Terri Harper on fighting (and living with) death by incarceration

Letter from Terri Harper in October of 2014

What questions would you ask the other people serving life sentences who are participating in this project? Are there specific things you would most like to hear them respond to?

If I were going to ask other people serving life sentences who are participating in this project questions, I would first ask, “who are you doing this for?” After that I’d ask 2) who do you feel you most disappointed, 3) who do you think is best served by your realizations/growth/development? 4) How do you stay engaged in real life matters, without wishing too intensely for something you may never have? 5) why are projects like Lifelines important? 6) who or what are you living for/what’s your purpose? And lastly I’d want to know what’s next for you?

You write in your last letter that one of the things that would help counter apathy and despair in prison is if women lifers could play a meaningful role in planning and leading programs within the prison. What might programs designed by women serving life sentences look like, and how would these programs differ from existing programs within the DOC?

My experience with programs within the DOC evokes one word: BOREDOM, so programs we’d design would challenge the mind, the spirit, the heart, and the emotion centers. Women are emotional by nature, so programming has to be geared toward real-life, real-time subject matter. We’d design around our true pain, our uncelebrated triumphs, and those experiences we didn’t think of sharing so as to help the next woman. The programs would be reflective of our strengths, not just the nurturing and domesticity we’re known for. Our ability to create would come through in programs that’d be in group settings of less than 15 people, sans workbooks and manuals with cookie cutter scenarios… tackling how the dysfunction of being raised by grandparents or some other surrogate parental figure(s) led to poor choices in friends, lovers, and ways to make ends meet… digging deep into the ‘whys’ for our needs for acceptance and the choices we make, but especially how we individually come to define right, wrong, and all the emotions and everyday things we come up against. Programming would be pointed at TODAY and slowly turning as each tomorrow comes.

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

I have a top 5, but my number 1 would be the power to change people’s minds. The changing would seem self-serving at first glance, but would reach a nation of people inside and outside of prison walls. Governors, judges, legislators, voters, victims/survivors, and supporters of those incarcerated, because I’d be changing the mindsets of the many who are closed off to change, rehabilitation, and restorative justice. I’d have them change LWOP in every state and commonwealth so there’d be no mandatory sentencing, just as there is no more LWOP for juveniles, and that’d be my starting point.

In your answer to the question “where would you like your voice to be heard?” you gave us a long list of different places and people. We would love to create a way for your voice to be heard in all these places, but we are also trying to narrow it down to one location to actually try and do an audio installation with your interview to bring your voice to that place. Is there somewhere specific (a government building, a neighborhood, etc) that you think would make the most sense?

I’m sorry about my list being so broad, as I at that time couldn’t pinpoint one location where I’d need to be heard and think it’d be most effective. Now you’re asking again, and I’m still at a loss, but the very first thing that came to mind was on the floor of the Senate and House during judiciary voting on sentencing issues/violent crimes bills, when lobbyists and proponents have the floor.

*Just so you guys know, I’m open to my part being used wherever, whenever! An opportunity for the female lifers/offenders hasn’t come on a large scale yet, in my 23-plus years, and now that I see a shift I want to be at the forefront. Whatever I can do to help facilitate change and growth for our cause, PLEASE COUNT ME IN!

You write in your letter that you have “wanted to and been denied by policy to make amends.” In what way(s) have you wanted to make amends, and how has this been prevented by the criminal “justice” system?

There is a policy forbidding direct contact with victims. Although I understand the need to protect them from possible additional harm, preventing contact, through DOC policy, sets up a roadblock that that also prevents closure. Yes, victims’ advocacy groups/organizations are in place for inmates to write letters, but there’s a strong possibility that it never leaves that office, so the victim(s) may never know that I/someone is trying to reach out and possibly close a door to a part of the pain they’ve caused. Amends made REQUIRES communication given and received, not just the desire to right a wrong. I think so much focus has been put on the possible things that go wrong that people who make the most powerful decisions are forgetting that closure is necessary and moving and a major component of a positive future for everyone involved. I think that people have got to be reminded of the good over and over, after bad things happen.

Also, the legal system as a whole has to acknowledge that silencing perpetrators forever more may also be keeping some truths hidden… the very same truth that could help deep wounds heal for individuals, which would lead to the healing of communities and societies overall. The DOC has a committee for damn near everything else, why not employ people to be the bridge to healing?

If you had the governor’s ear for 10 minutes, what would you tell him?

If I had Governor Corbett’s ear for 10 minutes I would tell him that I am a human being, created to do right and wrong, who did wrong and is on the right path and am in need of his open mind on growth, change, and new beginnings. I’d ask him to look at the statistics and all the money this commonwealth is wasting on warehousing those of us who’ve shown that we are ready and willing to live in a free society with the mindset that’s indicative of citizens who want to be part of progress, help, innovation and a socially and technically advanced futures. I’d ask him to be totally honest with himself about the reality of our judicial system, the failure of the commutation process, the disparities in sentencing and the lack of range in programming for those of us serving major time, and ask him to DO SOMETHING. Most importantly, and FIRST, I’d ask him to let me prove Judge Carolyn Engel Temin and ex DA Lynne Abraham wrong and overshadow the darkest marks in our history, and set me free, so I can live, and reach out to people who may be in jeopardy of landing in my position, and truly put to use the lessons of discernment, awareness, humility, gratitude and purpose I now live through.

What would meaningful support for female prisoners look like?

Meaningful support for female prisoners wouldn’t “look like” anything. It’d “be” in the form of us having the same amount of halfway houses and ccc centers that there are for men… It’d include us having our own paid and volunteer lobbyists present and vocal at the Senate/House hearings… It’d present itself in the leveling out of harsher sentences for females in cases where males get less time and parole stipulations for the same crimes… It’d be in programs within the workforce that encourage females to apply for jobs outside domestic and clerical and food service areas… It’d come from legislators and the media owning up to women being held to higher standards and then left with no real help to start over, and redirecting that negative focus, into us being highlighted in arenas where “help is on the way…” It would also be in legal journals, law reviews, innocence projects statistics (the win column) and reported on the news (not Fox News) that female prisoners are either forgotten because of the males v. females ratio, or we are underserved and underrepresented, because we get held to standards as if men, although we have very different backgrounds, problems, root issues and needs going forward. It would look like my sister, who has hope for my freedom, even after 23 years, and all the mothers, daughters, sisters, and supporters just like her.

You mention the role the media plays in shaping public consciousness and policy, both in general and in the way that your own case was sensationalized because you were an intelligent Black female from the hood. Can you talk more about the role of the media in maintaining racist and sexist systems of mass incarceration, in your own situation and more generally?

The media is the system by which most of us are connected to what’s going on in the world, be it right next door or thousands of miles away. As such, it wields massive power, both over the strong and the weak. The problems come about when the “indecisive” or easily persuaded are influenced by the propaganda that is broadcast almost 24 hours a day and the racist and sexist systems are fueled. Just think, at least 75% of the reporters/commentators are male, as are the executives and producers, and the percentage of them that are white or not minority is undoubtedly higher. That is a recipe for showcasing the worst from among the poor, out of the ‘hood, the unskilled and less educated, as well as those who’ve suffered any type of abuse. Sometimes the spotlight wakes people us and propagates consciousness, but more often than not it fuels false fears and apathy that already plagues those who see themselves on the outside looking in. Sensationalizing the worst from the “bad” areas makes folks not want to take a chance on the next person or group of people that’s looking for mercy, lenience, or just a chance to do right and live above the level they have lived. My having been a young, Black, female cop from North Philly who got portrayed as a black widow, was open to be lied to, lied about, and cast away. I foolishly believed in the code of brotherhood but didn’t fit in, and I’m not the only one that happened to. As long as television, media, and the entertainment industries continue to portray minorities so vastly different and genders so completely stronger or weaker, in both education and earning capabilities, people as a whole will unfortunately continue to stop seeking higher standards.

Why do you think organizations like Amnesty International and the ACLU have been unwilling to take on the issue of Life Without Parole?

The ACLU and Amnesty International, I think, have been unwilling to take on the issue of LWOP because the death row cause is so very time consuming. Death Row cases from what I’ve seen have more straightforward paperwork to work through, more avenues to travel with the appeals process, more underlying issues of inhumane treatment, and comes off as giving the legal minds/organizations involved more history-making, ground-breaking challenges and moral satisfaction and validation. I also believe there is a misconception in the world about the different between LWOP and a death sentence Most people say that the people with LWOP should be grateful they don’t have the death sentence hanging over their heads. What they should be clear on is this: LWOP IS A DEATH SENTENCE!… LWOP = SLOW DEATH without a warrant being signed or a date being set. It is a death by stagnation, inactivity, poor food, poor medical care, mental health neglect, and lack of continuing education. It is nothingness, mixed with ostracism, so the soul dies, while the body is living on, a terrible reality. I’m not in any way minimizing what people on death row must feel. I just need for folks to attempt to get a picture of how a lifer sees the world and “time.”

What’s one thing you’ve never done but would like to try?

I’d like to try either skydiving or take a hot air balloon ride (equally curious)