By: Maria Telesco
Grown men don’t cry, especially in prison, where it might be interpreted as a sign of weakness. At least that’s what some say. People also say that prisoners who commit violent crimes are not repentant or remorseful. I disagree.
“Freddy” (not his real name), invited me, reluctantly, to sit down at his bedside. I had been asked by my boss, the nurse supervisor, to talk with this man and “see if you can get anywhere with him.” She said Freddy was “afraid the staff would push religion down his throat and that’s not what he wants.” He refused to talk to the hospital chaplain and was refusing some medications and treatments. Freddy was chained to the bed, with tubes running in and out of various bodily orifices, a heart monitor beeping overhead. I asked the prison officer guarding him to allow us some privacy. He reluctantly moved his chair a few feet. Apparently I was the only one in the room who wasn’t reluctant. I might have been, had I known what I was letting myself in for.
I read Freddy’s medical chart before I went into his ICU room; this was his fifth suicide attempt. This time, he nearly got what he wanted. After some meaningless chit-chat, the man in the bed got to the point:
“I beat a man to death, he owed me nine dollars’ drug money. That didn’t deserve a death sentence, did it? I mean for him, not for me. He didn’t deserve to die. That was years ago.” Long, uncomfortable pause. Freddy sobbed, chin quivering. “The man died,” he said, “and when I sobered up, I died too. My soul died. Now I need for me to die along with it.”
Freddy’s sentence was long. He said his attempted suicides were to try and “clean up my sin and even up the score.” He went on, “The priest that comes in here, he says God forgave me for that crime, and I believe him, but I can’t forgive myself. And that’s the problem. All the chaplains at the prison tell me I’m forgiven by God and I will go to heaven when I die.” His voice became louder. “BUT I DON’T WANT TO GO TO THEIR F(expletive deleted) HEAVEN! I want to go to hell, where I belong. I figure if I kill myself, then I could go to hell. When I was a kid, they told us in church that people who kill themselves don’t go to heaven, they go to hell. And that’s what I’m trying for. It’s what I deserve. Is that asking too much? Just leave me the hell alone and let me die.”
Freddy continued, “I haven’t had a night’s sleep in years. Whenever I doze off, the crime, the nightmare, it wakes me up. I think of the man I murdered, the pain he suffered, how his family still suffers, and I never can sleep more than an hour or two at the most. I wake up and think I was only dreaming, and then I remember it was real. I deserve what I got. What I did was wrong. I begged the judge to sentence me to death, but he wouldn’t. I’m so sorry for what I done, and the only way I can pay it back is to die.”
We talked a few more times before he was taken back to prison, but I didn’t get anywhere with him. A few months later, I heard Freddy finally got his wish and succeeded in killing himself. I hope he didn’t get his wish about hell, though; God is more compassionate than that.
Anyone with common sense would think that early encounter might have cured me of any desire to serve prisoners, but it had the opposite effect. In the ensuing 30 years or so, I’ve met many incarcerated men and women who are just as remorseful as Freddy, though far less dramatic. I’ve met them in hospitals, jails, prison visiting rooms and chapels, in my successive careers as a registered nurse, counselor, forensic-nurse-investigator and prison religious volunteer, both in California and in several other states.
California houses convicted murderers, rapists and a whole smorgasbord of criminals labeled by society as hardened, incorrigible, violent or all of the above. We warehouse them at a far greater rate, and for longer sentences, than any other state and/or most countries. Unfortunately, we also house a significant number of factually innocent men and women who really didn’t do it and don’t belong there at all.
I met “Rolly” at the jail. “I’m not a monster, Miss,” Rolly said as he introduced himself, “but if you knew what I done, you’d think otherwise.” At the time, I was employed by the lawyer who was handling his divorce, not his criminal case. “I don’t care what you’ve done, Mr. Rollins, I’m just here for you to sign these papers. Your attorney wrote you a letter saying I’d be bringing them over.” Totally oblivious to my words, Rolly persisted in reciting his saga. I had learned that you can’t shut up a man twice your size, regardless of all the warnings and cautions their attorneys give about not allowing them to “dump” because whatever they say could be used against them. Just go with the flow. These days, more experienced now, I know better.
He had so many DUIs, he lost count, Every few sentences, Rolly’s sad tale was tearfully interspersed with, “Oh, Lord, what have I done?” Already “smashed” by 10 o’clock in the morning, he was driving to the liquor store for more beer. He hit a lady who was pushing a baby stroller in the crosswalk. They both died, the lady and the baby. He was so sad. I was on the brink of tears but tried to maintain my professional dignity. He wished God would take his life and give them back theirs, but he knew that couldn’t happen. Rolly never used words like “repentance” or “remorse” but his feelings were evident. Oh, Lord, Rolly knew what he had done, and he was sorry. (Rolly died in prison a few years later, of alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver.)
“Mason” told his story: he had anger-management problems. “I was on drugs, I was a very angry man – lousy childhood – you’ve heard that one before, haven’t you? We all had a lousy childhood one way or another, but that doesn’t give us the right to kill, does it?” He went on, “I can’t believe I did this. Someone took my parking place at my apartment. I knew I always had a temper, but this is the first time my temper became a crime. Why? I don’t know. I just know that I regret what happened, I wish I could undo it, but how can I?” Mason’s face, his affect, body language, all spoke of his sincerity. “I took a hammer that was in my car and started to demolish the car that was in my spot. The car owner ran out, and I took the hammer to him. Then I passed out. I had been drinking. When I woke up in the hospital, they told me he was dead, and, lying on the gurney, I was arrested.”
In prison for many years, Mason managed to turn himself and his life around, but he didn’t earn himself any Parole Board “attaboys” – 25-years-to-life really means “life.” He attended many anger-management seminars, AA and NA groups and meetings, and religious conferences in the prison visiting room, which is where I met him. He wanted to make amends for what he did, but he didn’t know how, so he did what he could – mentored young prisoners coming in, especially those with anger-management issues, and tried to help them keep themselves out of trouble. He stressed that he didn’t keep them out of trouble – he taught them to do it for themselves, or, he said, “it would be worthless.” (Mason died in prison of “death by incarceration,” long sentence and
“Shorty” wouldn’t talk about his crime, but he wasn’t short on opinions. “This business of forgive and forget is BS,” he said. “It’s ridiculous to say ‘forget.’ That means you think the crime wasn’t important, that it had no impact, that it was no big deal. Forgive is OK. That means you no longer want to hurt the perp[etrator], the person who hurt you, and that’s good. You stop worrying about how you can hurt that guy, get revenge. Except if you’re the perp, then you can’t forgive yourself, you want to keep on beating up on yourself. But does forgiveness really exist in our society that’s based on revenge and retaliation?
Retribution only creates more violence. Yes, I did a crime, and I’m sorry. I don’t discuss it. No exceptions. I’m more sorry than I have words to describe. I just don’t talk about it. My ex-wife visits me, brings the kids, and she gets me upset. She says I’m faking it when I say I’m sorry, just to make points with the [Parole] Board. She doesn’t get it, I’ve got LWOP, I’ll never get out, I’ll die in here. My sorrow and regret are real, but I have quit talking about them because I don’t want to listen to her nag at me anymore. Heck, she’s my ex-wife. I could tell her not to visit, but . . . oh, what the heck. I just think of the number of people I hurt: my wife and kids, my mom and pop, my sisters, my co-workers, the victim and his family – the list could be longer – maybe her nagging is part of the punishment I deserve.” (Shorty is still imprisoned in a Southern state. After several years, he and his ex-wife reunited and remarried.)
Sociologist-author John Irwin died a few months ago. He had committed an armed robbery as a young man, served five years in a California prison back when they gave reasonable sentences and was remorseful. When released, the criminal life had lost its appeal. He went to college, got a Ph.D. in sociology, and taught at Berkeley for many years. His main topic, not surprisingly, was prisoners and prison culture. He authored many books, and shortly before his death, I read the most recent, Lifers, which validates my experiences with prisoners and remorse. He gives many anecdotal reports of remorse, repentance and rehabilitation. Many of my experiences with prisoners parallel his.
“Louie,” a dear friend of many years, a self-labeled former career criminal serving LWOP, knew and respected Professor Irwin. During one of his several revolving-door paroles, Louie spent some time at a halfway house Irwin created; regrettably the drugs and booze trumped his efforts to rehabilitate. Louie, one of the most genuinely remorseful individuals I’ve ever known, is spending his golden years as a permanent guest of the state. He knows prisons inside out, and he – my expert consultant on prison life – concurs with Irwin’s conclusion that a majority of people who commit serious crimes are sincerely remorseful.
Louie should know; his own remorse is palpable. “Some free people think criminals are only sorry because they got caught, and maybe a few are, but that isn’t true overall. After the alcohol and drugs wear off, most convicts become aware of the anguish they have caused, and want nothing more than to make amends for it – but how? Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my victim.”
Afraid I was getting too soft, one of my co-volunteers reminded me that only about 5%-10% of inmates come to chapel, so I shouldn’t get the idea they are all remorseful. Not to worry, I told him, I hear this from family and friends often: “You think they are all either innocent or remorseful.” No, I don’t think that. But I’m capable of recognizing when someone is truthful and sincere, especially when he knows the expression of his remorse won’t buy him any points at either the prison or the parole board, though it possibly might eventually, at the Pearly Gates.
I’ve learned many important things from prisoners, and one stands out: Grown men do cry in prison, and it’s a sign of remorse and strength. Words may be deceptive at times, but nobody that I know of has yet found a way to fake a quivering chin.[Note: All names of prisoners herein are fictitious, but their stories are factual as I remember them. The first time a fictitious name is used, it’s in quotation marks. The prisoners described in this article all happen to be males. That does not imply, nor is it intended to imply, that females are not equally remorseful. Women also are remorseful. The only name that is not fictitious is that of sociologist John Irwin.]
Maria Telesco is a retired registered nurse who has volunteered in various aspects of prison ministry for more than 25 years. Contact her at email@example.com.