Should people in jail have a voice?
In the Christmas issue of the Messenger, Brandon Evans wrote a story about a local man spending the holidays in jail. The inmate, Joey South, talked about how he felt fortunate to have a family that supported him. During his time in jail, Joey said he’s “turned his life around.”
The story provided a point of view we rarely see, especially around the holidays when the focus is on families coming together to celebrate the season.
Over the years, we’ve featured jailhouse interviews from time to time. Usually it’s after someone has been arrested for some serious or unusual crime. Often when we request interviews, the inmates decline. But once in a while, an inmate wants to share his or her story.
In most cases, the inmate admits to wrongdoing and sometimes even guilt of the crime to which they are accused. Usually, the inmates want to talk about why they did what they did.
And almost every time without fail, after the story has run, we usually get an online comment or a letter to the editor chastising us for providing a forum for these “criminals” even though many have not yet even been indicted, much less convicted.
Our society has relegated the incarcerated to the lowest levels. By law, they do not have the rights enjoyed by most of us.
And they shouldn’t. After all, if a person chooses to commit a crime, they know there will be consequences. In many cases, being locked away is not only for punishment but for the safety of the general population.
But too often, we forget that these people still have basic human rights. They are brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. Many have family on the outside. It’s true they made mistakes, and they are serving their time for those mistakes.
The question still lingers: why?
What events or decisions led that person to commit a crime? Could something have been done to prevent it? Those are the questions a good jailhouse interview seeks to answer.
Giving a voice to those in jail carries a big responsibility. We must always remember that every crime has a victim, and whatever information is gained from a jailhouse interview must be balanced with the facts of the case.
Also, we understand that people in jail are not always the most reliable sources. Over the years, I’ve received probably more than 100 letters from inmates. The vast majority of those letters plead with us to do a story on the “mistreatment” they receive in jail or the “corruption” of those in law enforcement.
Of course, there is no actual evidence of this, so those letters used to get tossed into a file in my desk.
But once in a while, a letter comes from an inmate who takes responsibility for his or her actions and wants others to avoid making the same mistakes. Another letter might come from an inmate who reads the Wise County Messenger and simply wishes to comment on a story like any other reader.
About midway through writing this column, I received an inmate letter for the first time in quite some time (seriously, what are the odds?). It came from a man named Larry Harris, who was convicted of intoxication manslaughter nearly three years ago.
I remember covering his trial and the jury’s verdict: guilty, with the maximum 20-year prison sentence. He still maintains his innocence.
This letter, however, was not about him. Larry was touched by the “Chasing a Miracle” series of stories I wrote featuring Emily Palmer and her difficult pregnancy. He talked about how he was able to share the remarkable story of Emily’s faith with other inmates in prison. As a result, he said many inmates “regained their faith” in God.
It was a reminder that while many of us may not want to give a voice to “criminals,” perhaps a higher power can still use the voice of the marginalized to change lives, even if those lives are being lived out in jail cells.
Maybe the message of Jesus is one that strikes close to home to those who find themselves surrounded by prison walls.
After all, it was delivered by a man who died a convicted criminal himself.