On Doing Time

This year the UUA's Common Read book is Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. In it, she chronicles how the prison system has replaced Jim Crow laws as a system of racism and segregation.  It goes far beyond the more widely understood fact that there are differences in sentencing laws to the question of why we have a "war on drugs" to begin with.

For those interested in reading more about the prison system and the problems with it, there are several additional books I could recommend, but I also wanted to recommend a blog of a fellow I know, On Doing Time.  This isn't a slick or professional blog on the subject.  What it is is a first-hand account by a former member of my congregation about his experiences in prison and his thoughts and musings about it after the fact.  In 1999, as a young adult, R.W. VanSumeren, in a period of desperation, robbed a gas station at gunpoint and then a bank.  And he was convicted and served time for armed robbery.  That's what the record shows. But then VanSumeren takes you beyond the surface story to understand how someone comes into that moment of desperation, what it's like to be incarcerated, and what the struggles are after release for a convicted felon.  It's not always PC, and it's sometimes raw, but it's very real, and worth reading.

Let me share a couple of examples to show you what I'm talking about.  In a blog post titled, "J.D. & The Mandatory Minimum" he tells the story of his cellmate, J.D., doing 12-88 years for possession of two ounces of cocaine:
The years are blurred, but I think it must have been around 2003 when the Michigan mandatory minimum laws were changed. One day JD got a letter from the state. The letter informed him that he would be released in a few weeks. JD showed me the letter. I congratulated him but he didn't seem that happy. I asked why he didn't seem happy. He said, "Goddamn, I've just done over a decade for what kids are getting two years for now. I missed my father's funeral.”
And then, in "Statutes and Limitations," VanSumeren turns from personal narrative to thinking about how he would personally reform the system.  He writes, simply:
I think that one's convictions should remain on one's record for no longer than the duration of the statute of limitations for that particular offense beginning from time of discharge after the successful completion of sentence. Thus, in the case of armed robbery, a twenty year felony with a twenty year statute of limitations, one's record should be cleared twenty years after the positive completion of incarceration and supervision, provided the offender commits no more felonies. And that's that.
His writing isn't for everyone, but it is something which deserves a larger audience.  It's real, and it's informative.  Enjoy.


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