Thursday, January 18, 2018

A Tale of Two Prisons: Retribution Versus Rehabilitation & What America Can Learn from Germany

By Rosendo Rodriguez III
“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” 
– Fyodor Dostoevsky, The House of the Dead
The difference between the prison system of Germany that of and America is as vast as the ocean separating them. Comparing the two nations’ spending on prisons; the mental, physical, and emotional effects of imprisonment u; the political ramifications of prosecuting criminals; conditions of confinement; and recidivism rates, only one conclusion is reached. One country has as its goal the social restoration of its most marginalized citizens through a comprehensive plan of rehabilitation, whereas the other is bent on simply punishing them – a brutal, retributive regime caging human beings for years, even decades, on end. To understand the difference, we must first examine the cultural history of Germany. Why German culture emphasizes human rights and the dignity of its imprisoned, and why the U.S. continues to dehumanize the millions it keeps behind bars.
“History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
– Mark Twain 
Consider the following: A western democracy has just suffered a major economic downturn, and the loss of millions of jobs. It was ruled by a head of state unable to effect any meaningful laws. The main political parties within its legislative branch had become so fractious and extreme that it remained paralyzed by partisan gridlock. As a result, an extreme right-wing politician comes out of nowhere, denouncing the careerist, indecisive, and ineffectual politicians currently in office who were frozen in the traditional political framework. He vows to “drain the swamp” of the leftists enervating the strength of the country, weakening its core values. The extremist and his henchmen then campaign throughout the nation, promising to “make it great again” by creating millions of jobs in its rusted-out industrial belt. His propaganda machine labels liberal news outlets as the “lying press”. He then openly mocks the disabled, vows to register and ban an entire set of people of their civil rights based on their religious beliefs, threatens to withdraw from international treaties and organizations, and demands the deportation and/or imprisonment of millions of undocumented immigrants. 

Lastly, the extremist wants to corrupt the justice system for his own ends, so that the prosecutors under his control will pursue the most severe punishments available, thereby filling prisons and jails. If you assume I was referring to Donald Trump, you would be right. However, I am also referring to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. (I would be remiss if I did not point out that Hitler and the Nazis actually knew what the hell they were doing, unlike Trump and his cronies, and Hitler did not need the Russians to get into power. But I digress.)
“Successful wickedness hath obtained the name virtue...when it is for the getting of the kingdom.” 
– Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
A fire broke out in the Reichstag, the German parliament building, on February 27-28, 1933. Shortly after, a mentally defective Dutch man by the name of Marinus van der Lubbe was arrested and found guilty of the crime. Utilizing this as a pretext to take advantage of a provision of the Constitution of the Weimar Republic, Hitler was allowed to declare a State of Emergency and, as a result, rule by decree. He was able to do this after the Nazis ran the narrative that the Reichstag fire was a terrorist act committed by the Communist Party in a concerted effort to seize power. 

By March 23, 1933, Hitler had in essence crippled parliament and shifted its legislative functions to his cabinet. He then arrested Communist Party members of parliament and threatened Catholic Party members with violence while at the same time, offered inducements to go along with his dictates. From that point on, Hitler's decrees-turned-laws gained the illusion of legitimacy and, because of that, hardly anyone ever protested whenever they were enacted. After consolidating power within the executive and legislative branches of the German government, Hitler rid the judiciary and the legal profession of any opposition, filling the void with his own staunch party members. Lastly, Hitler ensured that National Socialism would be rigidly adhered to by directing the police, prosecutors, judges, prison directors, and ultimately, concentration camp commandants, to imprison, then liquidate, all political “undesirables”. 

All of this was perpetrated in the name of “safety” and “security”, and culminated in the crime against humanity known as the Holocaust. But as darkness descended on the German nation, there was a precious few who both overtly and covertly resisted the Nazi Government, one of them being a famed writer and Christian theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
“The noose is drawn tighter and more painfully, reminding Jeremiah that he is a prisoner. He is a prisoner and has to follow. His path is prescribed...This path will lead right down into the deepest situation of human powerlessness. The follower becomes a laughingstock, scorned and taken for a fool, but a fool who is extremely dangerous to people's peace and comfort, so that he or she must be beaten, locked up, tortured, if not put to death right away. That is exactly what became of this man Jeremiah, because he could not get away from God.”
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a sermon from London, England on January 21st, 1944.
As a young boy, Dietrich Bonhoeffer read a book, “The Heroes of Everyday”, which told stories of young men and women who, through bravery, selfless actions, and mindfulness of others, saved people’s lives. Oftentimes, the stories ended sadly. This book had an effect on young Bonhoeffer, and as an adult he felt a calling to become a member of the clergy. Troubled by the ever-increasing authoritarianism of the Nazis, he gave a famous sermon in London, England that would mark the beginning of his resistance. 

Bonhoeffer most identified with the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, who was not only very reluctant to serve God, but actually attempted to flee his calling. As Jeremiah and numerous other prophets of the Bible had done, Bonhoeffer began to see himself as God’s prisoner, one who would also come to be hurt, mocked, incarcerated, beaten, and, despite acceptance of loss, still claim victory. As prophecies are often wont to do, his would be fulfilled. When World War II broke out in Europe and millions of Jews, Gypsies, Poles, homosexuals, political opponents and prisoners-of-war were systematically killed in concentration camps, Bonhoeffer did what he could to fight against evils committed by the Nazis. His spying, subversion, assisting Jews, and participation in a plot to overthrow Hitler, would eventually lead to his arrest and imprisonment at Tegel Military Prison in Berlin, Germany.
“The blankets on the camp bed had such a foul smell that in spite of the cold it was impossible to use them. Next morning a piece of bread was thrown into my cell; I had to pick it up from the floor. The sound of the prison staff’s vile abuse of the prisoners who were held for investigation penetrated into my cell for the first time; since then I have heard it every day from morning to night...for the next twelve days the cell door was opened only for bringing food in and putting the bucket out. No one said a word to me. I was told nothing about the reason for my detention, or how long it would last.”
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a letter describing his arrival to Tegel Military Prison after his arrest by the Gestapo on April 5th, 1943.
Bonhoeffer would end up spending 18-months at Tegel, locked in a tiny cell, enduring extremes of heat and cold, subsisting on a meager diet and what his family could send him, with only a bucket to serve as a toilet. One cannot imagine the types of abuse he and his fellow prisoners endured, nor the dignity and humanity stripped by such confinement. I specifically mention Tegel Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the Nazi regime to juxtapose Tegel today, with its current prisoners, and the German Government’s humanitarian approach to reforming the incarcerated.
“Your gentleness shall force. More than your force move us to gentleness.” 
– William Shakespeare, As You Like It
To this day, Tegel Prison exists in Berlin; a collection of brick and stone that houses the most violent prisoners in its “Preventive Detention” program. These are men who prison authorities have ascertained cannot be released back into the free world yet, despite all efforts at rehabilitation. One might imagine Tegel to be a vermin-infested gulag offering nothing but despair. However, in reality, its immaculately clean grounds, pristine white walls, and abundance of plant life both inside and outside, bear a strong resemblance to a college campus. It includes a shop where bicycles are produced and repaired, a well-maintained music program, and a huge exercise gym housing weights, punching bags, and even a ping-pong table; Tegel's Preventive Detention program exists primarily to protect the public, not to punish. Prisoners have as much freedom as possible while keeping the public safe, thus ensuring the dignity of those within the walls.

Here in America, some might question – or even find outrageous – the way prisoners are treated in Germany. However, at the center of Berlin is The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a large mass of concrete slabs resembling coffins, which serves as a reminder for the premium placed on human life. Germany does not want to repeat past mistakes with its prisoners.

Located at the corner of Ebertstrasse and Hannah-Arendt-Strasse, each one of the 2,711 slabs is representative of 1,000 Jews that were murdered during the Holocaust. Set apart from the daily goings-on of Berliners, it was created by architect Peter Eisenmann, along with the assistance of sculptor, Richard Sierra, and it serves as a somber reminder of what a state-sponsored campaign of retribution is capable of. One might then travel over to Rosenstrasse, where you can see another sculpture, Block der Frauen, a Litfass column that honors a mass protest of the wives of the last Jews of Berlin who demonstrated against the arrests of their husbands by the Nazis in March 1943. Or, perhaps, if one was to travel northeast to Mitte, and look down on a sidewalk located in front of a kebab vendor, you may see a series of brass cubes amongst the cobblestones that read:

Geb. Kramer
JG. 1883
DEPORTIERT 29.11.1942

JG. 1877
DEPORTIERT 29.11.1942

JG. 1892

In English, these would read like obituaries: 
Here lived Elsa Guttentag, born Kramer. 
Year of birth: 1883. 
Deported: November 29, 1942. 
Murdered in Auschwitz. 

Here lived Kurt Guttentag. 
Year of birth: 1877. 
Deported: November 29, 1942. 
Murdered in Auschwitz. 

Here lived Erwin Buchwald. 
Year of birth: 1892. 
Deported: March 1, 1943. 
Murdered in Auschwitz.

These brass cubes are known as “Stolpersteine”, or “stumbling blocks”, and are but three of the more than 32,000 that artist Gunter Demnig had set as memorials in over 700 European cities. They force each passerby to look at each cube memorializing a person that was forcibly moved out of their residence by an authoritarian, right-wing government, deported, and then mass-murdered in an industrialized process. After looking up from the cubes, it slowly dawns on the observer that their surroundings are the same as those that the victims saw before they were murdered by the Nazi State.
“If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.”
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer
According to the German Federal Ministry of Justice, approximately 33% of prisoners released in 2007 committed another crime within three years, and of them, about half were given a fine instead of prison time. Conversely, the U.S. National Institute of Justice reported that 76.6% of those released in 2007 committed another crime in the same time span. As of November 30, 2016, the German prison system housed 62,065 prisoners, an incarceration rate of 76 per 100,000 people. In the U.S. prison complex, there are over 2,300,000 people, a ratio of more than 600 per 100,000. Such disparities between the rates of both recidivism and incarceration beg the following question: Is the U.S. the most criminal society on Earth, or is something seriously wrong with its prison system? If the latter is true, then what is the U.S. doing wrong, and Germany right?

Winston Churchill famously observed that Americans can always be relied upon to do the right thing, once they have exhausted all the alternatives. After 200-plus years of slavery, a civil war had to be fought to end the brutal practice. But the desire to oppress other human beings remained, and ever since the American Civil War ended in 1865, legal forms of slavery continue, most notably in the form of the prison-industrial complex.

In many small towns across America, prisons are the only industry. If a prison is shutdown, the town is hit economically. So, politicians are loath to close prisons, and special interest groups lobby for long-term sentencing laws to ensure prisons are filled. In 1994, the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act (more commonly known as the “Crime Bill”) was passed, empowering states to create laws that would incarcerate more people. Greater restrictions on parole made it more difficult for prisoners to be released. The age of criminal responsibility was reduced – in some states, to as low as 13. Children could be tried and convicted as adults, creating the “school-to-prison-pipeline”. “Three Strikes” laws were passed, mandating life sentences for individuals who have three or more convictions. “Mandatory Minimum” laws came into being, binding the hands of judges when sentencing criminal defendants. Drug laws were generated, requiring those convicted to serve abnormally long sentences, often for charges non-violent in nature and resulting from very small amounts of drugs.

All of these factors encourage state prosecutors and judges to seek and hand down the most severe sentences possible. Prosecutors and judges at the state-level must run for office, and “tough on crime” campaigns are often the centerpieces of their elections. Prosecutors treat indictments as mere formalities, the popular joke being that they can “indict a ham sandwich”. State legislatures pass more and more overlapping criminal statutes, giving prosecutors the advantage decentralized decision-making and a wider range of possible charges. Prosecutors and judges tend to view decisions through the prism of political capital, rather than justice.

Federal judges and prosecutors are appointed and, as such, are largely insulated from backlash over unpopular rulings or decisions to pursue lower charges, or none at all. But, recently, the justice system took a moment of collective pause: Donald Trump nominated Jeffery Beauregard Sessions as Attorney General. 

Alabama, Sessions’s native state, will soon be home to the first national memorial to victims of lynching. During his confirmation hearings, Sessions repeatedly denied his racist past and links to the Ku Klux Klan. Perhaps this made his first act as U.S. Attorney General – the directive that federal prosecutors pursue the most severe punishment possible – emblematic of the Trump Administration's knee-jerk policy approach to problems it perceives (as societal. Attributing criminal behavior as a deficit of morals and character, rather than a temporary suspension of them, makes progress difficult here in America. In Germany, the focus is on the transformation of the individual upon entering the prison system.
“Death is hell and night is cold, if it is not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvelous, that we can transform death.” 
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a sermon from London, England in November 1933. 
Heidering Prison, on the outskirts of Berlin, houses approximately 650 men. The impression given is that of an art museum and school of higher learning hybrid. Prisoners hold a variety of jobs, learning trades, such as automotive manufacturing. They are required to place a portion of their pay in a savings account for their release. Prisoners may even wear personal clothes as a way to maintain self-identity and independence. Some are allowed to leave prison to visit loved ones. Those who cannot, due to their status, may instead visit in a special area complete with the comforts of home, such as a fold-out couch, a kitchen, etc. If a social worker at the prison authorizes an unsupervised visitation, conjugal visits may also take place. The underpinning ethos of the German prison system is: the less infantilism, the better.

According to the Berlin Ministry of Justice, the aim is to “enable prisoners to lead a life of social responsibility upon release”. When a person first enters the prison system, he or she is given an assessment by a psychologist that creates a rehabilitation plan specifically designed for them. Such personalized plans include educational classes, anger management and drug dependency counseling, vocational training, and a job detail. Those who abide by their plans earn more privileges.

Some Americans think the German system may be too lenient. However, from the German perspective, it is nonsensical to place a person in a cage for the rest of their life without trying to diagnose the cause of their crime, or to release them without treatment to make sure they do not come back. Where they to merely warehouse human beings, more prisons would have to be built: a great cost to the mental, emotional, and psychological health of the prisoners, and a burden upon taxpayers.

Granted, at the cost of 120 Euros (or US$135) a day per German prisoner, it is more than the $85 a day per prisoner amount spent in the U.S. But the extra expense is justified. German guards are trained in psychology and de-escalation techniques that concentrate on non-violent, non-aggressive approaches. Most prisoners come from violent backgrounds, and to meet violence with violence and threats of reprisal is not only counterproductive, but it is also dangerous. German therapists try to discover why the prisoner committed their crime, working together to prevent them from returning. Wardens and directors have backgrounds in psychology, so the goal of rehabilitation permeates from the top down. Because their jobs are protected by the Federal Constitutional Court, they cannot be fired if a released prisoner goes on to commit another crime.

In Germany, as in most of western Europe, judges and prosecutors are appointed (unlike America, where they are elected politicians). Therefore, they are insulated from societal emotion, public outcry, and the fear-mongering media outlets create. So, when considering whether a prisoner might reoffend, the conversation instead extends into the realm of human rights and dignity.
“If, at first, an idea does not sound absurd, then there is no hope for it.” 
– Albert Einstein
Despite comprising 5% of the world's total population, the U.S. houses 25% of the prisoners on earth; at a cost of over 80 billion dollars a year. Having a fraction of our prisoners at a fraction of the cost, Germany holds the key to prison reform. As with every key, it can open doors.

At Waldeck Prison, a maximum-security facility in Waren, a small resort town north of Berlin, prisoners have keys to their own cells. They are allowed to decorate with tables, bookshelves, telephones, and televisions. Complete with private bathrooms, cells resemble IKEA-furnished university dorms rooms. Twin-sized beds and ceramic toilets bear no resemblance to the steel toilets and bunks that are so common in U.S. prisons. Activities, such as soccer, yoga classes, painting, pottery, crocheting, gym programs, and numerous others, give inmates at Waldeck a chance to exercise their bodies and minds, providing productive and healthy ways to pass the time. Programs are designed to mirror life in the free world, within reason: a process Germans refer to as “Normalisierung” (i.e. Normalization). Punishment consists of being cut-off from society and loved ones, and is not to extend beyond that. Such freedoms and luxuries may be a hard-sell to state legislators here in Texas. However, if they were to acknowledge the low-rate of prisoners, recidivism, and reduction in overall cost with the German model of incarceration, then the $3,563,317,791 that Texas will spend on its prison system in 2018 could be trimmed down. Saving money better spent on schools, and drug and mental health rehabilitation programs –means to keep people from going to prison in the first place.
“The four stages of acceptance:
1. This is worthless nonsense.
2. This is interesting, but perverse.
3. This is true, but quite unimportant.
4. I always said so.”
– J.B.S. Haldane, The Truth About Death
Following the Great Recession of 2009, many local and state governments in the U.S. had to make drastic budget cuts. Here, in Texas, (where I am on death row at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston) a perfect storm of economic slowdowns, budget cuts, and a refusal to raise taxes by then-Republican Governor Rick Perry and his party allies, culminated in a $51 billion deficit. Education was not spared the ax: $5.4 billion was cut, eliminating over 10,000 teaching positions, and denying over 60,000 college students financial aid. Poorer school districts lost $800 more per student than wealthy ones, exacerbating the already dismal high school graduation rate (Texas ranks 47th out of the 50 U.S. states). This, in turn, sent more young men and women to prison. For the first time since World War II, Texas did not meet its promised funding obligations.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice was not spared either, suffering deep cuts to its budget. Prison staff are overworked and underpaid, which, along with a high-turnover rate, and reductions in physical and mental health services, has led to an increase in guard-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, injuries and deaths stemming from neglect and incompetence, and continued over-crowding. With over 145,000 prisoners, Texas has one of the largest prison populations in the nation. Thousands are in solitary confinement, restricted to their cells 22- to 24-hours a day. Such confinement – including what we experience on death row – bans any type of interaction among prisoners, such as recreation periods, jobs, or eating together. 

Researchers have found this type of isolation – which can last for years, and even decades – can cause severe, negative effects on the mental health of inmates, exacerbating existing mental illness, and triggering it amongst those who were healthy. Access to mental health care in prison is laughably insufficient, consisting of infrequent visits by so-called “mental health” workers who, at best, ask few questions beyond “How are you?” Cells are 8-feet by 12-feet, containing a sink, toilet, and 30-inch bed all made of steel. The lack of movement in such a confined area can lead to a sedentary lifestyle, which causes obesity, high-blood pressure, depression, and a host of other maladies. 

Dozens of prisoners are kept in housing units that require three guards each, a serious waste of manpower and taxpayer money, as prisoners in general population often require one guard per housing unit. The psychological, physical, and economic costs of solitary confinement, on a large-scale, is enormous. Thankfully, headway is being made across political and social spectrums in the U.S.; creating strange bedfellows in the push to reduce prison populations, to create alternatives to incarceration, and to end the use of mandatory minimum sentencing.

In 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union, Koch Industries, Freedomworks, the Center for American Progress, and a consortium of politicians, policy wonks, and journalists all came together in their goal of prison reform to support the Coalition for Public Safety. This consensus includes not only liberals who view mass incarceration as the product of racism within the justice system and denounce the defunding of public assistance programs and services for the mentally ill, but also libertarians who view a massive prison system as a prime example of government control.

Evangelical groups concerned with penitence see excessive and cruel sentencing structures as barriers to redemption. The fiscally-conservative believe that keeping non-violent prisoners behind bars for decades is pointless, the throwing of good funding after bad. In a Venn diagram of these disparate political and social groups, their overlapping goals would be to reduce the number of prisoners in America, and to ensure that they never return.
“I know of no country where the conditions for affecting great changes in the settled order of things… are more favorable than here in the United States. 
– Frederick Douglass (freed slave and abolitionist), shortly before the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1857.
Whether for good or ill, massive social and political upheaval has always required war. During war, actors fight against nation-states, and the established hierarchy. The U.S. and its allies went to war with Germany twice in one century; and World War II saw allied forces fight the Nazi regime alongside the precious few German nationals engaged in subversion and sabotage – the struggle against the evil perpetrated during the Holocaust. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, spent 18-months as an inmate of Tegel Prison, before being transferred to a Gestapo prison. Four months later, he would be sent 200-miles south to Buchenwald, a concentration camp where 56,545 people were killed through forced labor, executions, and medical experiments. 

On April 3, 1945, as the Allied Powers closed in, Bonhoeffer was sent to Flossenburg Concentration Camp, where he was executed by hanging six days later. His body was burned in a pile of his fellow prisoners and resisters to the Nazi Government. Two weeks later, the Allies liberated Flossenburg; a week after that, Hitler committed suicide in a bunker beneath the Reichstag in Berlin. 

To this day, a marker stands in Flossenburg, memorializing Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his fellow conspirators. To this day, Germans strive to ensure that nothing that could be likened to the Holocaust happens again – whether to the millions of refugees seeking protection throughout Germany and her neighboring countries, or to the inmates within German prisons. Here, in America, we can affect great change within our broken prison system, but only if we learn lessons from history, and from our friends across the ocean. And only if we speak for those who cannot.
“It is high time we broke with our theologically-based restraint towards the
state's actions - which, after all, is only fear. “Speak out for those who
cannot speak.” Who in the Church today realizes that this is the very least
that the Bible requires of us?”
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, speaking against the introduction of the “Nuremberg Laws” (which, among other things, empowered the Nazi Government to legally revoke the citizenship of German-Jews) in 1935.
Many of you reading this article have friends and/or family who are incarcerated, or, perhaps, you may have been in prison yourself. Other than writing to inmates or depositing money into a prisoner’s account, some of you might wonder what more can be done for your loved ones behind the walls: getting involved in the political process in order to affect change is a great way to start. Located below is a list of websites that can help you:

Believe it or not, politicians are responsive to their constituents, especially when it comes to the members of the legislative branches of the Federal and State Governments – as we have learned from both the Obama and Trump Administrations. During the former, when Democrats controlled the White House and Congress, The Tea Party developed a defensive model at the local-level. They attended political events, visited local politician offices, called representatives and inundated them with mail. The Tea Baggers knew that, while they could not set an agenda to formulate policy in their respective city halls, state capitol buildings, or on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., they sure as hell could react to it. Now, with the latter in the Oval Office, imitation has become the sincerest form of flattery, and grassroots resistance groups have denied Trump any major legislative victories. Remember, whether it is the President, or the Governor of your state, it is not their own punitive and retributive agendas they have formulated, rather it is Congress and the state legislatures who act as rubber stamps and are what those agendas depend on. The Indivisible Guide (which you can find on this website) is a Civics 101 primer that one can utilize to first become knowledgeable about, then vociferously participate in, politics at the grassroots level. Start prison reform locally; it is your civic responsibility to not only question your government, but to shout at and protest against it, if necessary.

If indeed hollering and shouting at your local politicians face-to-face is what you would like to do, this site researches and publishes a comprehensive list of public events where you can do just that. Originally a Google Document that was crowdsourced, it received such an overwhelming response that it had to have a site of its own.

The day following Trump taking office, the world witnessed an entire gender roar in protest – not just here in America, but in cities around the globe. Women from all over wore knitted, pink hats – “Pussyhats” – that served as a sign of resistance. Architect Jayna Zweiman and screenwriter Krista Suh are avid knitters in Los Angeles who had the idea of bringing together fellow hobbyists whose knitting circles could serve as Pussyhat production centers, as well as forums for plotting resistance against those who would infringe women’s rights. Zweiman and Suh had a two-fold strategy: First, assemble groups of people with the same goals – this affords the participants the ideal opportunity to create a community through activism; Second, knowing that not everyone could attend the Women’s Marches taking place, the Pussyhat has become a general symbol of solidarity instead. Property crimes and drug offences have resulted in the harshest punishments for women in prison, and women are the fastest-growing demographic in the American criminal justice system. You might wonder if you somehow missed a huge crime wave of women; you didn’t, but it was rather the unnecessarily long and brutal sentencing schemes that have led to this sobering and tragic statistic. Speak out for them by starting a Pussyhat-knitting circle of you own – call K.W.A. or Knittas Wit’ Attitudes or something similar – and don a hat.

There was a ray of light that shone through the darkness of November 8th, 2016 here in red-state Texas: Travis County, where Houston is located, saw every major political office that Republicans held suddenly go to the Democrats. This is indicative of many urban areas across the U.S.; large cities are the liberal, progressive islands of social activism and common sense amidst a sea of conservative close-mindedness that desires to turn back the clock on civil rights. Swing Left’s admirable goal is to bring together social activists in safe congressional districts who seek progressive change, and have them canvass in the nearest swing districts in order to flip control of House seats at both the Federal- and State-levels from red to blue. By combining resources, ideas, and time, prison reform activists can join forces to get representatives who will push for change elected. 

The disparity of funding and support for liberal, progressive state politicians between the (west and east) coasts and middle America is vast. Therefore, Adopt A State focuses on closing the gap. Concentrating on the most competitive and winnable state legislative races, this organization helps voters and activists pursue meaningful changes in their respective state prison departments by getting legislators who run on such platforms in red-state America elected. The coastal states of California, New York, and New Jersey have significantly reduced their prison populations (New York by 26%, New Jersey by 26%, and California by 23%). The reason for this is clear: these states made their systems less punitive, simultaneously requiring individual offenders who committed less-serious crimes to be accountable while they remained in the community. It is high time to turn such coastal progressivism inward to the heartland.

Started on January 20th, 2017 – the day Trump took office – Run For Something seeks to find and support millennials that are wanting to run for office. For those who are not familiar with the political arena, or are not part of the system, this organization can help provide access to training, speak with those in-the-know about politics, and even tries to assist with obtaining funding and staff. If you are not a millennial, Run For Office can help you locate local races to join, and with a joint-database of nearly 43,000 political offices to search through, along with a free online course on how to do so, Run For Something and Run For Office can get rehabilitative-minded progressives into positions where they can do the most good for criminal justice systems, as well as inmates and their family and friends, who are all affected by them. 

If you think that running on a progressive campaign is somehow impossible, then I ask you to consider the following people who did just that, and won:
  • A member of the Democratic Socialists of America (or D.S.A.), Black Lives Matter, Fight for $15 organizer, and Bernie Sanders delegate in 2016, khalid kamau (noting he lowercases the letters in his name in the Yoruba tradition of emphasizing the community over the individual) won a seat on the City Council of South Fulton in Georgia. He ran on a bold social-economic and social-justice platform. 
  • Christine Pellegrino, an elementary school teacher, union activist, and another Sanders delegate, won a special election for a state legislator seat in New York by taking 58% of the vote in a district that voted for Trump by a 23-point margin. 
  • In April, Tony Evers won a race for Superintendent of Public Instruction in the state of Wisconsin, and captured 70% of the vote that not only has Republican Scott Walker as Governor, but that also narrowly backed Trump in November. Evers called for more funding in schools, particularly for schools that serve Latinos, rural students, and African-Americans. 
  • Civil-rights attorney Lawrence Krasner was nominated for District Attorney by Philadelphia Democrats on May 16th, and is probably one of the most striking examples of how voters can, according to one newspaper columnist, be a part of “a revolution aimed at finally undoing a draconian justice regime that had turned the Cradle of Liberty into a death-penalty capital and the poster child for mass incarceration”. 
Remember, it is the city council that will ultimately decide where and when polling places will operate; it is the heads of the state education agencies that decide on where funds go to and on the subject matters upon which students will study; it is the district attorneys that have the disproportionately powerful decision-making processes of whether or not to harshly punish a criminal defendant, or to ensure that such a defendant receives the rehabilitation that they truly need.

In closing, I would be remiss if I did not mention that support for this site – – is also crucial for helping to affect change within the U.S. prison system. The website’s volunteers work tirelessly on behalf of us prisoners, and they do so on their own time, and at their own financial expense. Minutes Before Six serves as a voice for those of us behind the walls, who would otherwise not have one. If you have enjoyed reading the informative, thought-provoking, and heartfelt posts hosted by the site, I implore you to donate by clicking here. (Please note: Minutes Before Six has recently been granted 501(c)(3) status, which means that your generous contributions are now tax-deductible!) Support prison reform by becoming politically active in whatever capacity you can, and support this website by spreading the word about Minutes Before Six through social media, and with your donations.

Rosendo Rodriguez III 999534
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351
Rosendo's execution is schedule for March 27, 2018

Greetings, my name is Rosendo Rodrigues and I grew up in Wichita Falls, Texas. At 18, I studied political science and history at Texas Tech University and I served in the marine corps as an imperial storm trooper for the US Government.  I speak English and German.  I enjoy reading science fiction and playing Dungeons and Dragons and love finding hilarity wherever it may ensue.  I currently reside in a gated community on Death Row in Texas.  Schreib mir auf deutsch, oder, write mein English.


rabbitholedigger said...

Correlation is not the same as causation.

Venezuela and Zimbabwe implemented 'progressive' policies, but they didn't have any social or economic benefits.

You call Trump 'extreme right wing'. If wanting to have control over your borders is 'extreme right wing', then most countries around the world are 'extreme right wing'.

You seem be of the opinion that by the 'swamp' Trump meant 'leftists'. He didn't. He meant the corrupt elements of the political class in general. Right and left.

You say Trump has wrongly labeled the press. The press has embarrassed itself. You probably don't have access in there, but on the internet we have access to Wikileaks, which provides leaks of primary documents that show all manner of corruption among politicians, bureaucrats, deep state, and especially the media.

Russia helped fix the election? There's no evidence of that. Even if they did, they did it by showing how corrupt the Democratic party is by releasing their own internal documents to the public.

Trump wants to corrupt the justice system? The justice system is already corrupt.

Germany and the United States are two very different countries.

You used the term 'political gridlock' This kind of paralysis can also affect the mind.
People like to think in terms on left v right, black v white, tribe v tribe, progressive v regressive. This thinking can be aborting because it can prevent you from realizing there's another problem/problems.

Another difference between Germany and America is that Germany has tighter gun laws. Another is that it isn't fighting an unwinnable drug war.
Another is that it doesn't have drug cartels pumping product in by the metric tonne over a non protected border.
Another is that is doesn't have a class of people who are racially hostile because they are the ancestors of a slave class. Multiculturalism never quite worked in America. America does not have the cultural capital that Germany does.

I say all of this not to argue that progressive politics is bad. Or that it is good. Just that thinking in false paradigms can force you into false dilemmas, and when you are in a false dilemma, it's impossible for you to make a 'correct' decision.

I wish you all the best and hope you get a stay of execution.

Anonymous said...

Rabbitjholedigger is correct.
My hope is all the people who are against what Trump is doing and trying to do is for the sole purpose of making people responsible for what they are doing and will do. What is wrong with that?

How many of these people actually know what they are talking about? Sound bytes are do nothing more that give you a snippet of what that person wants you to believe. And people fall for that.

Hollywood? Actors are a joke. How many actors (people acting like someone they are not) are educated past High School? How many actually have any degree?? Yet people follow them Kardashians are a perfect example.

Politicians are the same everywhere in this world. Its about time someone here is calling them out. Is Trump perfect? Far from it. However are any of us?

People outside of the US please note.
The vast majority of the people here in the United States are extremely embarrassed by the likes of Hollywood, entertainers, singers and ignorant people like the Kardashians.

Rodriquez is about to be terminated for an extremely heinous crime. (read about it). His world is indeed limited and I get that, however you the readers please at least to try and understand what Rabbitholedigger is as close to the truth as you can get.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this Rosendo but I have to disagree that the Russians 'stole' the election from Killary. Where's the proof? You can't believe what mainstream media say. The way forward I think is to abandon the Democrats who only support Wall St and the Corporations and to have a third party that really represents the people.

Also I get why Auschwitz would be on your mind right now. You are basically sitting the the Western world's nearest thing to it. Polunsky DR is basically a death camp and you and the rest of the guys on deathwatch are in my thoughts right now. I realize it's hard, but are you able to articulate what it's like there? I can't even imagine.

Random citizen said...

I think it can be agreed upon that taking responsibility for ones actions is key to a civilized society. I would very much disagree that Trump is any kind of an example.

I was an opponent to the death penalty. Ironically, because of this blog I have changed my mind. Thomas did take responsibility for his actions, but it is the consequences of those actions that people take issue with. But, if a person were to be honest, the consequences are fair. Is the legal system unfair, yes it is. We have a system to address the unfairness. It isnt 100% accurate, but in a free society it is very difficult to be perfect. How about those who should be convicted walk free on a technicality? Where are the blogs for those? If Thomas was not caught in Mexico, would that have been fair? Innocent until proven guilty, right? So if proven guilty, then there is punishment. Why take the chance? If you are a prisoner and have committed a crime, confess. Tell the parents where their child is buried. Stop killing raping and stealing. Until then, you take the chance of being walled up in hell on earth.

Anonymous said...

Random Citizen - you really need to educate yourself on the issues. There are many good essays on here that would help you. Like Thomas' 'Anatomy of a Wrongful Conviction'. He also wrote about mistaken identities - a man was sent to DR because of his resemblance to his brother who was the real perpetrator.

"The consequences are fair" Really?! Read all of Thomas's essays in fact and open your eyes. Why do you think the civilised world has rejected the death penalty?

I would also recommend you read the late, great Christopher Hitchens essay on the death penalty here: