Terri Harper on the cruelty and cowardice of mass incarceration

Letter from Terri Harper on August 8, 2014

When you write about the current “justice” system, you mention several ways in which the amount of money and privilege a person has determines how the system treats them and who ends up getting sent to prison. What do you think has caused the conditions of mass imprisonment, why has the broader public allowed it to happen, and who has benefited from it?

In part the conditions of mass imprisonment, I believe, have been caused by the great lack of education, via budget cuts and defocus on its importance for future success in this life; on the unavailability of jobs with wages commensurate to today’s cost of living and taking care of a family unit, to loss of solid family structures with positive male models for children and young people to follow; mass media/entertainment/social media being the go-to for everyone and everything, so people aren’t doing enough research or truth-seeking in matters of utmost importance, and the easy road is the one most traveled, which is the downfall of so many. I think the broader public has allowed it to happen either by feeling they no longer can win against the greater numbers of people unwilling to change and grow, or they feel they don’t have the knowledge to make the difference, or they’ve been defeated before and are afraid of being defeated again, so they just don’t try. The rich, and the legislators who have the mindset that people can’t change, benefit from mass imprisonment. The closed-minded people who choose to live in fear and feed into media propaganda also benefit, because a good number then invest in companies that supply prisons.

Much of what is out there about people serving life sentences focuses on men and their experiences. What is specific to the experience of being a woman serving a life sentence?

The experience of being a woman serving a life sentence is much the same as a man, because it is a death sentence (that Amnesty International and the ACLU aren’t in the forefront trying to stop) slow and true. One that zaps your pride, esteem, courage, and hope, if you let it, but one that also leads you to face your mortality and the abilities that are akin only to women, the main one being able to bear children, and feeling that cycle of life come upon you, be it the stoppage of your menstrual cycle or menopause. We know that can never be again, and it changes how you see yourself as a woman and as a productive member of the human race. It takes away what you’re able to give to the future of the world in the biggest way, and it makes hope, usefulness, service, spirituality, and purpose central to your existence. Also specific to us women serving life sentences is the ever-present, totally unfair “how dare you” attitude shown towards us, as if we’re on a pedestal and had no right to be anywhere near a crime, involved in a crime, forced to defend ourselves or our children, when the reality is that crime, punishment, dire straits, and unimaginable situations touch all races, classes, creeds, and genders. As such, women need to be as throughly supported, shown concern for, fought for, and shown mercy toward, just as assuredly and as often as are the men.

In response to the question about how your vision of justice differs from the current model, you write that within the DOC and the courts, “No one is deterring anger, disillusionment, sorry or despair.” What specific practices, policies, or ways of being would or currently do actually help counter disillusionment and despair?

To help counter disillusionment and despair, the practices/policies that INCLUDE lifers in the planning, budgeting, and enforcement of new educational programs, in programs focusing on adapting to constant change that isn’t about comfort, entertainment, or idle time need to be enacted. If so, lifers (and serious long-termers) will again have various achievements to reach for, versus feeling like they’re just wasting away, waiting to get sick and die. To further counter/deter the anger and other negative energies that permeate these walls, the DOC needs to seriously invest in training staff for sensitivity, conflict resolution, humane treatment, and mutual respect. A lot of them don’t respect the job they’re doing or how easily the roles could be reversed, therefore the level of disrespect escalates most situations and constantly puts bystanders in harm’s way. Lastly, the groups put together aren’t realistically designed, so no one is learning.

You wrote in your last letter, “I want failure to begin 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.” I thought maybe you meant that you want failure to end (rather than start) with your generation, or am I just misunderstanding your response?

I meant that I wanted that failure to BEGIN and END with my generation, as it’s a realization of mine too many of us have paid attention and fallen victim to what’s been sent ahead by our elders, and not enough to guard ourselves against the pitfalls of our society… success and danger alike. We know the statistics where making it big in sports and entertainment, versus obtaining college educations, are, yet so many opt to chase those elusive dreams, then end up selling drugs, in dead end jobs with little to no security and savings, or entrenched in some other life of crime, danger, and/or poverty… complaining along the way. Then, so much time passes, and we’re up in age, and companies don’t want to take a chance on us because of age and what appears to be lack of motivation, which often is more lack of focus, opportunity, and/or resources.

How would you respond to those individuals who argue that highlighting the voices of those who have been convicted of crimes harms victims?

Not for one split second can the thoughts, feelings, or reasonable doubts of victims be discounted. Still, I will FOREVER believe that this country stands on crime and punishment, served up with amends and forgiveness, therefore, I’d respond to all interested parties to stop and look in the mirror and give serious credence to the possibility that the voice(s) of one of those convicted could be the very voice of one nearest and dearest to them, seeking compassion, forgiveness, mercy, and peace, after having made amends and served the sentence the JUSTICE SYSTEM doled out. I’d beg them to be still and let everything kind, peace-FULL and open-minded inside them let the words in without preconceived notions of manipulation or deceit, without media hype or even the natural fear of the cycle continuing, as it does seem like crime will never end. I’d ask them to remind themselves that everyone is different, inside for different reasons, and would do differently, so they should adjust their thinking so that those differences can be expressed and multiplied… If they stay boxed in, they’ll never be able to be part of the solutions for change.

How has your own incarceration impacted your family and community? Or, if this feels too personal to go into, how have high incarceration rates (more generally) impacted your community?

Be ASSURED, in your efforts to help me/us, nothing you ask is too personal. I hope everyone else participating feels this way. After 23 years, I’m an open book! I’m TIRED and want OUT, and this project just may be a springboard for a wider base of resources!!

To answer the question: my incarceration greatly impacted my family. I was the first grand for my grandmother, and I was a cop for two years before I got into this mess and lost my life, so my whole immediate family was devastated. I have a 28 year old little sister who has had to grow up with me here, which caused my mom to have to go back to struggling. A lot of what she had gotten used to was snatched away in a blink. My grandmother lost the stable person in her household that kept watch on everything and helped financially. The members of my family who hold public jobs suffered embarrassment with all the publicity. Even some of my friends were badgered after my arrest. I am so much like my grandmother (now deceased almost 12 years) that my aunts turn to me for advice, just as when I was home I served as an “enforcer” at times and was always in the thick of anything going on with the family. I was also at the ready to promote the family traditions my grandmother had set up. SO much of that has changed, and my incarceration definitely had a hand in that. The only positive was that a couple aunts I wasn’t that close with then have become great support to me over my 23 years down and that has helped my time be more bearable. Where my community is concerned, I can only speak on those in my community that I was close with: They expressed that my failure was my own but the way my case was sensationalized was “extra” because I was a Black female from the hood who wasn’t unintelligent. A lot of folks thought I was foolish for being a cop in the first place as they knew I would never just stop speaking to people or partying or any of that stuff they sell you at the academy.

What song would you want to be the soundtrack to your story?

“The Greatest Love of All” would be my first choice, but there are many, by various artists, that fit my story then and now.

If your voice could be heard anywhere, where would you want it to be heard? (Note: Use your imagination – be creative – but please keep this within 200 miles of Philadelphia if possible!).

I would want my voice to be heard in the courtroom with Lynne Abraham, Judge Carolyn Engel Temin, Jeffrey Kolensky, esq., the family of Darryl Huntley, my family, every cop, every detective, every technician, every single news person, and article writer, and story sharer that had anything to do with my case, and with whoever has gone into my records and made papers disappear, (the folks on the Disciplinary Board too) the people who didn’t file my appeals on time, and every ex-cop that lied on me… I’d want them to hear what happened from the day I met my co-defendant, up to now, and then look me in my face and tell me I deserve to die behind bars. Then I’d want them to look in my little sister’s face and do the same thing and be able to sleep.

I would love in to be broadcast worldwide, as I have no problem being real about where I messed up, failed miserably, how I’ve wanted to and been denied by policy to make amends, and where I stand today with no fear of dying, only fear of doing so here, without showing the world that true rehabilitation, sincere change, and unrelenting faith inside these walls is possible despite the way the system is designed… YOUTUBE, FACEBOOK, TWITTER, GOOGLE, DOCNET, whatever, wherever, however!!! With raw emotion for all respectable and appropriate age levels. No demographic should be left behind.