Terri Harper on trying to heal in a damaged system

Letter from Terri Harper in July of 2014

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

I am 45 and counting, but I’m not aging in a negative way, despite having had major back surgery, and carpal tunnel surgeries. Amidst all this ugly, I envision light and beauty every day through faith, the valuable friendships I’ve built and with the love of those I call my family (blood related and not). I absolutely love to read and write, and yet I find the most peace in total silence, which is a rarity. Oftentimes, I feel I’m on an island all by myself, because I seem to see things so very differently than most of the people I come in contact with, and then I chide myself for my momentary disassociation with all that makes this world go around (differences). My main goal is to make a difference, so I need to fully embrace different people and their ways. I want to be known as one who overcame her poor choices and weaknesses of character and became the human being worthy of another opportunity at happiness, fulfillment, and a positive legacy. For today, I want to be seen in 2014, not 1991.

What’s one thing that you think people would be surprised to know about you (be it a particular experience, a part of your daily activities, an interest, a skill/talent, a lived reality, a personality trait, etc.)?

People would be most surprised that my having been a cop was based on a last minute bet/challenge between an ex-boyfriend and I, and that I won the bet only to lose everything because I didn’t take the job seriously.

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

The public needs to know that a life sentence in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is a death sentence that there’s no turning back from… Not through commutation, not through PCRAs, not through the Innocence Projects… NOT AT ALL. It is a slow, horrible death, probably worst mentally than the death penalty because there’s no end and no organizations going to the wall to put an end to it… No last ditch “stays.” Also, the public needs to know that people sentences to life are not all monsters, were ­not­ all in-the-know, do not all have blackness in their hearts, are capable of growing and bettering themselves and being deserving of living in a free society again… the key word is INDIVIDUAL. All inmates may be forced to dress alike, may have relatively the same sentence, but we not the same… not the same from day 1 to day whatever, and not the same Joe, Jill, Tom, or Theresa.

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

To end the use of LWOP in Pennsylvania, it’ll take an act of God, by way of Legislators being held accountable through the education of the public on a great scale as to what LWOP truly is. All the hidden statistics and cruelties and realities of the sentence must be branded into the minds of the everyday people. Legislators must be afraid of not getting reelected and the huge paychecks and incentives getting cut off, because of the exorbitant prison spending that’s not netting decreases in crime or recidivism or unemployment. Legislators must also be held accountable for this state being known as the 2nd most corrupt and broke, despite us having one of the largest revenues through our casinos. It’ll be the voters taking them to task to change the state constitution!

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?

In supporting each other and challenging our condition/realities simultaneously, my “folks” and I employ a plan of family. We treat each other with respect first and foremost and stay transparent. No subject is off limits, and there is no competition from one to the other. We’re separate but equal, even when one or more is absent, or one is doing better in some way. We make time for the serious, just as consistently as we do for exercise and fun. We also involve ourselves with each others blood relatives, which keeps us all grounded more solidly, in that it allows one to see situations through different eyes when it’s needed. Lastly, we all make a conscious effort to set pride aside.

What do genuine justice and healing look like to you?

In my ideal vision, genuine justice looks like a crime is defined as a senseless act that harms others, the does is caught and brought before impartial parties to stand and face their acts. Than punishment is based not on what a person looks like or how much money they could afford to pay a lawyer, or if they’re educated. They should be educated on all the possible outcomes of any legal decision in laymen’s terms, and then they should be offered programs that’ll truly help them grow and start life anew. They’d be appointed attorneys that weren’t overworked or forced on the case. They’d not be tricked into giving a statement through scare tactics or outright lies by detectives. Evidence wouldn’t just up and disappear. Fair Trial would be with juries of their peers, without all the lawyer positioning/challenging/profiling. Sentencing would be consistently the same for the same levels and classes of crimes, and people wouldn’t feel like they lost before the fight began. Healing would look like people getting into bad situations, facing them head on, to include dealing with the consequences, and feeling better about the new day ahead due to the new outlook on life they’d have. The new outlook would be because of the ability to make amends, “exorcize demons,” believe in themselves, and believe that this world is still a good place. Healing would like today!

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

The vision I just described differs from the current criminal justice system greatly, because the DOC doesn’t promote healing at all. All DOC buildings are essentially warehouses for those entrapped in criminal activity, be it the perpetrator, conspirator, or innocent. Programming is getting more scarce, and those that exist don’t lean towards the core of what’s ailing most of the inmates, so inmates go along to get completions, and learn little to nothing useful for their future or the betterment or safety of the community they’re in or while be returning to. Inmates have time to sit and listen to countless stories of unfairness, make numerous comparisons, and fester in their resentments, without that being checked. No one is deterring anger, disillusionment, sorry or despair. It can’t get any more different.

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?

If I could have dinner with anyone, there’s a tie between 2 people. One would be Prophet Muhammad (saws), because I would love to meet the man that followed the Rules of Peace and Prayer without question and left behind a legacy to be reckoned with. I’d want to discuss and learn patience with him. The other person I’d want to have dinner with is Ms. Ellie, my grandmother who I lost almost 12 years ago, just to tell her I’m sorry I threw my life away through pride and wasn’t there with her at the end.

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

I want failure to being with me (or my generation). By that I’m referring to our failure to see ourselves as individuals who are capable of rising above all the obstacles that time and the generations before us have put in our path. We tend to reach for fleeting excitements and deal with fly-by-night people, while we throw away the opportunities for lasting relationships and careers just because they require extra effort. We also make the mistake of basing our lives and needs on what’s on television and on what others have, instead of listening to what’s inside of our hearts. We don’t research enough of the aspects of life, and so we don’t reach our potential, and ultimately don’t always know what fulfillment is.

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

I want impatience to end with me or my generation. Every day we move too fast, and as a result we miss out on a lot… at work, at home, and with those we are connected to. We’ve been raised on wanting what we want right now, and if it doesn’t happen, we tend to make the worst possible decisions. If only we could stop and take a deep breath here and again, we could avoid a lot of the pitfalls we are victim to. We could also avoid being our own worst enemies as well.