I get letters sometimes from a man named John, sentenced to life without parole in a Missouri prison for murder, armed criminal action and robbery. John was 20 when he committed his crime and he has been locked up for 20 years. He is schizophrenic and has not been able to get his GED, so I'm guessing he has some learning disabilities, though he writes well enough. He tells me he has gone 12 years without a prison rules violation.
"I won't lie. It hurts to think I'm going to die in prison. I wish I could have helped my lawyer at my trial, but I was sick mentally. I feel lost without God by my sickness. I will try my best to believe that God will see me through this. My faith is strong. At least that's what I'm trying to hold on to. I looked up the word clemency and I found that the definition for it was mercy. …
"Please pray for me because I'm lost with what God wants of me and I want to do God's will but I just can't take all this anger that everyone has here. Every time I look at these four walls around me, I can't help to fall into everyone's spell. There's always someone getting under someone's skin. Then before you know it, they are fighting. I'm just tired of the violence. All my life I have seen violence and I'm just tired of it. I had to watch my mother take abuse from her husband. I was even sexually abused by my big brother. So I grew up with anger and this place adds to it. I just want to feel joy and happiness again. I wrote all this to the governor, hoping he would understand."
In another letter, John writes, "You ask if I read books. I tried reading other things besides books in the library, like religion material. The only problem is that I can't stay settled for more than a minute. I am very giddy. I guess that is my downfall. I can't seem to even get to sleep until 2 or 3 in the morning. I do find comfort in listening to my gospel station on my radio. I'm also lucky to find a celly who doesn't mind it either. I have a great celly who lets me pace back and forth in my cell. Even though it feels like I am a wild animal, I find that pacing is comfortable for me."
We've put men and women like John out of sight and out of mind. I think of prisons in Germany and Norway where the mentally ill get treatment and their surroundings are comfortable and attractive. The rule of thumb there is to provide the least restrictive setting possible.
Yes, John killed someone.
Again, he writes, "I shared the pain that was in my heart to the victim's family."
I'm guessing he wrote a letter to them as part of the Department of Corrections restorative justice program. I just do not see that public safety or justice for the victim is being served by John's life sentence.