A Personal Reflection Upon a Visit to Norfolk Prison on April 20, 2004
I had the opportunity to present to the Lifers’ Group, Inc. at Norfolk Prison on Tuesday evening, April 20th, as a representative of the CJPC. The Lifers’ Group at Norfolk meets twice monthly on alternate Tuesday evenings, the meetings last for two hours. For this occasion they used the institution’s auditorium, which reminded me of a 1950’s high school auditorium seating perhaps 600 – a curtained stage about 4 feet higher than the main floor which slopes up towards the rear, with rows and rows of seats. My recollection is of a balcony in the rear.
The Lifers’ Group acts as an intercessor for the rights and needs of lifers. Additionally, they sponsor a variety of services for the larger community; last year they collected $580 and sent a check for that amount to the family of a young child who had been paralyzed by a stray bullet in an incident of street violence in Boston. This is a substantive sum for men who earn less than $2/day and need that income for basic necessities (i.e. toiletries, paper, envelopes). They also contribute large numbers of seasonal presents for children of less fortunate families. In addition, many of these men dedicate substantive portions of their lives being available to work with and counsel youth who are at risk.
The CJPC has a healthy and substantive correspondence with a number of the officers; I felt it very valuable to be able to put a face, with all that the human face communicates, with the extended interchanges I have had with these gentlemen.
There were perhaps 80-90 men in attendance, ranging from their mid-thirties through 80 years of age. The hosts had requested a brief description of the CJPC and of the several pieces of legislation being tracked. Following those comments, I detailed the anticipated changes in correctional policy of the Office of Public Safety as outlined by Sec. Flynn before the legislature as he works to institute more rehabilitative programs, and the pragmatic steps the new Commissioner has already taken (see Com. Dennehy’s testimony to the Harshbarger Commission). The formal presentation concluded with an extended description of the context for and the intent of the CJPC position of opposition to the sentence of life without parole.
There followed over an hour of discussion/dialogue with the audience. Their questions/comments spanned the entire range of criminal justice concerns directly impacting their lives and futures:
the state’s revocation of their ability to vote in state elections (though leaving undisturbed their franchise in federal or municipal elections) and possibilities for revisiting that issue;
the legitimacy of felony murder , in light of the a)arbitrary manner in which some are accused of first degree murder while other comparable murders result in second degree or manslaughter charges and b) the frequent disregard of criminal co-participants’ lack of knowledge of their co-conspirators, particularly among young offenders involved in a joint venture;
the significant number of men given natural life sentences for murders committed when in their mid-teens;
the arbitrary nature of the current classification system which excludes certain prisoners from minimum security even thought their present behavior qualifies them for that level. There is a desire to see this changed so that classification reflects current behavior rather than past actions; 
the lack of opportunity for society to appreciate the change and growth in maturity in large numbers of inmates over substantive periods of incarceration;
a concern that the increasing use of civil commitment for sex offenders may soon find uses against other kinds of offenders deemed a continuing threat to society.
In the course of a number of arrests/short term lockups during anti-war demonstrations in Washington, D.C., I have experienced young men who exude violence with every gesture and comment, men whose anger is very dangerous. For me those have been truly frightening incidents. While I don’t pretend to have the capability fully to understand the impact that changes in circumstances can have on people, perhaps the singular remaining impression of Tuesday evening confirms my belief that both we as much as the men I conversed with, members of our community, are losing immeasurably by society’s inability to recognize the ever present potential of individuals for transformation. In short, I saw a tremendous wasting of human resources.
These men, certainly many of them, want to demonstrate their remorse and responsibility for their horribly wrong actions, and yet are met by us with statutory and regulatory indifference. It would improve our community and inmates’ lives if the General Court and the DOC reaffirm a responsibility to encourage such change and growth. We can hope that Commissioner Dennehy will begin to reshape prisons in order to allow men and women to take responsibility for themselves, to grow through their own efforts, and to know that such growth is appreciated by DOC personnel and their peers, and by the larger society. The Commissioner may be taking steps towards these goals by her directives to increase the volunteer presence inside the state prisons. We should respond by providing our prisons with highly trained personnel competent to make evaluations of such changes in individuals.
I believe it all the more imperative that we move beyond the retribution and vengeance that much punishment is predicated upon. In another context, an advocate for reform of the prison system said that we need to begin to use “discretionary wisdom” rather than creating regulations which then are enforced on all without discrimination. This discretionary wisdom is needed throughout the system. A one-size-fits-all approach will shoehorn all prisoners into a stereotypical criminal model, unable to account for individual choices by individual inmates that each makes during his/her period of incarceration.
The most extreme violence committed by some against others continues to shock us; we read about these actions all too frequently. Despite that violence, we must come to understand that even those who have perpetrated such violence can transform themselves on occasion. As we come to accept these possibilities of transformation, we must encourage our legislators to have the courage to respond to those changes, including providing for all men and women the possibility of eventually re-entering the larger community.
Maybe it is time for society to consider allowing those endeavoring to recreate themselves to move from society’s liability column and into the asset column where we want all of us to belong.
 The initial invitation from the Lifers’ Group had arrived in August of 2003; it had taken 9 months to obtain permission. Though initially denied in November by administration, the new Commissioner, Kathleen Dennehy, personally intervened in my appeal of the denial. She requested a review of that denial within the first month of her tenure, and the denial was reversed within the month. Prior to her taking the position of Commissioner, it was very rare for people not elected officials or otherwise connected with the government to be afforded this privilege.
 Felony murder is an unlawful homicide that occurs in the commission or attempted commission of another felony.and is considered first degree murder by virtue of the doctrine. Even if the offender attempted to ensure no loss of life, the law presumes the presence of malice by virtue of the intent to commit the underlying crime.
 The Willie Horton debacle of the late 1980s was the basis for the questionable, politically motivated decision in the 1990s (beginning of the Gov. Weld “tough on crime” era) to move all (65) lifers who were in minimum security prisons back to medium security prisons. There was no legitimate penological reason. The 1990s tough-on-prisoner attitude saw these harsher classification changes as “fixes” to a system that in fact wasn’t broken, and which “fixes” have contributed to a breaking down of many parts of the prison.
 This has precedent in the Federal Government’s Subversive Activities Control Act of 1950 which created concentration camps for possibly detaining Americans deemed a threat to public safety. That legislation was abolished in 1971. The current administration has done an end run around Congress by using the war on terrorism to detain foreign nationals and Americans without trial, but deemed a threat to public safety.