Friday, May 22, 2009

The Bronx Bombing Plot And Prison Culture

New Yorkers and all Americans heaved a collective sigh of relief after four prison converts to Islam were busted for attempting to blow up two synagogues in the Bronx and shoot down a plane. The frightening thing about the bombing attempt was the seriousness of the bombers and depth of their hatred for Jews and for America.

Aside from the course that the justice system must take are a multitude of questions.

What I find haunting is the transformation that took place in prison. There is a legitimate focus on what brand of Islam was being preached in prison to the accused. This is a legitimate question. There are sects of and spinoffs from Islam in prison that have little to say about transforming one's world by shouldering responsibility and much to say about how evil the majority of society is.

While this is a needed course of inquiry, I believe that it can provide only part of the answer. Many prisons in America are violent places. They are racially polarised places in which violence and degradation are present in daily life. Beatings, extortion, rape and even murder are serious fears of prisoners in America today. A large portion of authority in some prisons is ceded to gangs. Out of fear, prisoners join gangs for their own safety and protection. Since the gangs are divided often on racial and ethnic lines the prisoners are locked into hostilities and an agenda that they have almost no freedom to accept or reject. When a man leaves prison, the gang that provided him protection in prison is often there on the outside.

Sometimes in some prisons it is possible for people to associate on the basis of shared religious faith or to have their energies absorbed in positive pursuits. According to the New York Post, David Cromitie the alleged ringleader was described as a likeable person before going into prison. David Williams, another defendant had an absentee Muslim father. He allegedly reconnected with Islam while doing time. He was described by family as a "beautiful person" before going into prison.

What was prison like for these four men? Although they may well be looking at the rest of their lives behind bars, how many prisoners are there who could be turned away from the same destructive path? Do we care enough about those who are doing time? A prison can be austere and regimented and still be respectful of human dignity. A prisoner can combine education, therapy and vocational training with a program of restitution. It should not be forgotten that most prisoners are hours away from family. The violence of prison life should not be winked at as a de facto deterrent to recidivism. Records show that this approach does not work.

The prison experience should be redesigned so that it creates healthy support structures for the inmates. Prisoners should be called upon to make a social contract to live in a productive non- violent environment. The authority of gangs must be broken. The code of silence that protects perpetrators of prison violence must be crushed.

There are people who "find themselves" in prison. Far too many are broken and spiritually disfigured by the experience such as the four men who must now answer for their crimes with years of incarceration.

One individual to me shines as a light to us all of what sort of inner transformation can occur is Abdel Wright. Wright is a Jamaican singer who did hard time in Jamaica for armed robbery and weapons posession. Rolling Stone Magazine described the roller coaster of Wright's life in Jamaica as follows.

"Little in life has been easy for Wright, taken from his mentally ill mother as a baby and raised in several foster homes. One of them was the SOS Children's Village in Montego Bay, where Wright got to see Cash -- a major contributor to the facility -- perform at the annual Christmas concert.

"I knew about Johnny Cash because I loved country music," says Wright, who met the late singer and his wife, June Carter, backstage. By then, the teenaged Wright had gotten his first acoustic guitar.

But after reaching adulthood, Wright became homeless and turned to petty crime, stealing corn and sugar cane from the fields to eat. During a "robbing spree" at the end of 1996, Wright's gun was discovered during an arrest. "The cop put it back on me and kicked me down," remembers Wright. "That meant I was supposed to die."

Wright did not die. He ended up doing time. Fortunately the seeds of redemption sown by caring individuals won out. An individual with a gift for expressing social anger through art has enriched the music world with his art. Now Wright struggles to remain true to his ideals in an industry dominated by commercialism. He describes his struggle as follows.

The Jamaican Gleaner reports on this struggle as follows.

"Wright said he is not in music for stardom and fame per se. He said he is doing what he loves, being the voice for the voiceless, and so the glamour of stardom is not high on his agenda.

"Dem want mi pop style when mi can wear one tight pants like Lenny Kravitz ... . Dem want to put mi in a little box. Dem no dress mi, dem no do nutten to mi. Me dress myself, me do mi own ting. Mi don't even want dem limousine drive. So dem find me subversive to dem criteria," he told His Story. Also, he said Interscope didn't have the publishing rights for his songs."

Not everyone has the musical gifts of Abdel Wright. For many, the simple success of a loving family and a stable job is their little noted portion of the social tapestry. But there are lessons to the Abdel Wright story. The first is that even a country as relatively poor as Jamaica can struggle for the redemption of its wayward sons. There are times when spiritual richness can achieve more than monetary investmentThe second lesson is that people still had faith in Abdel after he had fallen. When he did pick himself up, he paid back his benefactors and the voiceless people whose suffering still troubled his heart.

I believe that there are many success stories that can and should be written in American prisons. Although there are people in prison who should pay with their lives for their crimes, there are lives that can and should be redeemed.

We should not ignore the poison imams spreading a mutant form of Islam in prison. But we can not put all the blame on their shoulders. We must reshape the culture of violence and hatred in prison to one of responsibility, healing and growth. Along with the very real questions of national security that are raised by the Bronx arrests, let's not forget America's prisoners. Like Abdel Wright and many unsung converts to productive living, more success is possible. We must look at the prisons we have built and transform them into something truly corrective.

I am presenting with this posting a hit song from Abdel Wright
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