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Wisdom From Behind the Bars
Wisdom From Behind the Bars

We post excerpts of a letter written by a death-row inmate which reflect the wisdom of understanding the inhumane motivations of  mass incarceration and capital punishment. This letter reminds us of the debate about the role of the penal system in the United States which has moved from rehabilitation to punishment over the past two generations. (This letter was written by Ray Jasper and is one from a series of letters penned by death-row inmates from the Gawker.com series "Postcards from the Edge".) – Ed.

Mass Incarceration As Seen From Inside

by Ray Jasper

I think 'empathy' is one of the most powerful words in this world that is expressed in all cultures. This is my underlining theme... Empathy breeds proper judgement. Sympathy breeds sorrow. Contempt breeds arrogance. Neither are proper judgements because they're based on emotions. That's why two people can look at the same situation and have totally different views. We all feel differently about a lot of things. Empathy gives you an inside view. It doesn't say 'If that was me...', empathy says, 'That is me.'

(Read about the Unitarian Universalist Association Initiative "Love Reaches Out")

The Justice system is truly broken beyond repair and the sad part is there is no way to start over... Under the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution all prisoners in America are considered slaves... If a prisoner refuses to work and be a slave, they will do their time in isolation as a punishment.

I think prison sentences have gotten way out of hand. Giving a first time felon a sentence beyond their life span is pure oppression. Multitudes of young people have been thrown away in this generation... The other side of the coin is there are those in the corporate world making money off prisoners... It's not about crime & punishment, it's about crime & profit. Prison is a billion dollar industry. In 1996, there were 122 prisons opened across America.

I don't agree with the death penalty. It's a very Southern practice from that old lynching mentality.... Life without parole is still a death sentence. The only difference is time. To say you need to kill a person in a shorter amount of time is just seeking revenge on that person...

When I walked into prison at 19 years old, I said to myself 'Damn, I have never seen so many black dudes in my life'... It's really an epidemic, the number of blacks locked up in this country. That's why I look, not only at my own situation, but why all of us young blacks are in prison. I've come to see, it's largely due to an indentity crisis... You take the identity crisis, mix it with capitalism, where money comes before empathy, and you'll have a lot of young blacks trying to get money by any means because they're trying to get out of poverty or stay out of poverty... Before Martin Luther King was killed he drafted a bill called 'The Bill for the Disadvantaged'. It was for blacks and poor whites. King understood that in order to have a successful life, you have to decrease the odds of failure. As the saying goes, when you see someone who has failed, you see someone who was failed.

The last thing on my heart is about religion and the death penalty... The death penalty is a governmental issue not a spiritual issue... Martin Luther King said, 'Capital punishment shows that America is a merciless nation that will not forgive.'

Learn what the UUA is doing to end the policy of Mass Incarceration. Learn what the UUA is doing to end Capital Punishment. Learn what Unitarian Universalists are doing to end Capital Punishment.   Read the full text of Ray Jasper's letter.  

About the Author

  • Ted joined the staff of the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministries in February 2010. He brings more than twenty years' experience using media to create social change by creating communications strategies and content for progressive non-profits, political campaigns, and cause...

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