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A system in need of fixing

Priscilla Hutton blog picThe United States justice system is broken!

How can we fix it and why should we care?

For more than a decade, I have been involved in ministries and educational ventures that have taken me into state and federal correctional institutions.

I have learned much about the need for love, mercy and justice, as I have worked with prisoners and their families.

Listening to the stories of those who live and work behind bars has awakened me to the horrors of unfair sentencing, incompetent lawyers and the millions of dollars that are spent each year to keep the failing and broken legal systems in business.

One important learning experience was that those who are on death row or who are serving life sentences are almost always a product of a series of failures of this country’s social justice and educational systems. When our schools fail their students and the mental health facilities are unable to treat those persons in need of care, our prisons and correctional facilities reap the harvest. Yet, our country does not hear the message. Funding for education and mental health facilities continues to be cut, while our costly prisons are filled beyond capacity. Often, violence is the only voice that is heard in our society.

During a time when I talked with family members of one man awaiting execution, I learned this man has struggled with learning disabilities and mental health issues all of his life.

The family described him as a gentle man who had always suffered emotional and mental distress. At age 15, he knocked on the outside door of a mental facility and asked to live inside because he “couldn’t control his thoughts and was afraid of what he might do.” He received no help. No one seemed to hear him.

He left high school after the ninth-grade. Most of his adult life was spent behind bars after he was convicted of two violent sex offenses. He was listed as a Level 3 Sex Offender on a State Sex Offender Registry. He served and completed a 23-year sentence for aggravated rape. Before his release, he told counselors in the prison that he did not want to be released because he was afraid of what he might do.

No one listened.

His mother testified at his trial that he should never be released because it was not safe for him to be free.

“Please keep him incarcerated, because he will reoffend. Please do not release him to the public,” she begged.

But no one listened.

On May 22, 2003, he was released after 23 years behind bars. Since he had served his full sentence, he was not eligible for any after-care services or support, so he went back home to live with his mother. On Nov. 22, 2003, less than six months after his release, he brutally raped and murdered a woman at a shopping mall. On Dec. 2, 2003, he was arrested for that crime and on Sept. 22, 2006, he was sentenced to death.

Now, people are listening.

Today, this man now lives on death row. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on his legal fees and all appeals have been denied. He does not want to die.

What could have been done to have saved his life and the life of his victim? What can we learn from this story? What do we see when we view him and his family from the perspective of love, mercy and justice? How can we tune our ears to hear the cries of help from those in need before it’s too late?

Let us counter the violence of these systems with non-violent hearts, “aware of our brokenness.”

I invite you to pray this Litany of Non-Violence prayer with the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, with open minds and softened hearts as we seek to facilitate change in our unjust world.

We can make a difference.

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Priscilla Hutton

Priscilla Hutton was a Providence Associate. She is also a college professor and has taught in Indiana correctional facilities. She is currently the minister-of-record for a man on death row and teaches a class on spirituality at Rockville's Women's Prison.

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  1. Paula Modaff, S.P. on December 15, 2014 at 4:55 pm

    What is most tragic, Priscilla, is that the story of this one man is multiplied a thousand times across the United States. Thank you for bringing this justice matter before us in such a personal and direct way. Know that I remember your essential ministry as I pray our Prayer for Non-violence.

  2. Marsha Speth, SP on December 15, 2014 at 7:22 pm

    Thank you, Pricilla, for bringing forward this man’s story. There are so many like him who do not know where to turn. Available treatment for those with mental illness and with few resources is abysmal in this country. We seldom think that cutting services for these people is a violent action. I will pray the Litany with this in mind.

  3. Jenny Nowalk on December 30, 2014 at 12:55 pm

    Pricilla! It is good to hear from you again and to hear you are still working in prison ministry. I have missed our brief connection through the Associates. Thank you for bringing this dismal but urgent situation to our awareness. I fear for my young students (pre-schoolers with significant disabilities) the ones from families with a history of years of family abuse and dysfunction. Add to that learning impairments with significant communication disabilities, they are at significant risk…….I hope Providence is in some way working through my relationship with these very young victims of systemic failures in our society…….Keep up the good and Holy work Pricilla!

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