True Patriotism Lies in the Heart of America's Lifers

          Every day judges send thousands of men and women from all walks of life to prison, many are military veterans.  With the United States commitment to life sentences, hundreds of these individuals are being sent to prison for the rest of their natural lives.  Yet the public knows very little about persons serving these life sentences-what they do with their lives, about the conditions of their confinement, and whether they are being punished in ways that no judge ever intended-marked by rape, gang-violence, drug and alcohol abuse, abuse by corrections officers, infectious disease, poor health care, and never ending torturous confinement.  Unless the experience of incarceration becomes real through the confinement of a loved one or a family member who works day-to-day in a correctional facility, the people inside them are far removed from society's daily concerns.  Many of these "Lifers" though have never turned their back on society or their fellow prisoners.

          Americans share concerns about struggling schools, gang-violence, violent crime, drug and alcohol abuse, and troubled teens.  We now talk openly about these concerns because we know  there are terrible consequences for our loved ones, our family's and our communities if we remain silent.  Yet, there is a sense of shame and a stigma about these problems both in prison and society that make it very difficult to have honest, productive conversations about what we are doing and the results.  Society's fears, lawmakers, and those in charge of the criminal justice system only come up with the same old ineffective solutions-create more laws,  get tough on crime, lock-em-up and throw away the key.                  

          For decades many men and women serving life sentences have spoken in a single voice about the problems of prison and society, our nation's inability to overcome them, and the risk for all of us if we fail to act.  Most of our nations aging Lifers have the talent and know-how to transform gang-bangers, drug and alcohol abusers, criminal mindsets, and troubled teens into people we can be proud of and rely on to serve the public's interest.  After all, many lifers have fought wars as team players in the military, others for change in prison conditions.  They've sought and made change in their own lives, as well as many others who come to prison on a daily basis.  This is certainly true for people who have been convicted of murder.  They epitomize society's worst fears and stereotypes.  Yet prison staff and researchers often consider lifers to be some of the most mature of all prisoners-those least likely to repeat their crimes.  Lifers frequently provide significant positive leadership and act as role models because they have been implicated in frightening crimes, but often have subsequently matured into thoughtful individuals.  Lifers are a prime example of a true patriot.  The innovative thinkers of change.

          Recently, Detroit Free Press Editorial writer Jeff Gerritt, in an interview with Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee, Jr., asked:

             Q:  An inmate at Ryan (Ryan Correctional Facility), Darryl Woods, who leads the NAACP program there, told me last week 
                   that he has talked to you about creating a city-wide Day of Peace that would do a lot more than a rally.  It would                            
                   empower  people by coordinating resources such as job training and education and allowing people to access                       
                   them.  Do you plan to push that?  

             A:  I definitely want to.  I want to follow-up and make sure that I do everything in my power to assist them in making
                    that happen.  I was so impressed with Darryl's leadership on the inside.  I thinks it's an excellent idea.  It's the
                    first time I've heard it come from inside the walls.  If we could somehow Skype these gentlemen out and give
                    them an opportunity to speak to people on the outside, I think it would have merit.      

          In March 2012, Michigan State Representative Joe Haverman, in a question and answer session met with a group of Lifers, members of the National Lifers of America, Inc., Chapter 1026-A, located at the Michigan Reformatory in the city of Ionia.  At the conclusion of this meeting Representative Haverman stated: "I meet with Lifer groups all the time.  Each time I go into a facility to speak with prisoner groups, I learn something new."    

         Many Lifers cope with extraordinary difficult circumstances of their confinement by cultivating optimism about their own personal efficacy, by spending hours adhering to daily routines defined by a whirlwind of educational, volunteer, religious, and other activities seeking change within themselves, their fellow prisoners, the prison system, and society.  They've become paralegals, writers, counselors, tutors, artists, musicians, motivational speakers, prisoner and civil rights activists and much more.  This helps to explain why Lifers tend to be leaders in creating a more stable and livable environment in prison.  But their patriotic innovative thinking is often suppressed by the courts legislation, or prison administrators.

          If you see a man with difficulties nonetheless making his way through life, or if you see a woman with challenges reckoning with those woes, and if you witness this struggle up close, like most lifers have, it affects you.  It humbles you.  It causes you to reflect upon your own good fortune. It diminishes your swagger and enlarges your heart.

          And if you have the opportunity to serve this man, to place yourself deliberately in a position of serving this woman:  and they allow you to help, it will heal, fill and strengthen your conscience.  It will deepen your life, your appreciation for its blessings, and awareness of your existence belonging to a larger purpose.

          What this experience can do for you individually, it can also do for a nation.  What you learn, society can learn.  The way in which you are enriched, so too may your community be enriched.

          That was the original idea, after all.  America would embrace all who came, in order to fulfill the potential within every being. In so doing, it would build a nation of conscience to serve as a beacon to the world.  It is an idea of breathtaking ambition,.  It is also a statement of bold hope:  that this place would endure simply because innately, inalienably, people are good.

          Are we that good?  Certainly Lifers are.  Whatever their personal foibles, their sacrifices for the betterment of fellow citizens shows what we are capable of doing.  What are the elements of their success?  Lifers prevail because they have good ideas that benefits others instead of themselves.  Livers devote time and energy to those ideas.  They discover that the humanitarian mission also makes economic sense.  They realize that their ideas work in more that one location, not just prisons.  They attempt to nurture a culture of involvement .  They see their work as part of a larger national endeavor.  And they do not sop.  It becomes a way of life-a more fulfilling, satisfying and meaningful way of life.

          There is only one remaining element, one asset that remains uninvested.  Imagine one or two hours a week where people set aside time to work on a project that offers no benefit to themselves-only others.  It would be a far cry less then risking life and property.  It's one evening a week without television.  It's a Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon.  The time need not conflict with family, because the whole family can take part.  Imagine if everyone in America between the ages of ten and eighty gave that small slice of their week.  What could come of those one or two hours?

          This is what Lifers do, spend countless hours of thinking and creating ideas to help our fellow Americans in need.  They are the innovative thinkers of change.  True Patriots.

          Maybe it's time for society, lawmakers and those in charge of the criminal justice system to pay attention to what's going on in prison.  Time to listen to the leadership of Lifers and what they have been saying and doing for decades-thinking and creating change.

Sources: Detroit Free Press March 22, 2012;  National Lifers of America, Inc., Chapter 1026-A meeting March 22.2012;  James A. Goble, "My Own Worst Enemy,"  Authorhouse Publishing (December 2011);  Stephen P. Kirman, "Authentic Patriotism,"  St. Martin Press, New York, (2010)

Fred (Corky) Proctor #178602
National Lifers of America, Inc. (Chapter 1026-A)
Chairman, Public and Government 
Relations Committee
Michigan Reformatory
1342 W. main Street
Ionia, MI  48846