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Ouch! Or: Confronting Your Core Beliefs

— feeling confused
Letters to a Lifer: The Boy Never to be Released - Cindy Sanford

This was an extremely hard book to read. Not because it was not good, but because of the way it forced me to confront my deeper beliefs. It was somewhat painful, and honestly cost me some sleep as I lay at night thinking it over. It's what a really great book should do, shake you out of your routine and make you think.
Let me set up the general premise of the book for you. The author is your normal everyday middle-class citizen, happily going about her life as a mother, wife, and art store owner. One day one of the people who consigned art to her shop brought in some beautiful artwork and asked if they could consign it. The art sold very well. Sanford (the author) found out that the artist was a man who was imprisoned on a life sentence for murder. Over time, as more artwork was exchanged, the author began corresponding with the prisoner, Ken Crawford. Crawford is a man who, at the age of 15, was involved in the murder of two people. He received a life without parole sentence, even though he was only 15.
Sanford was initially reluctant to build any relationship with Crawford, understandably. After all, if he was locked up for life for murder, he must be a horrible person? Persistent, Crawford slowly begins to soften the author's resolve. (This is where I first started having problems with the book. As someone who worked in federal prisons for over 20 years, I recognized the ploy as a game inmates play to manipulate people. I had seen it happen so many times, whether compromising a fellow guard, or conning somebody on the outside into sending them money). An exchange of many letters led to phone calls (which the author had to pay for, thereby, in my mind, confirming my suspicions). Phone calls led to the author visiting the inmate in prison (oh boy, this is where he sinks his teeth in and reels in his catch). The author, to her credit, remained skeptical of Crawford. She had to confront her own skepticism, the belief that the man committed murder, and thus deserves whatever happened to him. But, as a deeply religious person, she also had to face the fact that Jesus preached forgiveness, and how to reconcile that with her own reservations. She chose to accept Crawford as a human being needing something to hang on to. Over time, she found out the back story of Crawford's early life, coming from an extremely dysfunctional family (yeah right, cry me a river. Another "hug a thug" proponent).
But that's where my uncomfortableness began. How could an obviously intelligent woman (and her equally intelligent husband) fall for this? Was I missing something? Was it possible that my core belief system (inmates=bad, law enforcement=good) had a chink in it's resolve)? As Sanford went on in the book, I found my opinion softening towards Crawford. Could he have been just a victim of his past, and could he actually be a "good" person? By the end of the book, I had come to a new understanding of people. What kind of society would lock up a 15 year boy for the rest of his life, with no chance of ever getting out? What purpose would someone like Crawford find in his life, knowing he would never be free? And why would he choose to be a "good person" instead of just another con? And, most importantly, what about the victims of his crime? Didn't they, and the families, deserve justice? Could I be so hard inside that I couldn't see good in some people? Oh, why did I read this book? I was so comfortable in my own opinions! It was quite disturbing to me to have to confront my core beliefs.
The last several years of my careers with the prison system I was supervising the federal contracts with 28 detention facilities. Several of them were juvenile facilities. I had a lot of contact with the juvenile inmates. While some of them were downright nasty, many seemed to be just kids caught up in a bad situation (most of the facilities were on Indian reservations, so kids who would normally find themselves in less secure detention were handled in Federal court and locked up for even minor crimes). One child was only 11 years old! To the credit of the facility staff, they "adopted" the kid and gave him a lot of leeway in their treatment of him. But it really, really disturbed me. It was one of the factors in my deciding to retire. (And before you think that I went "soft", know that before my time with the prison system, I had a decade of experience as a sheriff deputy, and that I had the reputation of somewhat of a "hard-ass". Inmates were cons, and they deserved what they got.) Once I retired, I put all of my experiences behind me, making a stone wall in my mind where I didn't have to think about what I had seen or done. And then Ms. Sanford came along and sent me this book! BOOM! Time to rethink everything.
But I'm glad she did. It's good to visit your opinions and values every once in awhile. It's how we grow as a person. And Sanford's writing was outstanding. She was able to really express herself, her doubts, her feelings, her values. She really put it out on the line. Although I'm still skeptical of some of Crawford's acts (I think he does, to a point, manipulate Sanford), I admire her for her journey and growth. It's good to know that there really are some good people in the world.
You may not have the background that I came with, but I firmly believe that anyone could read this book and come away with questions about the human nature. It will make even the "hard-asses" think! And that's what great books do, make us think!

 

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