approach that would encourage human potential.

In your previous response you also observe that there are certain changes – whether personal or of a larger collective scale – that simply cannot be achieved while a person is confined, despite all best efforts. This seems like an important component of the overall failure of the PIC to be “rehabilitative” (or, of its abysmal repressive success, if one doesn’t believe that it was ever intended or built to succeed in that realm) that the public has little window into. Can you speak more to what those changes are and what obstacles preclude them?

As I mentioned previously, prison life is a dog eat dog world. Though it’s true that with time people mature, it’s also true that the attitude of the environment in prison has always remained the same. This attitude is one of power, aggression, and perceived might which is instigated by a beast of two heads.

On the head of one you have your inevitable interaction with members of the institution such as prison officers who are the lowest in ranking but given the most responsibility of enforcing the policies of the institution. Most of these officers would be beginning to embark on their personal and professional journey of adulthood; thus, beginning their journey of maturity in both areas. No different than any other participant of growth, these young and eager officers must endure the trial and error phase of maturity. There are no exceptions to the rule. They will be challenged with having to check and balance their official authority with their personal thoughts and emotions, a process that will allow and even encourage abuse of power with which only trial and error can satisfy and correct.

Lifers like myself will be continuously subject to the abuse of power until the process has ran its course. Though normally, by then, those seasoned officers would have moved on to new endeavors or moved up in ranking that offer little to no contact with the prison population. What does that do? It makes room for new recruits and simultaneously reboots the developing process. For us Lifers whose fate has been sealed, we will be forced to endure this cycle over and over again, offering no relief or regard to one’s personal development and reform. The consequence of this foul cycle is it denies me and others the opportunity to fully engage in and practice the attributes of maturity.

The other head of this beast is equally as, if not more, vicious and repetitive as the other. This beast is the beast of my peers.

Among other abilities, maturity offers the ability to foresee and not react impulsively. Yet, within this environment, when crossing paths with someone who has not reach that level of maturity, it puts one at a disadvantage. This disadvantage will almost always leave one with one of two choices, either allow oneself to be subject to harm or indulge in some form of character decline, in other words, stoop to someone else’s level. It’s true that the majority of my peers will learn to appreciate maturity with time and through trial and error but similar to the recycling of my overseers, most of those individuals would have moved on at this time, making room for new, young and reckless commits and again rebooting the process that feeds this ferocious beast.

To a person that is sentenced to die in prison and has lived through this process many times over, the above obstacles become beyond frustrative. It denies one the opportunity to reach the full potential of what it is to be a man.

This two headed beast is what I battle against every second of every minute in every hour of the day. Making it virtually impossible to fully practice maturity and be the person I can be. Due to those struggles, I believe certain changes cannot be achieved despite all best efforts, while a person is confined.

A quality I admire in other people is _____________. (Fill in the blank and explain why.)

A quality I admire in other people is honesty and ambition. Honesty is one of the great characteristics that must shine in all others, without it I believe it creates a great disconnect with the person and the wonders of life, such as friendship and love. I also believe that one can never know themselves if they never allow themselves to know honesty. Ambition is important because without it a person become stagnant in life, with no sense of growth, elevation, and goals to push forward with.

If you had the Governor’s ear for 10 minutes, what would you say? What would it be most important to you to convey?

I would offer the governor a scenario. I would ask him to imagine if someone that he loved, such as his daughter or son, were given a Life sentence and forced to stay in prison until they grew elderly and died. I would ask him to imagine time passing and his son or daughter becoming a completely different person than they were at the time of their crime. I would want him to imagine them recognizing, acknowledging and reforming their way of thinking. I would ask him would he if he was sure, without a shadow of a doubt, that his loved one would be worth more at home than in prison, would he not want them to be able to have an opportunity at a second chance in life? I’d ask, if he would hope and pray that someone had a sense of humanity and not ignore the ability to forgive? As so many families of today, I’d ask the governor would he not feel a sense of guilt, sadness, helplessness or frustration from recognizing and knowing that his loved one has changed for the better; yet, the change is strongly disregarded by those who have the authority and say so. Finally, I would simply ask would he not want sympathy and leniency for his son or daughter?

What effects do you hope making your own story known will have?

I hope my story effects the tough thinking of those who have the authority to change law.

What other issues do you see Life Without Parole sentencing connected to and how?

I see Life Without Parole sentencing connected to the economy. So much of the money that is spent to keep young men and women in prison could be used to keep the next generation out of prison through adequate institutions such as schooling.

Reflecting upon your answer to the question immediately preceding this one, what unexpected victories or momentum might we gain elsewhere by winning an end to LWOP?

I think an unexpected victory by winning an end to LWOP would be the mending of society’s family structure and communities.

Something I’ve never done before, but would like to try is__________________  (Fill in the blank and explain why.)

Something I’ve never done before but would like to try is live life in society as an adult.