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 (with Jake)
1499 R. W. Moore Memorial Highway
Only, TN 37140-4050

I've been in prison serving a life sentence since 1993.  I worked for The Only Voice, the prison newspaper of Turney Center Prison from 1995-2015.  During that time I was a reporter, writer and editor. I currently train service dogs to assist he disabled.

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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.


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

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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.


The Minutes Before Six Team

Thursday, April 7, 2016


Please make a donation to support Minutes Before Six

By Timothy Pauley

My first trip to McNeil Island ended far too quickly. The second time around I was determined to see if I couldn't make it last a little longer than two years. In fact, my intention was to finish out my sentence there.

The only reason I was able to get this transfer was because of my mother. Her cancer had returned. The prognosis was that she only had a short time left. The Department of Corrections had a policy that permitted a person to transfer closer to a dying relative and, even though it took the better part of two years to actually get them to apply this policy to me, I was eventually on a bus headed in the right direction.

The day the bus pulled onto the barge to ferry us across the mile and a half of water that separated the prison from the mainland, it was a typical January day in Western Washington, gray and rainy. The scenery was still beautiful, particularly to someone who'd been in prison for nearly thirty years, but the low visibility did not do it justice. Over the course of the next few weeks, I was able to absorb the full impact of the visual palette unique to this prison. From the yard Puget Sound glistened in the rays of sunlight that began to poke through the clouds. Elk could be seen ambling past the exercise yard a mere twenty feet on the other side of the dual security fences that surrounded the facility. A dozen or so bald eagles perched in a tree up on the hill that overlooked the prison, periodically soaring high above us as they looked to locate their next meal.

As we progressed into spring, the sky became clearer and the full majesty could be seen. On a trip to the yard the first sunny day, I walked to the fence that was a mere thirty yards from the water. As the smell of the sea filled my nostrils, I looked up and the view nearly took my breath away. There before me, rising above the waters of Puget Sound and the tree line on the opposite shore was Mount Rainier in all its glory. The mountain was actually about seventy or eighty miles away, but it is so large that at that distance it looms over the water in an awe-inspiring way that a prisoner would never have opportunity to see in any other place.

As I stood there absorbed in the moment, a sight appeared that completed the picture perfectly. Out of the corner of my eye I caught movement just on the other side of the fence. When I looked down, a raccoon turned his head and met my gaze as he ambled by. The other animals I’d seen always gave me the feeling they were wary of people. Not this guy. He was Bruiser, king of the raccoons. No matter how much the warden liked to think he was the ruler of this fiefdom, it was Bruiser's island and he don't give a crap what any of us thought about that.

His surly demeanour aside, Bruiser could easily be identified at a great distance. While there were dozens of raccoons who frequently visited the prison, Bruiser stood out amongst them. For starters, he was a good forty pounds. For a raccoon that is huge. Then there were his ears. Much like a fighter of other species, Bruiser showed the marks of his conquests. His left ear was halfway bitten off, with an edge that still showed a clear line of teeth marks. His right ear was also half missing and it was also split down the middle all the way to his skull, giving the appearance of two.

The ears were just the start. Bruiser was missing big tufts of fur from various places around his body and his tail was a two inch stub instead of the eighteen inches of striped fur that most raccoons sported.

Bruiser walked exactly like one would expect an animal of his appearance to. His front shoulders remained hunched and he had a slow deliberate gait that gave the appearance he was on his way to step into the ring for a title fight. Shortly after my return to McNeil, I had an opportunity to see confirmation that Bruiser was indeed all he presented himself to be. 

One day during the spring rainy season, I was lifting weights in the yard. Directly adjacent to the weight pit was a large industrial building with an angled roof. I just happened to glance up and there was Bruiser on top of another raccoon, pounding away, creating the next limbs of his family tree. When I looked up, he appeared to meet my gaze and I could swear the hint of a grin curled at the corners of his mouth.

In prison modesty and shame are seen as signs of weakness. Being fearless is looked upon with great respect. As Bruiser continued to pound away for nearly an hour, he easily established he was indeed fearless. In the middle of his tryst, another raccoon approached and challenged him. Bruiser stepped off his ride and proceeded to maul his rival to within an inch of his life. He was already back to business as the other raccoon dragged himself away, but Cruiser paid him no mind at all.

Whenever anyone or anything dared to stare, Bruiser wasn't shy about turning his head in their direction, cocking his chin a little, and meeting their gaze in what could only be characterized as a challenge. This behavior directed at other raccoons would not be particularly surprising, but Bruiser did it with people, too. So what if you outweighed him by two hundred pounds, Bruiser wasn't about to take any shit from anyone.

Most people love fuzzy cute little animals. The baby raccoons that frequently slipped over the fences to beg for food were the stars. Everyone loved these little guys and pampered them as much as possible. I can't argue about these cute, cuddly little creatures because I too found them delightful to watch. But I'm a prison guy. I'd been kicking around these places for my entire adult life and if I had a kindred animal spirit, it was Bruiser. From the instant he shot me the first "What are you lookin at?" stare, he was my guy. Bruiser was a survivor and so was I.

Being close to home was wonderful. I'd been away from western Washington and my family for nearly twenty years and it didn't take long to fully appreciate my transfer. I was able to see my family, and particularly my mother, on a regular basis. They even had a private family visiting program where I could spend a full 23 hours alone with my mother in one of the two small apartments they'd constructed on the prison grounds. I cherished being able to have this quality time with my mother before I lost her.

The family visiting units were situated by the rear gate of the prison. Once business hours were over, that area of the prison was deserted but for the two families in the visiting units. Families were able to look out the rear sliding glass door of these units and see a large expanse of evergreen trees stretching to the sky. Were it not for the double fences topped with barbed wire and razor ribbons, one could easily forget they were actually inside of a prison facility. Even sitting outside on the patio was more like home than prison. 

Visitors were permitted to bring a large cooler of food for these visits. The prison would not supply anything, but none of us wanted to eat prison food there anyway. Not only was there the issue of being able to eat something different ourselves, but who would want to subject their loved ones to the disgusting food of a prison diet?

My final visit with my mother came in late May of the year I arrived back at McNeil. After enjoying a meal together and catching me up on what the rest of the family had been up to, we retired to the living room to relax and simply enjoy what we both feared could be our last hours together. Mom was my oldest living relative so I was eager to have her fill me in on family history that would be lost with her passing. 

We talked for several hours, looking out at the woods, until the sun disappeared over the horizon. No sooner had the perimeter lights of the prison snapped on when I noticed a ball of fur scurrying onto the patio in front of the sliding glass door. Moments later another followed, then another. Then the show started.

Prison raccoons learn at an early age where to go for a first class free meal. The visiting units were at the top of that list, and thus the first place they normally stopped the moment the sun went down. Just the act of showing up would probably have been enough, but these three had developed a strategy. 

Moments after they appeared, the boldest of the three approached the glass door. He looked in then sat on his hind legs and put his front paws on the glass. Once properly situated, this little guy craned his head from side to side as if he was scanning the room for potential rewards. It didn't take long for his two sisters to follow suit.

It was almost like my mother could read my mind. With the three raccoons striking their cutest poses, I went to the kitchen to find something to give them. As I approached the door my mother said, "Don’t you dare let them inside." While I hadn't consciously planned to do this, there was no question than if I had opened the door to feed them and they'd have tried to walk in, I'd have welcomed them. As always, mom was much wiser than I.

So I bent down and opened the door just a few inches. Sure enough, all three raccoons approached. It was then that I looked out and saw four larger raccoons waiting in the wings. I was deeply impressed by how clever this strategy was.  Send the cute little youngsters to beg for the family. And, of course, it worked great.

I started by handing them pieces of bread. I'd hold out a slice and a raccoon would approach the door, sit back on their hind legs, and extend their front paws forward to receive their prize. As soon as they'd grabbed the bread, they'd walk backwards to a safe distance and began to eat. This process repeated until they'd eaten nearly an entire loaf of bread

When they tired of bread I found other treats to bring them. A raw egg or two, a pile of chicken skin, even a couple brownies. After the entire family had their fill, they even put on a show for us. Mon and I sat and watched as the youngsters played and wrestled in the grass for about five minutes before moving on to the next stop on their circuit.

It was about two hours before I caught another movement out on the patio. I looked up to see Bruiser staring back at me. He was in his usual pose: which might not have worked on some people, but for me it was guaranteed success. As I approached the door with the bread that was left, Bruiser ambled up to the opening and acted as if he was preparing to open the door himself. I paused for a second, thinking that if he decided to push his way in, it could be ugly. While I was sure I could keep him out. I was equally sure that I would collect a few permanent scars doing so. But he was my guy. No way I was not feeding him.

When the door slid open, Bruiser was already on his hind legs with his hands out. Instead of taking a slice, stepping back and eating it, Bruiser would take a slice, throw it down and immediately reach for more. But that is probably how I'd have played it, were I in his shoes, so I kept handing him bread until the bag was empty.

Bruiser polished off the bread quickly. He returned to the door and sat up waiting for round two. A couple of eggs and a couple of brownies later and he was starting to get full. We sat back and watched as his vigorous chewing slowed to a lethargic pace.  Bruiser was stuffed and there was only one thing left for him to do.

Much to my surprise, instead of strutting off to his next nightly haunt, Bruiser cruised up to the glass door, turned his back to us and sat back against it as if it were a lawn chair, and then spread his legs out to the sides. At first I thought he was kicking back for a short nap, but I wasn't even in the ballpark on that one. Moments later I noticed a kind of rhythmic movement in Bruisers upper body. My first thought was that the poor guy had fleas and was scratching. He had to sympathy for a moment. Even as jaded as I am it took a moment to me to realize exactly what he was doing.

Mom seemed confused too and we both looked on at this unusual sight. Then it became apparent to me what we were seeing—Bruiser had filled his belly and now proceeded to lay back against the door to pleasure himself! I had no idea animals even did such a thing, but by now it was obvious that is exactly what he was doing.

Being a prison guy, I like to think there isn't anything that embarrasses me anymore. But I was wrong. Sitting in a room with my mother watching a forty pound raccoon masturbate was enough to embarrass even me. The moment I realized what he was doing, I got up and drew the curtain. "That's enough of that," I said, as I sat back down.

Looking over at Mom I could not tell if she realized what we had just witnessed but she seemed happy enough to be done with the raccoons for the night, so I didn't try and find out. She retired to her bedroom a short time later.

After about half an hour, I opened the drapes again only to find Bruiser still going at it. In fact, he was much more animated at this point and a few minutes later seemed to finish his business. No sooner was he done and Bruiser rolled back onto his feet, turned toward me, and stared me down as if he was expecting some kind of reward for his effort. We locked eyes for a moment before he lumbered off.

After that, whenever I'd see Bruiser walking by on the other side of the fence, I'd share the story of his shameless display with whomever I might be talking with. Each time this happened, it was almost like he knew I was talking about him. He'd stop, stand there until I was done, and could swear he'd give me the exact same look he did that night when he walked away from the door.

Sadly that visit was the last time I ever saw my mother. She passed away a few months later and for a while every time I thought of that visit tears would well up in my eyes and I'd feel the pain of missing her as if she had just died yesterday. But the more I'd see of Bruiser, and the more I shared his story, the more I came to remember that time as a humorous event, the likes of which most people will never witness. Bruiser truly was a prison raccoon and, much like some of my convict brothers, was there to help me through a rough time. Thanks brother….

Timothy Pauley 273053
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

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