Crime, punishment, and Irish blessings

My first St. Patrick's Day card of the season arrived early:

May the road rise to meet you,

may the wind be always at your back,

may the sun shine warm upon your face,

the rain fall soft upon your fields,

and until we meet again,

may God hold you in the hollow of his hand.

I never tire of this particular Irish blessing, no matter how often I come across it. But this card brought certain poignancy with it. The green envelope bore the stamp "Pelican Bay State Prison" as did the inside of the card, the red ink partly obscuring the handwritten message:

Irish America, respect and regards to one and all. I wanted to convey my thanks to you all. – Michael

I don’t know Michael or the reason he is in prison.

Irish America provides some subscriptions to prisoners who don’t have the means to pay. Perhaps Michael is on the list.

We also adopted a prison library in Nebraska where we send books (this is what happens to your reviewers’ copies, publishers!).

Being locked never to have "the sun shine warm upon my face" is my worst nightmare. Being locked up without something to read would be absolute hell.

Paul Hill, who spent 15 years in jail (one of the Guildford Four) for a crime he didn’t commit, made me promise a long time ago that I would never throw out a copy of a magazine that I could send to a prisoner.

I don’t always stick to that promise but I try. More and more prisons across the states are cutting back on funding for programs for prisoners, and California recently laid off 800 teachers, counselors and librarians in a $280 million cut to prison programs.

Sister Christine Hennessy, who communicates with Irish-born prisoners incarcerated here in the States, says that receiving Irish America and the Irish Voice "helps give [the prisoners] a sense of connection with their roots."

In any case, Michael’s St. Patrick’s Day card set off a discussion on the "three strikes and you are out" law in California. (Pelican Bay State Prison is in Northern California). Under the law, in place since 1994, you can get 25 years to life if you are guilty of two felonies and you commit a third, even if it's a non-violent crime. And, if I’ve got this right, even if the first two felonies occurred when you were a juvenile.

(A Californian named Gary Ewing is serving 25 years to life for shoplifting three golf clubs from a golf pro shop.)

In a strange sort of coincidence, the New York Times (Feb. 16) carried an editorial on California’s ‘three strikes and you are out’ law a day or two after our discussion.

The Times reported that Chief Justice Anthony Kennedy had spoken out against the law, saying that the law’s sponsor is the correctional officers’ union "and that is sick."

Great, I thought. There’s a reason why Clarence Darrow, the great legal defense attorney, wished to have Irish men on his juries because they would empathize with the accused.

However, as the Times editorial writer pointed out, when Mr. Ewing brought his case to the Supreme Court they rejected his challenge by 5-4 votes, with Justice Kennedy in the majority.

You are probably thinking that I'm some sort of bleeding heart. I don't think I am. But I can see the correlation between poverty and incarceration.

It's worth remembering that the majority of inmates in American prisoners in the mid-nineteenth century were Irish and Irish American. It's not because they were worse than others – it was because they were poorer.

"The excess of poverty and crime among the Irish, as compared with the natives of other countries, is a curious fact worthy of the study of the political economist and the ethnologist." Report of the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (186O).

And in our defense: "The evils . . . are not derived from the native character of these people. Give them the same advantages which are enjoyed by others, and they will stand upon a level with any of their neighbors." Knickerbocker (1833).

So spare a thought for those in prison this St. Patrick’s Day.

Think about sending some books or magazines to a prison in your area. Or maybe there is something you can do for Hour Children, a non-profit in Queens, New York founded by Sister Teresa Fitzgerald. Hour Children http://www.hourchildren.org provides services to women who are incarcerated and their children.

You can contact Sr. Hennessy about writing to Irish prisoners in U.S. at: Sr.Christine.hennessy@archny.org

Note: Clarence Darrow on How To Pick a Jury (1936):

"Let us assume that we represent one of ‘the underdogs’ because of injuries received, or because of an indictment brought by what the prosecutors name themselves, “the state.” Then what sort of men will we, seek? An Irishman is called into the box for examination. There is no reason for asking about his religion; he is Irish; that is enough. We may not agree with his religion, but it matters not, his feelings go deeper than any religion. You should be aware that he is emotional, kindly and sympathetic. If he is chosen as a juror, his imagination will place him in the dock; really, he is trying himself. You would be guilty of malpractice if you got rid of him, except for the strongest reasons."

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