Charles Boyd on Justice and Healing

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

Hi! I’m Charles Boyd. I’ve been serving a death by incarceration (DBI) sentence for thirty-three years. I was arrested at 21 for a homicide-robbery. Being the eldest of five siblings, it was expected that I would always apply myself and provide the best example for them as possible.

When I did something good I was amply rewarded but whenever I erred, I was held accountable to the tenth degree. I was disciplined in a way that sent a zero tolerance for nonsense message to all my siblings. In school, I was always an A-B student. I dared not bring home a poor report card. I recall in elementary school some days being very angry, confused, and bored during history classes. The source of my anger was the poor representation of African Americans in the history books. I felt history, as it was being taught in public schools, held no place for descendants of Africa.

Though I absolutely loved being in a classroom setting (environments conducive to learning), I had reservations about throwing myself wholeheartedly into an educational system that seemed predicated on exclusion and his-story.

My mother tried very hard to steer me away from the streets but its pull was magnetic. Sucked in by its gravity, early one morning in 1974, I ran away from home. By the time my mom woke up, I was already a hundred and fifty miles away. I remember feeling this sense of guilt on the one hand and on the other, a freedom I had not known before. Now I could smoke weed, have girlfriends, and do some of the things that I observed older teens doing. Needless to say, I was working with a recipe for either incarceration or an early grave. At sixteen, I couldn’t imagine myself living past the age of twenty-five, nor did I think I’d wind up incarcerated for thirty-plus years, though I should’ve seen the handwriting on the wall.

I’ve done many things in life that I’m not proud of, but taking someone’s life was a new low. I wrestled hard with how to deal with this overwhelming guilt. Where would I get the strength to move on? How could I ever consider the possibility of forgiving myself? After sentencing, I had an encounter with the wife and daughter of the man I shot and killed. It was one of the most painstaking experiences I’ve ever had: coming face to face with two people I had greatly harmed, recklessly taking away from them a husband, father, provider, and much more. Even the thought of this was too much for me to bear. I turned to faith in God as a means of dealing with the pain, guilt, and shame that consumed me. I sought God for the strength and courage to move forward. Again, the pain was so enormous until I turned to various types of psychotropic drugs. I couldn’t even sleep without meds. I was a mess.

When I got to Graterford, my first job was in the chapel to be close to God. One of the chaplains told me I was wasting my time mopping and sweeping floors and that I should seriously consider going back to school. About eight or nine months later, I took his advice and enrolled in vocational school. From learning to lay the foundation for homes (brick laying), I enrolled in the business education class, and from there to college.

Education has allowed me personally to soar beyond these gray thirty-foot walls that surround the “Ford,” also known as Graterford State Prison. Often I’ve longed for occasions to give something meaningful back to others. Having opportunities to give back helps me to sleep better at night and to feel more humane, regardless of the mistake(s) I’ve made. Giving or reaching back to others is imperative for me on the road to redemption. It allows me to experience first hand what empathy is. And finally, it allows me to work through some of the social ills I wrestled with pre­-incarceration. When I stumbled across the Alternatives to Violence Project and a restorative justice workshop, I discovered not only the means to help me on my journey of atonement, redemption, and transformation, but the opportunity to work with others to create safe enough spaces here at Graterford where they could do the same.

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

This may seem insignificant to some, but I can’t watch any depictions of physical abuse against women. Usually I will change the channel on the TV and come back a little later hoping that scene has passed. When I was a child, often when my father got drunk he would take out his frustrations on my mom. I earnestly tried to protect her from being physically assaulted by him. I failed more than I was successful in protecting mom. I feel so uncomfortable around anyone who is drunk until this day and I can’t tolerate physical abuse against women or children.

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?

DBI is literally a death by attrition sentence. That term encapsulates more accurately the death choke that has been hovering over me for the past thirty-three years. It is a nightmare that I won’t wake up from until I’m free from its devastating grip. It’s like being trapped in the bottom of the ocean with only enough oxygen for a few people to survive on until help arrives, yet there are over five thousand people currently vying for that oxygen while serving these draconian sentences in Pennsylvania alone. I was arrested and sentenced to DBI at a young age. Both my judge and trial lawyer seemed to have been just as oblivious as I about what a DBI sentence meant. If not, surely they would have made it clear that there is no possibility of parole. In spite of the shadow of death lingering over my head, I’ve made enormous strides toward becoming a better human being.

Whether incarcerated or free, I’ll spend the rest of my life atoning for the severe harms I’ve caused my victim, his family, my family, and the community. People change, evolve, and experience various levels of maturity, given the opportunity. DBI doesn’t afford its tenants even the remote possibility of redemption. DBI is designed  to rob its inhabitants of any hope and to destroy the family structure. DBI is a barbaric practice, one that we can not allow to continue.

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

To end DBI in Pennsylvania, we will have to take the politics out of it. By nature, a DBI sentence is very political. It depends on who is in office and where they stand on issues such as rehabilitation, redemption, and second chances. I believe that anyone serving a DBI sentence in Pennsylvania should be at least given the possibility for consideration of parole. I’ve been incarcerated for over thirty-three years and haven’t hurt anyone during these years. I haven’t done as much as raise my voice to anyone in that time. The fact that the criminal legal system doesn’t take into consideration a person’s mindset at the time of the offense, their social upbringing, mental health, education or lack thereof, it falls way short of achieving any resemblance of justice… it’s more like just desserts. As long as I have to depend on a Governor (with all due respect to Governor Wolf, who in my opinion is doing an extraordinary job) for commutation, then my release really hangs within the balance of the political climate at the time. Therefore, let’s take politics out of it and develop a special parole board to evaluate and screen, on a case-by-case basis, those whose conduct, adjustment, and institutional record merit the consideration for a second chance. In light of the recent developments in science stating it’s unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to mandatory life without the possibility of parole due to their lack of culpability during the time their crime was committed, I think we might need to explore bringing this same argument into question whenever the subject of DBI is on the table.

On another note, those with DBI and their families have to come together and allow our collective voices to be heard.

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

Genuine justice and healing look like a community that includes oppose to permanently ostracizing its members when they have violated the social norms. To punish for the sake of punishing in hopes that it will somehow deter further violations is ludicrous. When we result primarily to a knee jerk reaction of inflicting pain on those who have caused pain, all we do is add to the suffering that is already too prevalent in most societies. What purpose does it serve to send a message that violators will be forced to regret their offenses for as long as they breathe?  What will threats of nuking or blasting someone off the planet serve? If those threats were acted upon, how would it contribute to unadulterated justice and healing?  There may come a time when a person’s behavior is so irrational that it may warrant banishing him/her from the community; however, whenever a person is ostracize from a community, the ultimate goal should be to find ways to incorporate them back into the community at an agreed upon period of time. When a member is shunned from the community, the community suffers right along with that person. Genuine justice and healing seeks atonement, redemption and when possible reconciliation. It’s about accountability, paying-it- forward and at the end of the day, it’s also about inclusion. While the member(s) who caused harm is shunned to give him or her time to consider the magnitude of the harm caused; time to empathize with the person/people who were harined and to seek out ways to be a contributing member (making amends); the community itself, must also wrestle with how to bring that person back into the fold. While it shames the behavior and the thinking that led to the offense (s), it makes every attempt on the other hand to save the person; thus, bringing about true justice and healing.

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

The current criminal legal system is based on just desserts. It calls for an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. It doesn’t seek to heal and its interpretation of justice is largely based on dehumanizing, ostracizing, and inflicting more harm on those who have harmed. If everyone who harmed someone had to give up an eye or a tooth for their violations, then the whole world would consist of blind and toothless people.

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?

The most important person I would love to sit and have dinner with is my mom. She passed suddenly from cardiac arrest eighteen years ago. I felt it was my responsibility to prove to mom that my incarceration wasn’t her fault, that she hadn’t failed me and that she had done the best she could to keep me safe from the life I dived head-on into. I would tell her how sorry I am for the many sleepless nights that I caused her worrying about where I was, what I was doing, and if I were alright. I would tell her how much I love and appreciate all that she did to steer me in the right direction. I would convey to her that I never really knew the power of her love until she was taken from me. I never realized that for all those years when I was out in the streets that it was her love and prayers that allowed me to survive. Her love and prayers were her arms wrapped tightly around me. God knows, losing my mom was the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with. I would share with her how during a “Call to End Harm” workshop, a couple of years ago, I spent some time journaling on a prompt, “Advice I would give to my younger self.” After writing and reading what I had wrote, I remember thinking that if only someone had given me that advice my life would have turned out much differently. Then after reading it more carefully a few more times, it all began to seem very familiar. After giving it further thought, I discovered it was mostly the advice mom had given me.

I would tell her that when I ran away from home that everything I was looking for in the streets, I already had at home, which was love and acceptance. I would tell her that I am sorry for not doing more to protect her and for not being there when she passed.

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 justice and healing to begin with me. It begins with me being more just in my everyday interactions with others. Instead of focusing entirely on the criminal legal system and where it fall short (its imperfections), I would rather mull over what role (s) I am having in creating either a more just or unjust world. The more just I become the more healing and harmony I will spawn in this world. One of my greatest passions nowadays is, as Ghandi said, “to be (being) the change I want .to see in the world”. This is what fuels, ignites, inspires and invigorates me when I wake up in the morning.

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

I want substance use disorder to end with me. I became heavily involved with drugs early on in life. Many of my dreams were never realized because of my overindulgence with drugs. I could honestly say that I would not be incarcerated today, had I been strong enough to withstand the temptation and peer-pressure that led me head-on into a drug induced culture. Substance use disorder will end with me not only by my not indulging but by me also resurrecting a program I created here in the nineties to educate others about the harmful effects of substance use disorders.