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Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Parole That Garners Anger…and Hope

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By J. Michael Stanfield, Jr.

The recent parole of Tennessee prisoner John Brown has reminded me of the story of Jesus pardoning the adulteress. In the Bible narrative, Jesus spared a woman from execution, despite adamant protests from prominent citizens. In John Brown’s story, the man convicted in the 1973 murders of Grand Ole Opry star David “Stringbean” Akeman and his wife Estelle, was granted parole despite opposition of biblical proportions. Both stories, although worlds and millennia apart, deal with the profound question of redemption.

News that Brown was granted parole greatly upset Stringbean’s surviving friends, many of whom are prominent members of Nashville’s country music community. They point to the brutality of the crime. On November 10th, 1973, Brown and his cousin, Doug Marvin Brown, ambushed Stringbean and Estelle at their residence. John Brown shot Stringbean when he went into the house. Estelle ran and fell to her knees in the yard. Brown shot her in the head as she begged for her life.

Both cousins netted double life sentences for the murders. Doug Brown died in prison in 2003. The cold-blooded, high-profile crime rocked Music City. Over the decades, John Brown met the Parole Board six times, each hearing opposed by Opry performers and others.

That’s not to say Brown was without supporters. According to The Tennessean, the Parole Board had received 31 letters on Brown's behalf, and many current and former prison employees voiced their support, as well. Kate King, a professor of criminology at Western Kentucky University, spoke at Brown’s hearing and wrote a letter supporting his release. Brown was also backed by Maury Davis, pastor of Cornerstone Church. Davis, who had turned his own life around after spending over eight years in a Texas prison for murder, even offered Brown a custodial job at the Nashville mega-church.

But, as many state prisoners can attest, support rarely carries the weight of opposition. In Tennessee, convicted murderers with vocal, highly visible opposition never make parole, not even after 41 years. Until now, that is.

So, while Brown’s release was seen as a miscarriage of justice to his victims, to many lifers in prison it may be something else. It’s easy to understand the sentiment of Stringbean’s friends. All you have to do is imagine your own friend, brother, father or uncle in Stringbean’s place. If someone killed someone I loved, I wouldn’t want the killer out of prison after “just” 41 years, either.

But, at the same time, I of course understand that there’s another side to the justice coin. As a convicted murderer—and as someone who has known many convicted murderers—I know that people can change in dramatic ways. The person I am today has very little resemblance to the confused, mixed-up, drug-abusing 22-year-old I was over two decades ago. I don’t know John Brown, but I’m certain he’s not the same person he was in 1973.

Most “murderers” I know are actually normal, regular people who committed the ultimate crime in extreme or desperate circumstances. Alcohol, drugs, and youth are often contributors.

And then there’s remorse. Prosecutors and the media often portray people who have killed as evil, one-dimensional sociopaths whose only regret is getting caught, but, in my experience, that is an uninformed stereotype that has little resemblance to reality. Most people convicted of murder that I’ve known understand the gravity of their past actions, and they feel a profound regret for what they have done. This is surely one reason lifers are some of the best behaved, least violent offenders in prison: many have been sobered and transformed by very real and painful remorse.

But even remorseful offenders who have genuinely turned their lives around naturally want out of prison—or to at least have the hope to one day get out. Not just for selfish reasons, either. Prisoners who have served many years behind bars like John Brown often want out to help their family, to care for an aging parent, to reconnect with their children, even to do things to “make it up” to society.

And for those offenders—at least those with a realistic parole eligibility date—the parole of John Brown may be a source of hope. Yes, because it seems to suggest that the things we do and the way we live our lives in prison might actually make a difference.

The general consensus among Tennessee prisoners is that it doesn't matter how you behave or the number of program-completion certificates you earn. Most assume that the Parole Board is only concerned about your particular charges, how much time you have served, and that you have no protestors. Everything else—behavior, programs, personal growth–is thought to be irrelevant. If the Board is ready to give you parole, it does, regardless of anything else. If the Board doesn’t want to give you parole, it has excuses it can use, such as requiring another class or using the handy but arbitrary catch-all reason of “seriousness of offense.”

But, maybe, despite the politics and the watchful eyes of the ever-vigilant, opportunistic news media, if a man serves his time, completes all the available programs and changes himself and his behavior, maybe he can make parole—even when there are voices of opposition amplified by the local press.

Maybe Parole Board members, despite the pressure against them, understand that one desperate, despicable act committed decades ago does not exclusively define a person. That is, a man can commit a horrendous murder, but it doesn’t mean he hasn’t spent the past 41 years regretting it with every fiber of his being.

It’s the reason John Brown marks the anniversary of his victims’ murders every year with fasting and prayer: remorse.

There is of course more to the equation than remorse or an offender’s propensity to change into a better person. Most of us recognize that some actions, regardless of all the mitigating factors, deserve a penalty. Again, we only have to put ourselves in the shoes of victims to grasp this.

The $900 million-a-year (Tenn. Dept. of Correction budget) question is, how much of a penalty?

To some people, in regards to certain crimes, no punishment will ever be enough. And that’s understandable. How do you put a price—say, in years—on a loved one’s life? No amount of prison time, or even the death penalty, can undo past actions or satisfy the natural human desire for revenge.

But as an enlightened society, we should also hold onto the idea that people who do terrible things may be redeemable, that even those among us whose choices and paths lead them to make disastrous decisions—and regret it for the rest of their lives—may nonetheless be worthy of hope.

Maybe even those of us who have caused great harm can dare hope for redemption to, in the words of Jesus, “Go, and sin no more.”

J. Michael Stanfield Jr. 209006
2/B TCIX
1499 R. W. Moore Memorial Highway
Only, TN 37140-4050
I've been in prison serving a life sentence since 1993.  I'm 45 and a staunch agnostic.  I worked for The Only Voice, the prison newspaper of Turney Center Prison from 1995-2015.  In that time I was a reporter, writer and editor.


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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Just Another "Olinger" Story



Dear Readers, 

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has introduced a new rule in its Offender Orientation Handbook stating that “offenders are prohibited from maintaining active social media accounts for the purposes of soliciting, updating, or engaging others, through a third party or otherwise.”

Pending legal clarification of the new Texas Department of Criminal Justice offender rule #4, regarding the use of social media in support of prisoners, writing and artwork from Texas prisoners will not be accessible on Minutes Before Six. Thank you for sharing with your networks and for your understanding.

Sincerely, 

The Minutes Before Six Team

By Burl N. Corbett

In the mid-eighties, tired of working for others, I started my own masonry business. One evening I received a phone call from a woman in the Reading, Pennsylvania suburb of Shillington—John Updike's fictional hometown of "Olinger"—who wanted an estimate to repair her front yard retaining wall. We arranged an appointment, and when I arrived a few days later I realized that she lived across the street from Updike's childhood home. In fact, the dogwood tree planted by his grandfather in 1932 to commemorate his birth still thrived in the side yard. After introducing myself to the lady, a pleasant-mannered widow who operated a notary public business from her home, I measured up the wall, calculated the cost of materials, estimated my labor, and tacked on my anticipated profit. She agreed to the price, and within a week I began the job.

On the first day of work, the lady—whom I'll call "Mary"—came outside every few hours to check on my progress and talk. Oh, but how she loved to talk! During one of these chats, I asked if she knew that the white brick house on the opposite side of Philadelphia Avenue-—State Route 724—had once been the boyhood home of the noted author John Updike.

"Yes, so I've been told," she replied indifferently.

Undaunted by her apparent disinterest, I pointed to a barely visible low stone wall a few blocks down the street. "That section of wall down there—can you see it?—is all that's left of the old county poorhouse where Updike set his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair."

Mary glanced doubtfully in the general direction of my finger, then looked back at her wall, the only one she cared about. "Is that so? I never got around to reading any of his books," she confessed without a shred of regret. I was obviously boring her, so I dropped the subject and we resumed our safe, if dull, conversation about the weather and other inanities as the traffic whooshed and rumbled by.

The next day, while I ate a noontime sandwich in my truck and scanned the morning newspaper, Mary came down the concrete stairs of her terraced front yard and invited me in for an icy glass of sun tea. Sure, I said, dutifully following her to the front door, which she flung open with a little smile of pride. I glanced inside and froze. "Uh, Mary, I can't come in dressed like this," I pleaded, gesturing at my cruddy clothes and my scuffed boots. "I'm too dirty." It was a lame excuse, but the best I could muster on short notice.

Pooh-poohing my misgivings, she assured me that it was okay. "Just don't sit on the furniture, dear, and you'll be fine," she directed, closing the door behind us. As my eyes slowly adjusted to the subdued lighting, I was struck dumb by her atrocious taste: it was an Augean stable of vulgarity, badly in want of a stout Hercules with a large dumpster. Had a tsunami of utter tackiness once swept through her home, or had Liberace left on her doorstep a Trojan horse filled with gaudy knockoffs of his favorite furniture? Or had she purchased at some beastly yard sale a cornucopia chock-full of ankle-tickling shag rugs and over-stuffed, plastic-slipcovered easy chairs and oh-so-precious, never-to-be used love seats? Tinted mirrors set in gilded rococo frames? Got 'em! Betassled footstools worthy of the Grand Pooh-Bah of Las Vegas? Take your choice! Cutesy-wootsey knicknacks aligned just so atop a fake mantel of a phony fireplace stuffed with artificial logs? You betcha! A baker's dozen and then some of framed old-timey adages and hoary homilies hung upon walls covered with hideously patterned flocked wallpaper? Damn straight! The only thing missing to complete the illusion of a fin de siècle French whorehouse was a trio of over-the-hill prostitutes sharing an opium pipe on a red velvet sofa. I was stunned. What could I possibly say?

Chattering nonstop, blind to my discomfort, Mary guided me through each of the downstairs rooms. Fortunately the "tour" didn't include the upstairs, for if what I had already witnessed was a hint of the decorative horrors lurking in her boudoir, I doubt if my constitution could have withstood the shock. It was understandable why she had remained unmarried: the heterosexual man who would willingly live in such a frilly dollhouse stuffed with over-the-top froufrou was yet to be born. But she seemed content, a harmless eccentric, an amicable woman who had somehow managed to avoid the fate that often befell lonely widows and divorcées: she hadn't yet been taken up by cats.

Standing in her kitchen, the tour concluded, I hastily drank my tea, complimented her on her home, and then expressing concern that the concrete I had poured might be setting up, managed to flee. If I had been a practicing Catholic, I might have hurried to the nearest church and sprinkled myself with holy water to protect my own bachelor fashion sense from similar corruption.

I finished the job without further incident and moved on to other jobs for other people who weren't impelled to show me their homes. Occasionally when I happened to drive past Mary's residence, I thought of the stylistic crimes concealed behind the innocuous   facade of her house and shuddered. Eventually as the months and then the years passed, I forgot even those. Then, several years later, I read a short story of John Updike's in The New Yorker entitled "The Other Side of the Street." Its protagonist (obviously the author), searches the Yellow Pages for a notary public to transfer the title of his deceased mother's car into his name. By chance, he happens upon Mary's listing. Intrigued by her proximity to his old home, he calls her for an appointment. She urges him to come right over, and as soon as he steps through her door, she immediately gives him the "Tour." Unlike me, the story's hero is not only willing to play Dante to her Beatrice, but never mentions her deplorable deficiency of taste!

As the tale unfolds, it becomes evident that Mary's character personifies the supposedly well-to-do people who lived in the row of hillside homes opposite that of the author's less fortunate family. Now, however, the hero belatedly realizes that the folks whom the ten-year-old he once thought so lordly were in reality not much different than his own parents and grandparents. And in that narrative, Mary's fashion faux pas are irrelevant to the plot, not to mention that the author was too decent a human being to make sport of another's aesthetic shortcomings.

I put down the magazine and called Mary, eager to inform her that as the prototype of a character in Updike's vast oeuvre she had achieved a tenuous immortality of sorts. She thanked me for thinking of her, but said that someone else (the author?) had already told her. If she was thrilled by her sudden, if anonymous, literary fame, she hid her excitement well. Could she have been a mite put out by Updike's failure to praise her decorating talent? Personally, I thought she had gotten off rather easily; a less compassionate writer might not have been so kind. But then John's good angel would never permit his bad angel to turn his pen against anyone as sweet as Mary. After all, apart from her dubious taste, she made a killer glass of sun tea!

Burl N. Corbett HZ6518
SCI Albion
10745 Route 18
Albion, PA 16475-0002

Born 6/9/47 in Reading, PA.  Raised on a 123-acre sheep farm only three crow miles from John Updike´s famous sandstone farmhouse of “Pigeon Feathers,” The Centaur, and Of the Farm.  Graduated from Daniel Boone High School in 1965.  Ran away to Greenwich Village to become a beatnik in 1966 with only a Martin guitar and the clothes on my back.  Lived among the counterculture for 3 years, returning disillusioned to PA for good in 1968.  Worked on a mink farm; poured steel in a foundry; chased the sum as a cross-country pipeliner; drove the big rigs, baby!; picked tomatoes with migrant workers; tended bar on the old skid row Bowery; worked as a reporter, columnist, and photographer for two Southeastern Pennsylvania newspapers; drove beer truck (hic!); was a “HEY, CULLIGAN MAN!”; learned how to plaster, stucco, and lay stone; published both fiction and nonfiction in several nationally distributed magazines and literary quarterlies; got married and raised four children; got divorced and fell into the bottle; and came to prison at the age of 60 with no previous criminal offenses other than a 25 year-old DUI. The “crime”? Self-defense in my own house without financial means to hire a decent lawyer.  Since becoming the “guest” of the state in 2007, I have won 3 PEN Prison Writing Awards (two first and an honorable mention); the first and only prize of $500 in the 2013 Eaton Literary Agency short fiction contest; written a children/young adult book, Coon Tales, soon to be published by Xlibris; a novel of the 1967 “Summer of Love,” Dreaming of Oxen; a magic realism novel, A Redneck Ragnorak, and many short stories and memoirs.  My first novel, A Haven from Violence is available at Xlibris.com or Amazon.com.



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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A Message from Minutes Before Six

Dear Readers, 

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has introduced a new rule in its Offender Orientation Handbook stating that “offenders are prohibited from maintaining active social media accounts for the purposes of soliciting, updating, or engaging others, through a third party or otherwise.”

Pending legal clarification of the new Texas Department of Criminal Justice offender rule #4, regarding the use of social media in support of prisoners, writing and artwork from Texas prisoners will not be accessible on Minutes Before Six. Thank you for sharing with your networks and for your understanding.

Sincerely, 

The Minutes Before Six Team