OPINION COLUMNS

Even criminals may have a message worth hearing

By Brian Knox | Published Saturday, January 4, 2014

Should people in jail have a voice?

Brian Knox

Brian Knox

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.

2 Responses to “Even criminals may have a message worth hearing”

  1. Rusty White says:

    Brian.

    Nice article, but you have made a few errors in my humble opinion. First off there are many document reports stating there “are” thousands of our citizens in jails and prisons who “do not” have victims or violence” in their supposed crimes! Yes there is proof of abuse by those in our legal system! It is a KNOWN fact that if one refuses to take the “one sided” plea agreement offered, they will get the maximum! To serve as a deterrent from any others demanding justice! Your own paper has an article of those bragging about this sad truth!

    There are many stories not being told about those suffering due to our failed justice system. Of families being needlessly terrorized, destroyed and forced to suffer unwarranted hardships! How our system creates one parent or no parent house holds, takes away futures and opportunities through life time” criminal records!

    “””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.”””

    Sadly like I state above, NOT everyone behind bars has a victim, FACT!

    “”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.””

    Why is it you don’t ask why our laws and enforcement are never look at to see if they have become part of the problem instead of the answer? Why is it you have “never” written an article about the unwarranted harm and misery being done to the families that DO NOT have victims in their “supposed” crimes?

    You might want to go back and contact some of those you thought had no merit in their stories! Many of those behind bars have no need to repent or ask for give ness, because they have HARMED NO ONE! Not just those claiming to have found faith again, have a TRUE story to tell! IMHO:)

  2. Rusty White says:

    Brian,

    Thought this might help everybody!:)

    “””People take different roads seeking fulfillment and happiness. Just because they’re not on “”YOUR”” road, does not mean they are lost”””! Dalai Lama

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