Category Archives: prisons

Uganda Part One: Sole Hope

I traveled to Uganda to volunteer with Go Be Love International from July 22nd to August 5th this year.  It was an amazing trip and I am so grateful for all of the experiences that I had and all of the stories that I am now able to bring back to my friends and family in the United States.  We volunteered with three organizations: Sixty Feet, Sole Hope, and Amani Baby Cottage.

We flew from New York City to Dubai, where we had a short layover.  That flight was about 12 hours.  Then we flew from Dubai to Entebbe, Uganda, which took about 5 and a half hours.

We flew on an Airbus A380, which has two floors (first class and business upstairs and economy downstairs).  I had never been on an airplane that big before.

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I was really thankful that I live on the east coast because most of my teammates had to start traveling on July 21st to JFK or LaGuardia and then stay the night in the hotel before continuing on with their flights.  Instead of that, I was able to simply arrive at JFK on Saturday morning and head out from there.

Emirates Airlines was awesome.  Just walking onto the airplane, I could tell that it was really nice.  There was a flight of stairs heading up that was lit along each step.  I wish I could have just seen what first class looked like, but economy passengers couldn’t go up there.  I’ve heard that there was a bar and showers upstairs.

There were tons of options of movies, music, games, and TV shows.  I watched some good movies heading to Africa, like Lion and Gifted.

I know I’m unusual with this, but I really love airplane food.  I think all of the tiny packages are really cool.  On Emirates, they actually give you a menu when you get on the plane that tells you about each of the meals that will be served and what your options are.

We had dinner, then pizza as a snack in the middle of the night, and then breakfast in the morning.

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Once we finally landed in Entebbe, we had to stand in the immigration line for what felt like forever.  Once we finally got up to the counter, we had our pictures taken, we were fingerprinted, and a visa was printed for each of us and stuck inside of our passport.  Once we grabbed our bags, we met Patrick, who would be driving our bus, along with another man who would be driving the truck that held our luggage.  Patrick is an artist who makes amazing metal sculptures that are really unique (you can view his website here).

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Our team at Entebbe Airport

When we left the airport, we drove to a market to pick up bottled water and bread that we needed because we would be making our own lunches while staying in Kampala.  We brought our own peanut butter since it’s expensive in Uganda, so each day we made sandwiches with bread and peanut butter and then we would have tiny bananas to go with it.

Then we checked into Apricot Guesthouse.  We were pretty tired, but we needed dinner, so we went to an Italian restaurant that was in walking distance.  I had pizza with beef, calamari, and shrimp on top.

Apricot Guesthouse:

It was a nice place to stay.  I shared the room with a girl named Mia.  There were between one and two people in each room.  There was a nice patio with comfy chairs and the grounds were pretty.

I did a random workout in the parking lot and Joe joined me for part of it.  I did a little running, push ups, burpees, jumping jacks, dips, squats, and some yoga poses.

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I loved the food at the Apricot Guesthouse.  It was typical African food and I loved everything I had.  On the first night they had a delicious pumpkin soup, along with rice, beef stew, chicken, potatoes (which they called “Irish”), vegetables, and rolls that tasted like soft pretzels.  The next night we had spinach soup, chapati (a bread similar to the Indian bread, naan), fish nuggets, lasagna, and vegetables.

 

For breakfast there were eggs, fruit, cereal, and juice both days.  One day there were pancakes and meatballs and the other day there were green beans.

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Sixty Feet:

Sixty Feet is an organization that, according to its mission on the website, “targets a specific category of children… the least of the least – those imprisoned in Africa and more specifically Uganda. Some of these children have committed serious offenses. Some are as young as 2 years of age and have committed no offense at all. Working alongside Ugandan government officials we work in the detention facilities, and in the villages where the children come from, to bring hope and help – immediate relief and long-term restoration.”

We volunteered with them for the first few days of our trip while staying at the Apricot Guesthouse in Kampala.  We also got to see the spot where the equator runs through Uganda after lunch one day.

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The next day we drove about three hours from Kampala to Jinja to work with Sole Hope.

Sole Hope:

Sole Hope focuses on “offering HOPE, healthier lives, and freedom from foot-related diseases through education, jobs, and medical relief.”

I was particularly excited to volunteer with Sole Hope because I had been working on collecting jeans since last December.  Sole Hope used to have what they called “jean cutting parties.”  They mailed you a pattern to use to cut the jeans into specific shapes. Then you get a group of people together and cut old jeans according to those patterns, safety pin them together, and then they are turned into shoes once they get to the Sole Hope grounds in Uganda.

My high school students were very excited about the opportunity to take part in my trip by helping with the jean cutting process, so they donated a TON of jeans.  I was overwhelmed by their excitement and support.  I also had friends and family members who donated a bunch of jeans as well.

I was able to have my students help me with the jean cutting the day before winter break, which was a HUGE help.  I had not originally realized how difficult and time consuming it would be to so cut so many jeans.  I also had help from some other friends and family members, but a good portion of the jeans were simply cut on random days after work while I turned on a movie to distract myself from the monotony.

I was thrilled to have 100 pairs of jean shoes to bring with me to Sole Hope and they were excited to hear about how I had gotten my students involved in the process.  Right now, Sole Hope paused with the jean cutting parties in order to have Care Kit parties instead in order to acquire more medical supplies.

We took a tour of the Sole Hope property, so we could see the process of sewing the shoes and adding the soles, which are made of a few layers of old car tires.

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The shoes are provided to people once jiggers (small bugs that burrow into feet) are removed.  They help to prevent the person wearing them from getting more jiggers in the future.

Thursday is Sole Hope’s clinic day, so we got to go with them to help out at a school.  There were about 150 children (and a few adults) who needed to have their jiggers removed.  We started by gathering all of the children in a big circle and playing some games with them.  We sang songs that had corresponding hand motions.  One of them was a song about jiggers that would teach them good hygiene to avoid jiggers in the future.

After the song, we separated into stations:

Station 1: paperwork.  A Sole Hope worker would fill out a foot note paper with the person’s information such as name, age, grade, and information about their home address and their parents.

This is what the foot note paper would look like once it was filled out at the end of station 3.

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Foot note

Station 2: foot washing.  This was my station.  We each had a bucket with a scrub brush and a bar of soap.  We would scrub one of the patient’s feet and then let them practice scrubbing their second foot.  While we were doing this, someone else from our team would come around and pass out stickers to everyone.

I tried to speak to the children as much as possible.  They learn English in school, but some of them were too young to understand and others were too shy.  Some of them told me their names, ages, and favorite sports.

At one point, I washed the feet of an old man and it really hit me emotionally.  While I love volunteering, I don’t like feeling as though I’m the white savior coming to save the day by handing things out to people.  Those types of situations are times when helping hurts, which is common to some short term missions.

So I was just sitting on the ground, unable to communicate with this old man who could not speak English.  He was probably around 80 years old.  All I could do was scrub his feet and smile.

I considered how embarrassed he must have felt.  The clinic was set up at a school, so its primary patients were children, but he, too, had a jigger infestation.  Beside him sat children who were mostly under age 12.  It could have been humiliating, and it was undoubtedly painful.

Yet at the same time, he needed help, and I could tell from his smile how grateful he was that we were there offering him a future that would entail less pain.  I also considered how my simple action of scrubbing his feet was really not that significant; anyone could have done it.  But at the same time, I was able to show him love through that act.

Despite the language barrier.  I could get across the message that he is loved, has worth, and is deserving of love.  There I was, someone who had flown across the ocean to get to Uganda just to scrub his feet and offer him hope.

St. Therese of Lisieux was known for her small, humble acts that she always did with great love.  I am by no means trying to compare myself to her, but I felt similarly in that situation.  I wasn’t in Africa building a church or drilling a well, but I was spreading my love in simple, small ways in my scrubbing of feet.

And it was definitely a humbling act.  Many of the patients had feet that had wounds in addition to the jiggers.  You can tell it’s a jigger because it looks like a white circle and then there is a small black dot in the middle of it.  When you see that, you know a jigger has burrowed under the skin.

But most of them had other contusions on their feet, broken or missing toenails, and some deformities.  We were told to alert someone any time a person had an open wound so that they could change out our water in order to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.

I wasn’t afraid to wash the feet, but I did know that it was possible for me to acquire a jigger in the process.  We were sure to wear closed shoes on the clinic day, which would help prevent jiggers in the feet, but jiggers can also burrow into other parts of your body, mainly your hands.  Fortunately, none of my teammates got any jiggers.  We were sure to scrub our hands and feet in the shower each night since it takes a while for a jigger to actually burrow itself into your skin.

Station 3: Jigger removal.  At this station, Sole Hope workers would use a razor blade and a safety pin to dig out the jiggers.  While they were doing this, people from my team would be filling out the foot notes.  Every time a jigger was removed, they had to put a dot on the foot drawing to show its placement while also counting up the number of jiggers per foot as well as the total number of jiggers on that person.  Some people also had jiggers on their hands.  If anyone had over 20, they would receive a follow-up, or they would go to the Outreach House (more about that in a bit).

While the jigger removal was happening, Joe, the youngest member of our team, went around passing out lollipops.  Jigger infestations are painful, just like their removal.  The lollipops helped the kids to concentrate less on the pain.  There were some tears, but most of those kids sat so quietly while the Sole Hope workers removed the jiggers.  I was extremely impressed.  I don’t know if I would have been able to sit so still in that situation, no anesthetic helping to remove or even ease the pain.

After the jiggers are removed, their feet are bandaged.

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Station 4: shoe fitting.  Each patient received a pair of the jean shoes in order to hopefully prevent a future jigger infestation.  They also have to be taught to wear those shoes every day.  Sole Hope has found that some patients avoid wearing the shoes because they don’t want to get them dirty.  They save them for church or for the holidays.  They have to be taught that the shoes are there to prevent jiggers, not just to be worn on special occasions.

After all of the 150 patients had finished having their jiggers removed, we were able to spend some time playing with the kids, both those who had had jiggers removed and the others who also attended that school.  It was fun getting to spend some time with them in addition to the actual clinic.

The next day, we went to volunteer at Sole Hope’s Outreach House.  This is where people go if they have an extreme case of jiggers.  They typically stay there for two weeks.  They are treated by nurses for both their jiggers as well as any other underlying issues.  They are tested for illnesses such as malaria and HIV/AIDS.  They are also educated about jiggers, jigger removal, good hygiene, ways to keep jiggers away from their homes, and Bible study.

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Inside the nurse’s station

Some of the people who need medical attention live far away.  Sole Hope has social workers in different areas of Uganda who scout out those cases.  Sometimes Sole Hope will take its clinic out to that village and other times, they will send a vehicle out to get certain people and then they bring them to the Outreach House for treatment, bringing them back to their villages once they are finished.

First, there was another jigger removal clinic.  Initially, I thought that I would try to take the foot notes since I had washed feet the previous day, but before holding the clinic, we had a tour of the facility and we were told how the average number of jiggers on a patient at the Outreach House is 150!  I didn’t know if I could handle that.

The previous day, many of the kids only had a couple of jiggers, and there weren’t too many really bad cases.  I knew that this next day would be different.

I’m usually okay at dealing with gross things, with the exception of vomit.  But I was not sure if I could handle watching and recording the jigger removal process in the likely event that I had a patient with a ton of them.

I opted to do arts and crafts while the clinic was taking place.  We colored in coloring books and I painted their nails. Everyone was  excited about the nail polish, even the adults and the males.

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Part of me was disappointed in myself that I didn’t try to do the foot notes, but I knew that I needed to admit my weakness.  At times I can be too prideful, excited to be able to do any required task on a mission trip to my best ability.  But during that jigger removal, I knew that I might not be able to do an effective job.  Other people had queasy stomachs watching the process, so I shouldn’t let myself feel like I failed just because I didn’t watch the removal.

After the removal we had lunch and then we came back and they were doing Bible study.  In Uganda, there are many different dialects and languages, depending on which village a person is from.  For the Bible study, they were translating from English to Luganda to another separate language from that particular village.

Then we made bracelets and necklaces and played outside with everyone.

On Sunday, we spent more time with the people at the Outreach House in the afternoon after church, just doing some crafts and playing games outside.  I was helping out with one of the crafts.  We were gluing popsicle sticks together and gluing sequins, pom poms, and googly eyes on them to make crosses.

I played a silly version of hide ‘n’ seek with this one little girl.  I would bend down under the desk and she would pop up, and then she would bend down under the desk and hide while I popped up to look for her.  She was entertained for a long time just going up and down.

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On our last day with Sole Hope, we spent more time with everyone, making crafts and playing games.  We told a Bible story that went along with a craft where they decorated construction paper people cutouts with stickers and sequins.

We played a bunch of different games with jump ropes, balls, and a parachute.  We taught them how to play freeze tag and duck, duck, goose.

After lunch, we listened to the hygiene lesson about jiggers and then we played some more.  I did more nail polish while other teammates painted faces, colored, or played games outside.

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The lesson took a pretty long time since, just like the Bible story, it had to be spoken in English, translated into Luganda, and then into the other village language.

The little girl who was sitting on my lap fell asleep on me.

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When we finished up that day, we had to say goodbye because we would be going to a different organization in Jinja, Amani Baby Cottage, for our final days in Uganda.

Sole Hope Guest House:

For most of our trip to Uganda, we stayed at the Sole Hope Guest House, which was really nice.  It felt very welcoming and homey, with a large living room where our group could gather.

It had really pretty African paintings all over the house.  There were these really cool chairs made out of wheelbarrows.  There was also a large outdoor sitting area.  We made our own breakfasts and lunches and then the cook would make us a delicious dinner each night.

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The kitchen

It was such a treat to have hot showers because we had cold ones when we were staying in Kampala.

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Because the guest house is geared toward volunteers coming from other countries, the food was not typical African.  It was delicious, but I wish we had gotten to try more traditional African cuisine.  We had minestrone soup, vegetable lasagna, pot roast, enchiladas, etc.  One really delicious side dish, though, was pineapple mixed with cucumber and cilantro.

The yard was really big, so I worked outside there a few times like I had in Kampala, running around and doing burpees and things like that.

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There were two dogs, Bear and Boomer, who always wanted attention.  Here is Boomer on my lap one day after a Sole Hope clinic.

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Here is a video from the first part of my trip to Uganda, mainly featuring Sole Hope:

 

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Trump is President, For Better or for Worse

I don’t usually like to get too involved in politics, but our country is currently in the midst of a time that will probably go down in the history books.

Wrapping my thoughts around this particular election has been rough.  There were so many reasons I disagreed with Hillary Clinton, and so many others why I disagreed with Donald Trump.

As recently as the night before Election Day, I was still wavering on which way to cast my vote the next morning.

Am I pleased with the outcome?  No.  I’m definitely not dancing for joy, that is for sure. But I wouldn’t be cheering had Hillary won either.

The night of the election, I stayed up until around 10:30 watching the news coverage.  At that point, Trump was in the lead, but they didn’t really know what might happen with the swing states.  It was still anyone’s game.

Upon waking up, I said a prayer for our country.  And before opening my laptop to view the results, I stopped to think about which result I would prefer to see.  I really wasn’t sure.  Since I found so many subpar qualities regarding each candidate’s views, I really didn’t know what I hoped for.

I would describe my feeling upon seeing that Donald Trump had won as a reaction of surprise.  A few years ago, nobody would have thought that this was possible.  A few years ago, people would have laughed off any fortune teller who predicted this outcome.  But it did happen.  This isn’t a dream; this is our new reality.

I work in an urban school district and I could tell yesterday that some of my foreign students had very real concerns about some of their family members.  That was heartbreaking for me to witness.

I have no idea what is going to happen over the course of the next four years.  But I do know that we cannot live in fear.  Many people dislike Trump’s fear-mongering political tactic.  While I agree with them, those same people who condemned him are perpetuating that same fear right now, acting as though the end times have come.

No, I do not believe that Trump, or Hillary, for that matter, is the anti-Christ.

Donald Trump was elected by the American people, for better or for worse.  Half of our country supports him (or just really dislikes Hillary).  No votes need to be recounted.  He won.  I’m aware of the flaws with the popular vote versus the electoral college, but that is something that we know exists and until people fight more for a change with that system, that is the way we go about presidential elections in this country.

If you want to move to Canada, then go.  There are many reasons why I can name multiple countries where I think life could be much better than here in America, even before this election.  So stand by your word and move.

But if you plan to stay here, propagating hatred is NOT the answer.

Am I concerned about the future of our country?  Absolutely.  I’m nervous about the laws regarding the prison system, capital punishment, climate change, gun control, immigration, and national defense.  Had Hillary won, I would have been nervous about right to life issues, religious freedom, and deeply rooted corruption.

But what concerns me more right now is the actions of the American public.

I know you’re upset.  You have a right to feel anger or frustration, but Trump won fair and square, according to American laws.  We cannot become even more divided as a nation.  That is what will cause more problems than the election itself.

Social media is full of people spewing their hatred against each other right now.  Who is that helping?  Okay, you were able to vent, but what other positive end came out of your reactions of anger?

I am at peace with the thought of Donald Trump being the new president because of one thing: God.  I believe with every ounce of my being that God exists.  He is a good and loving God and I know that He is here to protect us.

That is not to say that He does not allow for evil in the world to exist, but living in fear goes against Christian teachings:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  Not as the world gives do I give it to you.  Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” -John 14:27

“Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make our requests known to God.  Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” -Philippians 4:6-7

“Fear not, I am with you; be not dismayed; I am your God.  I will strengthen you and help you, and uphold you with my right hand of justice.” -Isaiah 41:10

“Do not be afraid; just have faith.” -Mark 6:36

And there are many more verses just like those.  If we live in fear, we are denying our faith in God to some extent.  Obviously, we’re human.  Fear still always exists.  I’ll be the first to admit that I definitely have my own fears, both with regards to the election as well as other fears that I encounter in my day to day life. But if we make ourselves aware of those fears, we can come to understand that they bear no fruit.

I cannot waste my time being afraid of the tomorrow that has not yet arrived.  I need to live for today.  I need to live in a way that shows that I am trying to follow Christ.  Wallowing in sorrow and fear about the election does not show anyone that I have full faith in God.

 

Remember, also, to be thankful that you live in a country in which the president is not a dictator and that he does not have absolute power.

Consider Obama’s presidency for a moment.  Do you remember all of the laws that he was unable to pass because of the party system?  Do you remember how the Republicans blocked so many bills?  Do you not think that the opposite will be true for Donald Trump?

I am aware that the president has a great deal of power, but we still have the Senate, House of Representatives, and the Supreme Court.  That remains the same.

So today, I urge those of you who are afraid of tomorrow to turn to God rather than reading your friends’ Facebook posts and Tweets about how Trump is going to destroy our nation.  Sure, he may makes choices that you don’t agree with, but fearing that right now isn’t going to change anything.

Right now, this is what I urge you to do:

Love. Spread your love to everyone you encounter.  God calls us to love everyone, not just our friends, but those who persecute us, our enemies, even.  If you view Trump as your enemy, then pray for him.

Right now, that is what our country needs.  We need love and respect and we need to set aside the fear of tomorrow because our fears and worries do not change anything.

Love your neighbors.  Love Trump supporters.  Love Hillary supporters.  Love everyone you encounter and that is how we can find a better tomorrow.

 

Body Cameras in Schools? What’s Next?

Body Cameras

I watched a video that was part of this article about a Virginia school district that is mandating that all administrators wear a video camera at all times.  I understand that people want these cameras to document fights and other altercations, but gosh I hate that this is what our world is becoming.

Today was the first I’ve heard of body cameras, but apparently they already exist in some schools.

The school in which I currently work has cameras in every classroom, outside of the building, and in the hallways and stairwells.  I’m pretty sure the only places lacking cameras are the bathrooms.

I don’t usually mind the cameras being there, but I find it so sad that it’s something that has been deemed necessary in 21st century America.

The cameras can sometimes be unnerving.  I eat my lunch in my classroom and I wonder if anyone can see me.  I’ve heard that the cameras are usually only utilized after the fact, when looking into an incident that happened previously.  But it’s still a bit creepy to have Big Brother over my shoulder, knowing that, if they wanted to, someone could watch me throughout the whole school day, even during my free time when I have my lunch and prep.

I understand why police officers have cameras in their cars to record incidents and arrests. I understand that we need safety monitoring in a variety of public places.  But I’m curious if there is data that proves that these cameras that are now being placed in schools makes a big difference or not.

Cost?

I can’t even begin imagine the cost to install these cameras in some schools.  The high school where I work is not a small building.  It’s four stories tall, and that’s just the regular classrooms (not including gymnasiums, the auditorium, etc).  Every single room (except for the bathrooms) has a camera.  That had to cost a fortune.

To me, it seems that money could have been spent on more technology for our schools, newer textbooks, or more substitute teachers.

Schools or prisons?

To me, installing so many cameras seems to send a message to a school’s students that they cannot be trusted.  They must be watched at all times.  Students sometimes complain that schools are like prisons.  And you know what?  I’m starting to agree with them.  Think about everything that many schools now have, which prisons also have:

-security cameras monitoring everything

-security guards and police officers

-everyone wearing an ID badge

-locked doors that require people to be buzzed into a room before entering the main building

-some schools have metal detectors

-our school has metal gates that are put down at the end of the day to keep students out of certain areas

It’s interesting to think about the parallels.

Teachers and sexual allegations

I know that the cameras are probably also there in case a student accuses a teacher of something inappropriate.  I can assure you that I am EXTREMELY aware of the presence of the cameras when a student is alone in my room after school working on an assignment.  Sure, I may be told that the camera is there to protect me from false allegations, but the opposite can also be true.

I’ve had students, both male and female, who were talking to me about pretty emotional situations.  They sometimes want to give me a hug.  I shouldn’t be afraid to hug a student who is having a hard day, but, thanks to those cameras, I am.  What to me may be a friendly, “feel better” hug could potentially look like a flirtatious situation from the viewpoint of the camera.

I don’t like having to watch my back like that, but that camera gives me no extra security during these moments.  Sometimes I have students who try to hug me to thank me for doing something special for them, whether it’s staying after school extra to help them with an assignment, or writing a recommendation letter for them.  When they reach out to hug me, I usually tense up a bit, never hugging back.  It saddens me to give them this sort of cold shoulder, but it’s also necessary, unfortunately.

Are the cameras making a difference?

I’m not vehemently opposed to these cameras, but I’m disheartened that it’s something that many people believe is necessary because of so many terrible things happening in our schools.  Today’s world is a bit of a mess.  Between school shootings and teachers who engage in sexual activities with students, our schools are facing some major issues.  I don’t know what the solution is.  If cameras can fix these problems, then great.  My worry is that they aren’t really a viable solution.

I haven’t seen any fights in my current school, though I know they happen.  But the same was true in my last school, which only had some cameras in very specific locations.  Most fights happen in the cafeteria.  That is the same in both schools, regardless of the presence of cameras.  I don’t have facts to back it up, but I can’t imagine a staggering difference in the numbers of fights and/or theft between schools with the cameras and schools without them.  Students in my school have been robbed.  The cameras didn’t save the day in those situations.

I feel like the cameras are mostly beneficial to look back at the footage after something happens — after the teacher’s phone is stolen, after the fight happened, after the gunman entered the room.  But in those cases, the crime still occurred.

Having a camera in my classroom won’t stop the gunman from killing me or my students.  It will just relay all of the gruesome details to the investigators more clearly.

Unless someone is sitting there watching every camera at every moment, I’m not sure they make a big difference.  But thinking about someone watching me all day as I teach is highly unnerving.

A student who wants to kill his classmates isn’t going to care about the cameras.  Most school shooters kill themselves by the end of the ordeal anyway.  Will they really care that they’re on camera?  Dylan and Eric (the Columbine shooters) had the goal of being famous for their actions.  They wanted to top Timothy McVey’s Oklahoma City bombing.  They were probably thrilled that their school had a few cameras so that their deeds could go down in history, not just in textbooks, but also from the video footage.  I’ve seen the footage from the cafeteria, just like millions of other people.  It’s been on a variety of news programs, as well as the Michael Moore film, Bowling for Columbine.  If fame was their goal, Dylan and Eric did achieve it.  These cameras are just giving the criminals extra notoriety.

A teacher who wants to sleep with a student is now going to make sure that everything happens off of school property.  Again, the cameras change very little in that situation.

A student who gets into a fight in the heat of the moment with another student will probably still get into the fight since the last thing on that student’s mind is the security cameras.  And if a student does take the time to think about it, the fight will probably happen outside of school, with potentially worse consequences since there will be no security guard to break it up.

 

So although I understand why people want these cameras, my question remains: is it making a difference?

Orange is the New Black: Novel vs. Netflix Series

I have always been interested in the prison system.  One of my favorite television shows is Prison Break.  One of my favorite movies is Shawshank Redemption.  I am always talking about my beliefs that capital punishment should not be legal.

So when I heard about Orange is the New Black, based on the real account of a woman’s experiences in prison, I was hooked, especially since the main character, Piper, was incarcerated in the prison that was located in the town of Danbury, where I used to live.

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So I started watching the show, but I was quickly turned off by its vulgarity.  From the very first episode, there are loads of scenes featuring women performing sexual acts on other women.  I hoped that maybe the first episode was extra extreme to try to attract viewers, but in the end, I only made it through 3 or 4 episodes.  The vulgarity was excessive.

I’m not sure why, after such a bad experience with the television show, I decided to read the book, but I did.  And I am very happy that I did because the book is extremely different from the show.

Now, I obviously did not see every episode.  Maybe it gets better.  But I would rather not have to watch more of the vulgar content to figure that out.

So here are some differences between the book and the Netflix series (SPOILER ALERT):

1. Piper Kerman did not experience blatant sexual acts.

In the show, she sees women going to town in the showers, in the chapel, you name it.  She has women make very suggestive comments towards her.

In the book, she mentioned one incident where she was complimented for her “perky breasts.”  Other than that, she does not write about experiencing any sexual acts.

She even mentions how she saw a little bit of affection between inmates on Valentine’s Day, but only as much as the fact that they were exchanging cards.

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2. Her confrontation with “Red” (“Pop” in the book) was not that dramatic.

Yes, Piper did unknowingly complain about the food to the woman who was working as the head chef in the kitchen.  Was the woman upset? Of course.  Did she withhold food from Piper for over a week?  No, she didn’t even withhold one meal.

In the show, Piper is served a bloody tampon once Red finally agrees to give her food.  That was complete fiction, made only for the television show.

3. Her ex lover, “Nora” (“Alex”) in the show was not in prison in Danbury with her.  

Piper did eventually encounter Nora, but only when she was transferred to a prison in Chicago when she had to testify at a trial.

They also did not have much animosity or tension between them.  Yes, Piper was initially irate when she saw Nora, but both of them, in addition to Nora’s sister, became friends.  They were only together for a week or two.

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4. “Crazy eyes” was not nearly as creepy or as much of a stalker.

Yes, there was a person who had crazy eyes.  In the book, her name was “Delicious.”  She had made some comments to Piper, but once it was clear that Piper was not a lesbian and that she was engaged, Delicious did not give her much trouble at all.

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5. Nobody peed in her cell.

In the show, “Crazy Eyes” pees in Piper’s cell since Piper will not have a relationship with her.  In the book, there is a situation where an inmate pees at the entrance of someone’s cell, but it has nothing to do with Piper.

6. The inmates were extremely welcoming.

In the TV series, it initially shows the inmates as unapproachable women.  The opposite is actually true.  A large portion of the book is dedicated to showing how welcoming the women really were and how much they looked out for each other.

In the book, when Piper first enters Danbury FCI, she is given shampoo, toothpaste, and other items from other inmates who are trying to help to ease her transition into prison.

She becomes friends with many of the women and throughout the novel, she shows what strong ties they made.

7. The screwdriver incident was much less dramatic.

In the show, Piper accidentally takes a screwdriver with her.  All of the corrections officers are looking for the screwdriver.  Piper doesn’t know what to do when she realizes that it is in her pocket because she knows that she will be sent to the SHU (solitary confinement) if she admits that she has it.  It’s a major fiasco.

In the book, she does accidentally have the screwdriver after doing her job, but she just throws it in the dumpster.  Nobody ever realizes that it is gone.  It’s not a big deal.

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Now, I saw all of that in just the first 3-4 episodes.  I’m sure that there are many more differences if I had watched the entire series.

I understand that producers always change aspects of any novel that is turned into a television show or movie, but I feel that some of these changes are just too extreme and they take away from the whole point of the novel.

I hate how we live in such a sex-driven society that producers knew that they had to exaggerate the sexual aspects of life in prison in order to make a hit TV show.  Minus the excessive sex, I wouldn’t have had a problem with the show, but it makes me feel extremely uncomfortable to watch.

If I’m watching a television show (or a Netflix original), I’m not expecting to watch something that borders on pornography.  There are actually websites that have grouped together all of the sex scenes from the show into a pornographic montage.

This is simply unnecessary and completely in opposition with the nature of the novel.  Piper, at least from what she writes, NEVER encounters females engaging in oral sex or masturbation.  From the show, one would think that it was a daily part of life in prison.  I’m sure that those things happened, but she never saw it directly.

The novel is really intriguing and the show could have been perfectly solid without all of the sex.

Though the show has some pretty high ratings, so I know that the majority of the American public disagrees with me, which is really quite unfortunate.

Pope Francis Condemns Capital Punishment

I’ve always believed that capital punishment should not be in existence.  However, many of my Catholic friends argued that it was acceptable.

How can the Church agree with killing?  was a question that I was always asking myself

We don’t live in an “eye for an eye” society, yet the death penalty still exists in some countries.

According to an article on Yahoo, the Pope said that there was now a “growing opposition to the death penalty even for the legitimate defense of society” because modern means existed to “efficiently repress crime without definitively denying the person who committed it the possibility to rehabilitating themselves.”

He also said that we must improve prison conditions in order to respect the dignity of the prisoners.  He believes that the prison system should be aimed more toward rehabilitation.  He also believes that life imprisonment is similar to the death penalty since rehabilitation isn’t even a consideration if someone knows that he will never leave prison alive.

I have written about the death penalty a few times in the past since I have very strong feelings on the topic (Obama prison bloglethal injection drug blogBoston bomber’s death sentence blog, among a few others).

So I’m not going to say the same thing all over again, but it still amazes me that the United States maintains the death penalty when so many other places have gotten rid of it.

102 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes. others have abolished it with the exception of war crimes. 50 still technically have it, but have not used it for over 10 years.  Only 37 countries still maintain and use capital punishment.

Out of those 37 countries with the death penalty, these are the countries that use it the most frequently (according to Amnesty International):

-China

-Iran

-Saudi Arabia

-Iraq

-United States

-Pakistan

-Yemen

-North Korea

-Vietnam

-Libya

That is a statistic that I am definitely not proud of.  That we are #5 in the world when it comes to executions.

The countries that have banned capital punishment are not facing crazy amounts of violence and killings now that that punishment no longer exists.  How long will it take us to do the same?

 

 

My White Privilege

I am a white, American, heterosexual female.  The only more ideal human body I could have received upon birth would have been a male body, though with the way our country is progressing, I don’t personally believe that living as a female in 21st century America is all that difficult.

I was given a gift from the time of birth, simply because of the body I was born into.


I’m a high school English teacher.  Every day, my students must write journal entries about a variety of topics and questions that I pose to them. Working in an urban school, I’m sometimes taken aback by my students’ journal entries since their upbringing and surroundings differ so much from my own, having grown up in a small, suburban, middle to upper class town in Connecticut.

Growing up with a single mom, we had our fair share of struggles, but they still seem so insignificant compared to some of the obstacles facing my students.

On one particular day, I gave my students a journal prompt to write about the things that they fear.

I had multiple students who wrote that their biggest fear was being punished for a crime that they did not commit.

Having grown up as a white American, this fear has never even crossed my mind.  Sure, there is corruption in the world, but I have never been afraid that someone would charge me with a crime that I am not guilty of committing.  We live in America, after all, a nation founded on liberty and justice for all.

So what, then, is so different about my students?

Namely, their races.  Unfortunately, because of the bodies they were born into, some of my students are not unreasonable in their fear of a false conviction. Just because of their appearance, many people will make assumptions about them, and they are aware of that fact.  I’m not teaching the innocent elementary school students who are still naive to these issues.  I teach 17 and 18 year old high school seniors who have experienced quite a bit in their lives.  They see the world around them; they know that this fear is not unfounded.

On the news lately, there has been one story after another about inmates who were finally released from prison or even death row since their innocence was found.  In the past few months, I have only seen this occur with black males.

We publish these stories in the media and label them successes.  Yay, another innocent prisoner was released!  Our justice system is doing its job, realizing and correcting its mistakes.

But why are there so many of these mistakes?

There are people who have been released from prison after 20 years of incarceration.  Yes, they may initially feel relief and excitement, but I’m not sure if that’s the most fitting long-term reaction.

What about the anger towards the justice system that allowed a man to be robbed of 20 years of his life?  Oops.  He was innocent.  We’ll send him on his way with some money, and he’ll at least be happy to be out of his jail cell.  Even if his criminal record is removed, how will he find a job with a blank resume?  What about the families and children who are being raised with parents who they know are sitting in jail cells because of their skin color rather than their crime (or lack thereof)?

And why do I keep seeing these mistakes among the black prisoners?

Part of the problem is that they’re found guilty before they even open their mouth in a court room.  They’re guilty from the moment prosecutors and jurors lay eyes on them.

Sure, it’s the year 2016, and we’ve come a long way from the days of segregation, but that doesn’t mean that the mindset of the American public has changed.

I’m not saying that I am free from all prejudice.  We all have our own preconceived notions and prejudices.  But it is such a shame to know that my 17 and 18 year old students are already afraid of being wrongly convicted.  Others are afraid of police brutality.  This is their reality.

This is the America in which we live.

The America where white skin still reigns supreme above all else.

The America where, just because of my appearance, I will not be followed by the eyes of storekeepers who are assuming that I may try to shoplift.

We can try to convince ourselves that our country is fair and that our justice system does a good job of putting the actual criminals into jail cells, but that just doesn’t seem to be the case.

We live in a time when white privilege is still an easy ticket to success.  Sure, people of a minority background can and do achieve the same success as us, but it’s like we white folks have been given the fast pass.

We jump right onto that amusement park ride while we pass everyone else who is still standing on that long line.  They may eventually reach the front and find their own success, but it takes a bit longer and a bit more effort.

I worked hard for the things that I have, but I don’t think that I can deny the fact that my white privilege probably helped.  Had I grown up in an inner city as a black female, things would have shifted significantly.

So I guess I’m grateful for my white privilege because I have attained success in my life, but at the same time, I am completely ashamed by it and I sincerely wish that this wasn’t the reality in which I lived.

It’s unfair.  But I guess that’s what we all realize as we grow older.  Life simply isn’t fair.

 

 

 

The Lunacy of Mandatory Minimums

I often post about my disdain for the American justice system, mainly in regard to capital punishment.  I have recently learned more about mandatory minimum sentences.  I am certain that many Americans do not even realize that these laws exist.

Then I watched this John Oliver clip about the topic today:

I am so happy that John Oliver talks about problems like this on his show.  By adding his humor to very serious topics, he is able to appeal to a wider audience than those who are researching the issues with our justice system.

I have previously written about Obama fighting for prison reformslethal injection drugsthe Boston bomber’s death sentence, and the amount of money spent on education vs. our prison system.

Today’s topic is mandatory minimums.  According to famm.org (Families Against Mandatory Minimums), “Mandatory minimum sentencing laws require binding prison terms of a particular length for people convicted of certain federal and state crimes. These inflexible, “one-size-fits-all” sentencing laws may seem like a quick-fix solution for crime, but they undermine justice by preventing judges from fitting the punishment to the individual and the circumstances of their offenses. Mandatory sentencing laws cause federal and state prison populations to soar, leading to overcrowding, exorbitant costs to taxpayers, and diversion of funds from law enforcement.”

Most mandatory minimum laws are in regards to drug offenses.  I by no means believe that people who are arrested for drug crimes should get a simple slap on the wrist, but we’ve strayed too far in the exact opposite direction.

Many people who are arrested for drug possession are not dangerous people like those who murder, harass, and rape.  Most of these people are drug addicts who have a disease that they cannot control.  Does that mean a person caught with heroin should not get in trouble with the law?  Absolutely not.  But should that person receive an automatic 15-year prison sentence on a first offense without a previous record?  No, not quite.

You can view the federal mandatory minimum laws here.

The specific laws differ widely from state to state.  Here is a list of all mandatory minimum reforms.  Below are a few examples of mandatory minimum laws that have been eliminated or reformed:

California – This law was thankfully overturned in 2012, but before that, there was a mandatory life sentence for anyone who was in trouble with their third offense.  That meant that anyone who committed any crime and who had committed 2 previous crimes was sentenced to life in prison.  Petty theft?  Yep, you get caught stealing 3 times in California and you receive a life sentence.  How this existed until 2012, I have no idea.

I understand that we want to deter crime, but at what cost?  Our taxpayers spend billions of dollars on the prison system.  Should that money really go toward keeping a petty thief in jail for the rest of his life?

New York – In 2009, it reformed its drug policy to include more treatment options and repealing most mandatory minimum sentences.

Because drug addiction is a disease, mandatory minimums are not a deterrent.  People who are highly addicted will hit rock bottom before ending their drug use.  They will live homeless on the street, scrounging up drug money if necessary.  Treatment is the best deterrent; lengthy prison sentences are not.

Rhode Island – In 2009, Rhode Island repealed mandatory minimums for drug sentences.  Before 2009, anyone arrested for drug possession received a minimum 10-20 year prison sentence, along with hefty fines.

Again, I don’t believe that drug sentences should be too lenient, but 20 years for possession?  That seems a bit harsh when we see people who have committed violent acts who receive much shorter sentences.

It’s great that Obama has also done his part to bring the problem of mandatory minimums into the public eye and that he has shortened the sentence of some inmates and pardoned others.  This is something that absolutely needs to change.

The craziest part of the mandatory minimums is just that: the term mandatory.  Crime context is irrelevant.  There are judges who have had to sentence people to certain mandatory minimums despite not believing in the validity of the laws themselves.  The problem is that there is no option — it’s just a mandatory rule without room for discussion.

Because of these laws, there are many children who must grow up without their parents due to one stupid mistake their parents made.  It is now not only the parents being punished, but the children who must grow up without mothers and fathers.

Prisonpolicy.org has a document that tells some of these stories of personal accounts of mandatory minimums.

Sharanda Jones, a woman mentioned by John Oliver in his monologue, is currently in prison due to a mandatory minimum sentence.  She was convicted on her first offense, and one that was nonviolent.

In 1999, she had been caught distributing crack cocaine.

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She was sentenced to life without parole when her daughter was eight years old.  Her daughter is now an adult who had to grow up without her mom, and who will probably never see her mom outside of prison, unless Sharanda’s sentence is overturned.

The purpose of prison is supposedly rehabilitation, but in these cases of life without parole, that is obviously not the intent.  The country plans for Sharanda to die in prison.  Rehabilitation is inconsequential.

So what, then, is the purpose of her sentence?  To end the sale of drugs?  That is never going to happen.  There are tons of drug dealers out there, and most of them probably have no idea how hard the consequences really are.

Weldon Angelos – He received a mandatory 55-year prison sentence because he sold a few pounds of marijuana while in the possession of a firearm.  Even his judge disagreed with the sentence, but was unable to change it.  He was sentenced in 2004 and will not be released until 2051, unless he receives some sort of pardon or reduction of his sentence.

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Something that is also frustrating is that, although many states have returned their mandatory minimum sentences, that is not always retroactive, so many people are in prison for life sentences that no longer exist today.  Unfortunately for them and their bad timing, there is not much they can do other than to continue petitioning.

In a world in which there is so much anger and hatred, and violence, our country targets the wrong people and focusing on the wrong problems.

Yes, drugs are a problem, but the solution is not to spend all of our taxpayer dollars on exorbitant prison sentences.

What about all of the school shootings?  Why don’t we spend more time working on putting and end to those.

What about poverty and homelessness?  Why don’t we work on helping people to better their lives and to find jobs and housing?

There needs to be an end of mandatory minimum sentences so that maybe one day our justice system can actually be one that is, in fact, just.

Obama Visiting Prison to Fight for Prison Reforms

Kudos to Obama.  He will be the first US president to visit a federal prison, according to this Yahoo article.

US President Barack Obama speaks about bills declaring three new national monuments in the Oval Office of the White House July 10, 2015 in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

It is quite surprising to me that never in our history as a nation have any of our presidents visited prisons.  I’m sure the same is true for the majority of our senators and legislators, yet there are so many legal issues facing our prison system.  There is so much room for reform.

Obama will visit El Reno prison in Oklahoma.  He is pushing for fairer sentencing – something that is absolutely necessary.  He also wants changes made for the duration of prison sentences.

High Incarceration Rates

According to the article, “2.2 million prisoners are housed in the United States, which is more men and women behind bars than the top 35 European countries combined. ‘Our incarceration rate is four times higher than China’s’ Obama said Tuesday, adding that prisons were four times less crowded in 1980 and two times less crowded just 20 years ago. Nearly a quarter of the world’s prison population is concentrated in American jails, while the United States accounts for less than five percent of the world’s population.”

Long Prison Sentences

We send so many non-violent offenders to prisons.  Yes, they committed crimes and they need to be punished, but is that 10-year prison sentence really in the best interests of our country? Is it really worth all of those taxpayer dollars?

There are many people in prison for white collar crimes like tax evasion, money laundering, and other sorts of fraud.  Are these acts illegal? Absolutely.  Are these people dangerous menaces to society? No.  Put them on probation.  Put them on house arrest.  Fine them.  There are many viable alternatives that should be considered.  I believe that putting them in prison is exacerbating the problem because now some of these formerly non-violent criminals come out with worse problems.

Living in prison is tough.  Depending on the location, you need to fight to survive.  In many prisons, drugs are common.  So these tax evading criminals may be coming home with bigger issues.

Prisons were originally intended for rehabilitation, but from what I have heard about most prisons in America, that does not really seem to be the case.

According to Michele Deitch, a law professor at the University of Texas, prison sentences in America “are much much longer by order of magnitude than in other countries.”

Obama said “In far too many cases, the punishment simply does not fit the crime.”  This is true in many small drug arrests.  People will end up in prison for 10 to 20 years for small-level drug dealing.  Is that necessary or effective?  I believe that it is not.

Are there too many drugs in our country? Yes.  Is it going away as we lock up some of these smaller drug dealers for 20 years? No.  There are even drugs within the prison system.

Just like the previous example, I obviously believe drug dealers should be punished, but a long prison stay is not necessarily the answer.  There are other more viable options that will ultimately cost less in taxpayer dollars.

“‘If you’re a low-level drug dealer, or you violate your parole, you owe some debt to society. You have to be held accountable and make amends,’ Obama said in a speech at the NAACP’s annual convention this week. ‘But you don’t owe 20 years. You don’t owe a life sentence. That’s disproportionate to the price that should be paid’ (Another Yahoo Article).

Incarceration of Minors

We also incarcerate many minors, whether it is in juvenile detention facilities, or in real prisons when we charge older teens as adults.  If we believe in rehabilitation, then obviously the best group to try to rehabilitate is the youth.  We need better programs to help these teens to overcome their rough home lives and backgrounds and end the cycle of violence.  Throwing a 15-year-old into juvie or even jail is not always the best solution.

Racism Within our Judicial System

In addition, as I have mentioned in previous posts like my most recent one about the death penalty (Legalizing Specific Lethal Injection Drugs Instead of Abolishing Capital Punishment), our judicial system is racist.  60% of the inmates in our prisons are black or Latino.  30% are white.  1 in 9 children of black parents have a parent in jail.  According to the Yahoo article, “one African-American in 35 and one Latino in 88 are in prison, for white people the ratio is one person imprisoned for every 214 individuals.”

In terms of capital punishment, people are much more likely to receive that sentence if they killed a white person rather than a black or Hispanic person.

Solitary Confinement is Inhumane

Obama also wants to change laws regarding solitary confinement.

Some prisons use solitary confinement quite often and for long durations.  This beats a person down psychologically.  This is probably the exact opposite of rehabilitation attempts.  While it may be necessary in some cases, solitary confinement should not last for weeks at a time.

Obama said that some prisons are putting prisoners in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day sometimes for months or years at a time.  Obama asked, “If those individuals are ultimately released, how are they ever going to adapt?”

Cost of our Prison System

I wrote a previous blog entitled Education or Incarceration: Where is our Money Going?.  The money we spend on our prison system far surpasses the money spent on education.  Obviously, there’s a problem when we spend more money on punishing criminals than we do educating the future of America.

It costs $80 billion annually to run our prisons.  $80 billion.

According to the National Dropout Prevention Center, it costs $55,000 to house the average inmate for one year. In comparison, it costs about $10,500 to educate the average student for one school year. We are spending billions of dollars more per year on our prison system than we are on our education system since it is so costly to lock up criminals.

I really hope that before Obama finishes his second term as President, he can start making changes regarding prison reform.  It is something that is so desperately needed in our country.

Legalizing Specific Lethal Injection Drugs Instead of Abolishing Capital Punishment?

It is 2015.  The United States is now one of the only countries to even allow capital punishment at all, yet here we are legalizing certain drugs to use for lethal injection.  Most countries have now abolished capital punishment, yet our Supreme Court is spending its time deciding which drugs are allowed to be utilized during the execution.

I read an article entitled “Supreme Court Justice Wonders Whether Death Penalty Violates Constitution.” That is exactly the problem.  Yes, capital punishment defies our Constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, as stated in the Eighth Amendment.  Instead of ending it completely, we’re wasting our time picking and choosing lethal injection drugs.  This infuriates me.

Last week, the Supreme Court decided that the controversial drug, Midalozam, is approved to use in lethal injection killings, despite that this was the drug that was used in some of the recent botched executions.

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Justice Stephen Breyer wrote out his dissent in a 41-page document.  Kudos to him.  He brings up the question of the constitutionality of the death penalty: “But rather than try to patch up the death penalty’s legal wounds one at a time, I would ask for full briefing on a more basic question: whether the death penalty violates the Constitution.”

The death penalty is probably the political topic that I feel most strongly about.  I have written speeches about its unconstitutionality for college courses.  I have researched the topic a great deal.  If you are reading this and you are unaware about the problems surrounding capital punishment, then let me shed some light on some of its major issues.

-Capital punishment constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

This is the most important point since this fits under our Eighth Amendment rights.  If capital punishment is cruel and unusual, then it should be banned.  However, there is a great deal of gray area when it comes to people determining what “cruel and unusual punishment” actually means.

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Most people think that capital punishment is executed (no pun intended) in a way that is relatively calm and pain-free to the inmate.  Often, this is very far from the truth.  I believe that it is absolutely cruel.  In terms of “unusual,” it is becoming more unusual since so many countries have abolished it.  Basically, the countries that still have capital punishment include countries like China, Iran, North Korea, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.  Most of the countries with the death penalty are in the Middle East.  Most are countries that many Americans look down upon as being barbaric.  Yet there we are on the list.

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140 countries have abolished the death penalty. They aren’t experiencing rampant crime.  But for some reason, we want to be different.

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-Lethal injection is much more gruesome than people realize.

Lethal injection sounds simple. You inject a medication into the inmate’s arm to sedate him and then you inject another drug and he slowly stops breathing, similar to a way that a dog is put to sleep.  As horrible as it was to witness my dog being put to sleep last year, it was a very calm, peaceful process.  No pain was present.  In humans, however, this is not the case.

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Many murderers and other criminals who receive a capital punishment verdict are people who previously used drugs.  Because of this, it is often difficult to find a viable vein since so many were used for drug use for such a long time.  Sometimes the drugs need to be inserted into veins in the neck or groin, and often this happens after poking and prodding the body for quite some time in search of veins.

Sometimes veins are blown because the needle is pushed too far, which causes it to puncture both sides of the vein.  If the chemical is injected, but pools around the vein instead of entering the bloodstream, it causes intense burning.

Why does this happen so often?  Because doctors are not allowed to perform executions.  Let’s think about this.  Licensed medical professionals cannot participate in executions because it goes against their ethical code of conduct as doctors.   It’s a violation of the Hippocratic Oath, yet our country still deems the process acceptable in most states.

hippocratic-oath

Because no doctors are performing the execution, the executioners often encounter difficulties when trying to inject the drugs.  There have been numerous accounts of people being injected multiple times before the needle was actually used correctly.

-Botched executions

According to this article, in 2006, an Ohio inmate named Joseph Clark took 86 minutes to die since EMTs struggled to find a vein.  That is 86 minutes of cruel suffering (not even counting the psychological suffering experienced in the days leading up to the execution).

In 2007, a name named Christopher Newton, was killed via lethal injection.  He weighed 265 pounds, which may have been a factor in the length of time it took the drugs to kill him.  He was stuck with the needle at least ten times and it ultimately took almost two full hours for him to be pronounced dead.

Newton

In 2008, an Ohio inmate named Rommell Broom was stuck with the needle 18 times, at which point in time the execution was postponed.  I can’t even imagine the psychological effects of living through that.

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In April 2014, a man named Clayton Lockett experienced a botched execution.  An IV was inserted into both of his arms, but they both either missed or punctured through the veins.  According to the Oklahoma protocol, a doctor has to deem a patient unconscious before the drugs that will end his life are injected.  Lockett was deemed unconscious within ten minutes, but then they injected the other two drugs and he started trying to lift his head and clenching his teeth — clear signs of pain.  It was then that the doctor noticed the punctured vein, but at this point, nothing could be done.  Lockett died an excruciating death.  They pulled the curtain closed so spectators could not view this travesty.  Ultimately, Lockett died not from the execution drugs, but from a heart attack.  He died after 43 minutes.

lockett

In July 2014, Joseph Wood experienced similar problems in his execution.  After every chemical had been injected, he was still clearly conscious, gasping for air for one hour and forty minutes.  If this is not cruel punishment, I don’t know what is.  Gasping for air while most likely experiencing pain while strapped to a table constitutes torture in my mind.

wood

Those are just a few examples.  Type “botched executions” into a Google search and you will find many similar stories.

-Capital punishment costs more than life imprisonment

People like to say that capital punishment saves us money since we don’t have to spend taxpayer dollars keeping a prisoner alive.  This is completely false due to the appeals process.  We need the appeals process because it has overturned many capital punishment sentences in the past.  We don’t want to kill any more innocent people (more on that later), so we need to give inmates and their attorneys the chance to prove such innocence.

According to deathpenalty.org, if the death penalty was replaced with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, which costs millions less and also ensures that the public is protected while eliminating the risk of an irreversible mistake, the money saved could be spent on programs that actually improve the communities in which we live.

Deathpenalty.org claims that California alone could save $1 billion over five years if capital punishment did not exist.  Thankfully, California did declare the death penalty unconstitutional in 2014 because it is “arbitrary and plagued with delay.”  While it was still legal, California taxpayers were spending $90,000 more per year on an inmate living on death row than an inmate who received life imprisonment without parole.

I live in Connecticut, where we had the death penalty legal until 2012.  One of the main reasons our governor wanted to get rid of it was finances.  We were spending about $5 million a year to maintain our capital punishment system.  $5 million could be put toward many more effective programs rather than just being used to kill people.  In Connecticut it was decided that the death penalty is “too risky, too expensive, and too arbitrary to continue” and that by “replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole, Connecticut officials have reduced the risk of executing the innocent and freed up taxpayer dollars for other programs that prevent crime more effectively and better serve victims’ families.” (Huffington Post Article).

I wrote a previous blog entitled “Education or Incarceration? Where is Our Money Going? about the cost of U.S. prison systems.  Although abolishing capital punishment does not eliminate our high prison costs, it would save billions of dollars nationally, which could be put toward improving America’s educational system.

-Innocent people have been executed

William Blackstone, 18th century English judge, jurist, and politician said “better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer” (“It’s Time to Kill the Death Penalty”

Thus far, there have been 330 people exonerated by DNA evidence in the United States.  Some of them were already executed and others were released from death row. They were found to be innocent after sitting on death row for various periods of time.  Sometimes, inmates who have some degree of guilt, but maybe not enough to warrant death, are exonerated from death row, but still in prison for a different sentence.  Some of these people sat on death row for 30 or more years.

At least if an innocent inmate sits in prison, he remains alive and can eventually be exonerated.  But some innocent death row inmates were killed before their innocence was found.

There is no way to know with certainty how many innocent people have been executed, but for some, it has been proven, often through DNA evidence.  Most courts choose not to take the time to look deeper into cases once a defendant is dead, so there are some executions that have the possibility that the person killed may have been innocent.

Take Larry Griffin, for example.  He was executed in Missouri in 1995. A man injured in the same drive-by shooting that Griffin was put on death row for claimed that Griffin was not involved.  In 2007, it was decided that Griffin was probably guilty (not for sure, however), but it is ludicrous to kill someone without one hundred percent certainty that he was, in fact, the perpetrator.

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In Leo Jones’ case, he signed a confession.  However, it was later found that the police officers who got him to sign the confession were caught torturing people.  There is a strong likelihood that he was coerced into signing the confession.  He was killed in Florida in 1998.

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In one of the most ludicrous cases, Gary Graham, who was killed in Texas in 2000, was convicted basically because of the testimony from one witness.  This witness said that she saw him from her car, which was between 30 and 40 feet away from him.  Two other witnesses who were closer to the crime said it was not Graham, but the attorney did not question them at the trial.

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Although the men below were not executed, it took years to prove their innocence:

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The Innocence Project has pages and pages of images and information about inmates who have been exonerated.  Here is an example from one of the first pages on the website:

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More recently in South Carolina, two men were pardoned of a crime they had been executed for 94 years before.  With executions, there should be no margin for error.  Even if you believe that capital punishment is acceptable, nobody can agree that it is acceptable for innocent people to die.  Currently, there are about 40 people who have been executed in the United States despite serious doubt about their guilt.  These people could be innocent of their supposed crimes.

For more information about innocence, there is a website/organization that I love called The Innocence Project.  The Innocence Project focuses a great deal on the problems with witness misidentification, which I will mention next, which is often the deciding factor in the conviction.

-Witness misidentification is rampant in our judicial system

In 72% of the exonerations, the problem was witness misidentification.  A few years ago, I saw a talk by Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton at Western Connecticut State University.  Their case did not involve capital punishment, but it did involve problems surrounding witness misidentification.

The short version of their story is this:  Thompson was raped while in college.  During the rape, she made the decision to look at her rapist closely because she promised herself to find the man if she made it out alive.  And she did just that.  In the police lineup, she was certain that it was Cotton who was the rapist.

However, it was later found that Cotton was innocent.  For Thompson, that seemed impossible, but it’s because of our faulty memories.  For more details on the case, they have a book published entitled Picking Cotton.

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The problem with witness misidentification is often due to police lineups.  When a terrified witness or victim is asked to identify whether his or her assailant is standing in the police lineup, there is a tendency to choose a person who may not be the actual criminal, but simply a person who looks similar.  Victims are scared to choose the wrong person, so there are many times when the criminal is not present the lineup, yet the victim still chooses a perpetrator out of fear that if they choose wrong, the criminal will be free.  Then, once they see that same person again at a court proceeding, it is the memory of his face in the police lineup rather than the memory of the person committing the crime that remains.  Every time Thompson saw Cotton, she was more certain that he was the rapist because she now had him ingrained in her memory from the lineup.

Ronald Cotton, right, is shown in this 1984 police photo following his arrest on rape charges in Burlington, N.C. Cotton was convicted of the rape of Jennifer Thompson in January 1985. Eleven years later he was released from prison after DNA testing showed that Bobby Poole, left, pictured in a 1985 police photo, actually committed the crime. (AP Photo/HO/Burlington Police Department)
Ronald Cotton, right, is shown in this 1984 police photo following his arrest on rape charges in Burlington, N.C. Cotton was convicted of the rape of Jennifer Thompson in January 1985. Eleven years later he was released from prison after DNA testing showed that Bobby Poole, left, pictured in a 1985 police photo, actually committed the crime. (AP Photo/HO/Burlington Police Department)

Sometimes witnesses are not told that the perpetrator may not be in the lineup.  They feel that they have to pick someone.  This needs to change, especially since this relates to so much more than the death penalty.  It’s a travesty when an innocent person is executed, but it is not much better when an innocent person sits in a jail cell for 30 years.  In Cotton’s case, he was in jail for 11 years before finally receiving freedom.  That’s 11 precious years gone.

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The Innocence Project is not only fighting for the abolition of the death penalty, but it is also fighting for reform within court proceedings, especially pertaining to witness identifications.  They are fighting for the following reform measures, which have been implemented in some states:

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Here is a test you can take.  Click on the link.  You will watch a staged crime.  Go through the next few steps and see if you can correctly identify the correct criminal. The Eyewitness Test.  (If you plan on taking the test, do so now, before the spoiler in the part that I have written in the following paragraph)

While watching the video, I was so confident that I would be able to identify the criminal.  But then in the lineup, I was not certain whether it was #1 or #3.  I chose #1, but if this was an actual court case, I would not want that sort of guess to decide a person’s prison sentence, let alone a death sentence.  It turns out that the man was not even present in the lineup.  Yet people often feel, myself included, that they have to choose one of the people in the lineup.   They forget that there is no guarantee that the criminal is present.

-Capital punishment is a racist institution

Take a black and white man and have them commit the same murders.  It is slightly more likely for the black man to receive a death sentence while the white man receives a life imprisonment sentence.  However, if the victim was white rather than black, there is a much larger chance that the perpetrator (regardless of race) will be sentenced to death.

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In 2011, the New York Times published an article entitled Death Penalty, Still Racist and Arbitrary. David C. Baldus’ study of 2,000 homicides in Georgia found that “black defendants were 1.7 times more likely to receive the death penalty than white defendants and that murderers of white victims were 4.3 times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who killed blacks.”

“Nationwide, blacks and whites are victims of homicide in roughly equal numbers, yet 80 percent of those executed had murdered white people.”  In Texas, one of the states with the highest rates of capital punishment, there is only one person who has been executed whose victim was black.  One person.  Every other execution was for a crime that killed whites.

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There have been countless studies like the one in Georgia that all come to the same findings: our judicial system operates in a completely racial manner.  Similar to the problem with witness misidentification, this problem is so much larger than just with the issue of capital punishment.  It is an issue for many criminals sitting in any jail.  When victims are white, there are harsher convictions.

In 1990, Justice Thurgood Marshall had this to say about capital punishment: When in Gregg v. Georgia the Supreme Court gave its seal of approval to capital punishment, this endorsement was premised on the promise that capital punishment would be administered with fairness and justice. Instead, the promise has become a cruel and empty mockery. If not remedied, the scandalous state of our present system of capital punishment will cast a pall of shame over our society for years to come. We cannot let it continue.” (Death Penalty Info)

According to a three-year study by the American Bar Association, every state studied appears to have significant racial disparities in imposing the death penalty, particularly associated with the race of the victim, but little has been done to rectify the problem.” Other statistical evidence is consistent with this conclusion. Blacks make up 12% of the U.S. population, but they make up 48% of those on death row (55% of those on death row are people of color). The odds of receiving death penalty increase by 38% when the accused is black. Although 50% murders involve white victims, 80% of death penalty cases involve white victims. (Psychology Today)

-The death penalty targets the poor

When people can afford to hire superb lawyers, their chances of receiving a death penalty verdict drop considerably. A Supreme Court justice has even acknowledged that those with strong representation in trial often do not receive the death penalty. O.J. Simpson’s lawyer said :”In the U.S., you’re better off if you’re in the system being guilty and rich than being innocent and poor.”

Think of how many millionaires are sitting on death row.  Zero.

-Capital punishment is not a crime deterrent

Many people claim that capital punishment deters crime.  That is entirely untrue and no evidence backs up this claim.

In North Carolina, murder rates have declined since the state’s last execution in 2006.

Most people who are on death row committed their crimes “in the heat of passion, while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or while suffering from mental illness.  They represent a group that is highly unlikely to make rational decisions based on a fear of future consequences for their actions.” (National Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty)

For the past twenty years, data has consistently shown that there are lower crime rates in the states that have abolished capital punishment. A survey was taken by police chiefs across the country in 2008 and they ranked capital punishment at the bottom of the list of effective crime deterrents.

-The psychological effects of the death penalty may be more cruel than the execution itself

Because of the appeals process, criminals sit on death row for years.  Some have had their last meals a couple of times before a last minute appeal gave them more time.  I cannot imagine the psychological effects of preparing for my death, eating my last meal, saying my last words to my family, only to have the decision changed while I wait a few months of years for the same process to take place once again.

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Most death row inmates live on death row for a minimum of 10 years before they are finally killed.  Many have sat on death row for longer than 20 years, some of whom have experienced the scenario I described above.

Death row is basically solitary confinement.  There are major restrictions to exercise, visitations, educational and employment programs, and other aspects of daily life.

“This raises the question of whether death row prisoners are receiving two distinct punishments: the death sentence itself, and the years of living in conditions tantamount to solitary confinement – a severe form of punishment that may be used only for very limited periods for general-population prisoners.” (Death Penalty Info)

For many death row inmates, their mental state deteriorates quite a bit.  Some would argue that they deserve that.  But again, this brings me back to the question of cruel and unusual punishment.  Prisons do not put people in solitary confinement for ten years at a time because they know how that kills a person mentally.  Yet that is what death row does every day.

“When the Constitution was written, the time between sentencing and execution could be measured in days or weeks. A century later, the Supreme Court noted that long delays between sentencing and execution, compounded by a prisoner’s uncertainty over time of execution, could be agonizing, resulting in “horrible feelings” and “immense mental anxiety amounting to a great increase in the offender’s punishment.” (In re Medley, 1890, as cited in Foster v. Florida, 2002).

When the Supreme Court suspended the death penalty from 1972 to 1976, reform measures were taken to make it less arbitrary.  Thus, the appeals process, which causes inmates to live on death row for a much longer time between conviction and execution.  I believe that this makes the death penalty more cruel and unusual.

-There are also psychological effects on the jurors, judges, correctional officers, governors, and executioners

According to the Capital Jury Project, which interviewed 1198 jurors from 353 capital punishment trials in 14 states, 81% of female jurors and 18% of male jurors regretted their decision.  63% of females and 38% of males went to counseling sessions after their decisions.

California Governor George Edmund “Pat” Brown had to decide whether or not to grant clemency to 59 inmates.  He ended up granting clemency to 23 of them.  He said that “It was an awesome, ultimate power over the lives of others that no person or government should have, or crave. And looking back over their names and files now, despite the horrible crimes and the catalog of human weaknesses they comprise, I realize that each decision took something out of me that nothing—not family or work or hope for the future—has ever been able to replace.” (Psychology Today)

An Illinois governor granted clemency to all 167 death row inmates because he “regarded the criminal justice system as “fraught with error and [which] has innumerable opportunities for innocent people to be executed.”

Ron McAndrews, a correctional officer in Florida and Texas, and later the warden, said “[T]hose of us who have lived through an execution know just what the death penalty does to those who must perform it. In my tenure as warden, I helped perform three electrocutions in Florida and oversaw five lethal injections in Texas…I saw staff traumatized by the duties they were asked to perform. Officers who had never even met the condemned fought tears, cowering in corners so as not to be seen.  Some of my colleagues turned to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain of knowing that a man had died by their hands. I myself was haunted by the men I was asked to execute in the name of the State of Florida. I would wake up in the middle of the night to find them lurking at the foot of my bed. One of them had been cooked to death in a botched electrocution. I stood just four feet away watching flames rise out of his head, hearing the electrician ask me, ‘Is that enough?  Should I continue?’ It wasn’t until I left my post as warden that I finally sought counseling for the trauma I had been through.” (Psychology Today)

Among the corrections officers who carry out the executions, 31% of them suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Not only are we killing criminals and spending more money than if we kept them alive in prison, but we are also harming all of the people involved in the process in terms of their mental health.  I ask, then, who wins? Why are we still utilizing this procedure?  Does any good come from any part of it?

-States that have abolished the death penalty

On a more positive note, there are quite a few states that have abolished the death penalty. You can view the list below. 19 states and the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty, but we still have a long way to go.  If you look at the chart, you will notice that more southern states still have capital punishment.  What we need is a national law.  The Supreme Court needs to declare capital punishment unconstitutional.  Texas, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Florida kill the most people each year.  Texas currently has 271 inmates living on death row and Florida has 401.

Screen Shot 2015-07-04 at 8.05.26 AMCapital punishment is unconstitutional and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.  It needs to be abolished immediately.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s Unjust Death Sentence

Well, I guess I expected this outcome, but it saddens me to hear officially that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston bombers, has been sentenced to death.

I feel very strongly against the death penalty, but I’m not going to get into all of those details right now – I could go on for ages about all of the reasons I believe the death penalty constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

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What frustrates me the most is that the state of Massachusetts does not have the death penalty. It was deemed unconstitutional in 1984 by the state Supreme Court. And an inmate in Massachusetts has not actually died via capital punishment since 1974. But now, because the Boston bombing is considered a federal crime, the Tsarnaev brother has been sentenced to death.

In the jury selection process (see article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2015/01/06/why-the-death-penalty-is-so-crucial-to-the-boston-marathon-bombing-trial/), everyone knew that it would be impossible to find a jury within the state that would be impartial. Instead, what they focused on during the selection was one main piece of criteria: none of the jurors could be opposed to the death penalty.

But if this is a fair trial, then how is that fair? That means that EVERY juror already had an unfair leaning in support of the death penalty.

In this courtroom sketch, Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is depicted sitting in federal court in Boston Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014, for a final hearing before his trial begins in January.  (AP Photo/Jane Flavell Collins)
In this courtroom sketch, Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is depicted sitting in federal court in Boston Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014, for a final hearing before his trial begins in January. (AP Photo/Jane Flavell Collins)

Part of my frustration is that the death penalty was even an option in a state that has previously determined the death penalty to be unconstitutional. But to then avoid any jurors who oppose the death penalty? Everyone knew that Tsarnaev would be found guilty. He had a part in the bombing, whether or not it was his plan or his brother’s. Many American lives were affected. Of course he would be found guilty. So the main question, really, was whether or not he would get the death sentence. But you put a group of jurors together who support (or at least don’t oppose) the death penalty, then obviously we can all predict the result.

This is not a fair trial.

A Washington Post article explained that:

“In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, seven in 10 Americans said they supported the death penalty for Tsarnaev. But a Boston Globe poll conducted five months after the bombing found that 57 percent of people in Massachusetts supported a life sentence, while only 33 percent wanted the death penalty for him.”

The same study, as quoted by the NY Times, showed:

“To the amazement of people elsewhere, Bostonians overwhelmingly opposed condemning the bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, to death. The most recent poll, conducted last month for The Boston Globe, found that just 15 percent of city residents wanted him executed. Statewide, 19 percent did. By contrast, 60 percent of Americans wanted Mr. Tsarnaev to get the death penalty, according to a CBS News poll last month.”

According to such polls, the majority of people living in Boston do not support the death penalty, at least in this particular situation. Yet because the jurors were not allowed to oppose the death penalty, the voice of the city as a whole was not heard.

In a New York Times article (see here: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/17/us/death-sentence-for-boston-bomber-dzhokhar-tsarnaev-unsettles-city-he-tore-apart.html?_r=0), authors explain how this death sentence has added an additional layer of sorrow to the city of Boston. According to the NY Times, “To many, the death sentence almost feels like a blot on the city’s collective consciousness.”

Tsarnaev is only 21 years old. At the time of the 2013 bombings, he was only 19 years old. I do not by any means condone his actions, but I also do not condone choosing murder to punish a murderer. The eye for an eye philosophy is not how our country should be operating in the 21st century.

What good comes from Tsarnaev’s death? If people are scared that he is a danger to society (which I really have not heard from many people), then he can be locked up in a maximum security prison. And what if he was actually able to be rehabilitated since he’s so young. Sure, that may be a naive assumption, but isn’t it at least worth a try?

America is going to end up spending millions of dollars on this case now that he has been sentenced to death, far more than it would be spending to keep him in prison. With the appeals process, he will probably not be killed in the too recent future. Of course, in this case, the guilt is definite, but that will not stop appeals from taking place. It is entirely likely that Tsarnaev will live on death row for decades, while appeals continue to take place.

And for those who believe that this shows that justice has been served, then I ask you a few questions:

How does Tsarnaev’s death help the families of the three people who died during the bombing and the hundreds who were injured? Does his death revive the deceased? Will his death fix the limbs of all of the people who needed amputations? No. It’s just more death, more killing. People hope this sentence provides closure. But many of the victims have already found closure. If they need another murder to take place in order to feel closure, then maybe they should look into alternate routes of acquiring their closure. Closure should not need to come from the loss of another life.

Last year, only 5 countries executed citizens: China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the good ol’ US of A. I am not proud to live in a country that still believes that killing its criminals will ever lead to peace.