Locking Our Children Away: Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur 5772Posted: October 9, 2011
Cedric Cal was born to a single mother, in a family that lived below the poverty line on Chicago’s West Side. His father had left the family, married another woman and had very little to do with him. His mother Olivia worked constantly, doing her best to keep her family together. As the oldest of four, Cedric became the de facto father of the family and was entrusted with protecting his younger brother, who was legally blind.
Cedric’s family moved around a lot and he learned very early on how to make friends quickly. He liked sports, particularly baseball – and when his family lived on the West Side, he played sports in the local Park District. When they moved to the South Side, however, there were no Park District services available, so sports were not an option for him. Still, no matter where they moved, Olivia became very adept at finding ways of getting Cedric and and brothers into decent public schools. From 5th to 8th grade, he attended Alcott Elementary. Minding his younger brother, he took the public bus every day on a long trek from the West Side to Lincoln Park.
Cedric’s mother taught him how to fill out applications and interview for jobs, but there really weren’t any to be found. And those that were hiring certainly weren’t hiring African-American teenage boys. He was never really successful at finding a real job, but when he was 14 he learned that he could make money dealing drugs. He knew that his mother would be beyond furious if she ever found out, so he made sure to keep his drug dealing and his growing gang activity secret from her. Cedric never, ever, brought his earnings into their home – his mother had made it clear that drug money was not welcome anywhere near her house. Even when he bought a car, he parked it far away from their home.
I met and spoke with Cedric two weeks ago at the Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet. He explained to me that as he continued to sell drugs, as he continued the gang life, little by little, he became “desensitized to the things my mother had taught me.” It was quite poignant and sweet to listen to Cedric speak about his mother. “My mother,” he said, “has a lovely spirit,” adding: “I was scared to death of my mother.” He told me of one instance in which Olivia confronted drug dealers on a street corner with a two by four in her hand. Cedric laughed and said that could scare even the toughest gang members in the neighborhood.
The incident that changed Cedric’s life forever occurred in 1992, when he was 17 years old. According to court testimony, two individuals confronted what would become the three in front of a house on the West Side. In the ensuing gunfight, they shot and killed two of the men and wounded a third. Following the incident, the surviving victim, who was gravely wounded, identified Cedric and another man to the police as the shooters. They were both arrested – and although Cedric was legally still a minor at the time of the shooting, he was sentenced to prison for life without possibility of parole. There has never been any physical evidence – or any other evidence for that matter – that linked Cedric to the shooting and Cedric has always maintained his innocence.
There’s something of a twist to this story. Nearly twenty years later, the wounded witness, Willie Johnson, recanted his testimony. He came forward and testified at a post-conviction hearing that he had wrongly identified Cedric and his co-defendent. He explained that he did this only because the actual murderer had threatened to kill him and his family at the time. The judge however, rejected Johnson’s revised testimony and refused to reverse the convictions. (In an even more perverse twist to this story, although his recanted testimony was rejected, the witness was subsequently charged with perjury.)
When he first entered prison, Cedric joined a gang for protection, as many inmates do. He told me his first few years inside were enormously difficult until he met a man who would have an powerful impact on his life – an ex-gang leader who had become a devout Muslim. Cedric’s new mentor gave him book after book to read, and he read them voraciously. Cedric was particularly affected by “The Autobiography of Malcom X.” He identified deeply with Malcolm’s journey and struggle and was especially moved when he read about his religious awakening in prison. Like Malcolm, Cedric was inspired to convert to Islam and turn his life in a different direction.
As it turned out, his new found Muslim faith took him down a fairly dangerous road in prison. After making the decision to live as an observant Muslim, his fellow gang members approached him and told him he would have to choose between his gang and his newly acquired faith. Cedric chose his faith, knowing full well that this would obviously mean the loss of his protected status. In a very real sense, he was now putting his life in God’s hands.
The next major spiritual transformation for Cedric occurred when the Million Man March took place in 1995 in Washington DC. He was deeply moved by the sight of hundreds of thousands black men, gathered together nonviolently in one place, publicly atoning and taking responsibility for their own lives and for their families. After he witnessed this moment, Cedric decided to embark upon his own journey of repentance.
Specifically speaking, this meant following an eight stage atonement process as developed by Minister Louis Farrakhan. As part of his atonement, Cedric wrote letters. First he wrote a long letter to his mother, in which he apologized for betraying the values she taught him and for the shame he had brought to her through his actions. He vowed that he would devote the rest his life to bringing honor back to her and the family. He wrote similar letters to each of his brothers, apologizing for being absent to them as a big brother and as a role model. He also wrote a letter to his entire community – published in the community paper – and apologized, among other things, for bringing drugs, crime and gang activity into their neighborhood.
I asked Cedric to define forgiveness for me. He said that for him it was all about relationship. Seeking forgiveness meant repairing his relationships with others – and first and foremost, his relationship to God. He added that prayer plays a very central role in this process and that over time, his prayers have helped him achieve a spiritual cleansing – an unburdening his soul. He said that atonement is a never-ending process. He told me, with simple determination in his voice, that he will never stop working at making things right with others and with God.
Cedric is a warm, genuine and open-spirited man. He was happy to tell me his story and clearly took great pleasure in relating his spiritual journey. When we first met, I explained to him that I was interested in hearing his story because I wanted to give a sermon about his experiences during a Yom Kippur service. His lawyer began to explain what Yom Kippur is and he smiled and said, “Oh, I know all about Yom Kippur. It’s coming up in two weeks, right?” My conversation with Cedric was a true pleasure and I was genuinely sorry when our time was up. He gave me an affectionate hug before leaving the visitor’s room.
I’d like to tell you about another prisoner I met that day in Stateville – a 36 year old man named Addolfo Davis.
Addolfo grew up in an even more at-risk environment than Cedric. He was born to a single, drug-addicted mother who severely neglected him. Before he turned 10, Addolfo was running away from home and turning to local gangs for protection. He was just 9 the first time he robbed someone for money to buy food, which resulted in the first of many run-ins with the juvenile justice system.
Addolfo was eventually taken from his mother and placed under his grandmother’s care, where he lived in a one-room, dirt-floor cellar apartment, which already housed three other family members. Around this time, a DCFS social worker reported that he was becoming a danger to himself and strongly urged that he be placed in a contained foster home. Despite these recommendations, Addolfo was eventually removed from his grandmother and placed in a group home.
Addolfo’s incident occurred when he was barely 14. He and two older boys went to the apartment of a rival, reportedly to discuss a turf dispute. When they entered the apartment, the two older boys took out guns and shot four people, killing two. According to witness testimony, Addolfo was present but did not shoot a gun.
Later that day, the police apprehended Addolfo and interrogated him without an attorney present. The only person there to represent him was his mother, who was no longer his legal guardian and who later testified that she was intoxicated at the time. The interrogation ended with his signing a confession, though both his and his mother’s poor literacy skills likely prevented either of them from fully understanding what he had signed.
Although he was only a minor, a juvenile judge ruled that Addolfo’s case be transferred to adult court. This ruling was apparently influenced by the testimony of a therapist who cited his past criminal history and cast doubt on his ability to be rehabilitated by the time he reached the age of 21. In the end, 14 year old Addolfo was tried as an adult for felony murder and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.
I was told that Addolfo Davis was small, traumatized eighty pound teenager at the time of his conviction. The Addolfo I met two weeks ago was a grounded and articulate man. I had the opportunity to be present when he spoke with his pro bono lawyer as they prepared his application for clemency from Governor Quinn, which is his only legal recourse now that his appeals have been exhausted. As they spoke, it became obvious that Addolfo had been spending a great of time in the prison’s law library. He clearly had a far reaching knowledge of the legal aspects of his case and of the complicated clemency process. At times, it actually seemed that he was advising his lawyer rather than the other way around.
My first question was to ask Addolfo how he found this obvious inner peace. His answer was utterly unexpected. He said that his first few years in prison were horrid. He was frightened and aggressive and spent much of his time fighting with other inmates and just trying to survive day by day. As a result he was sent to the Tamms Correctional Center – a so-called “super max” prison in Southern Illinois – where he would spend four and a half years.
As at most super max prisons, prisoners at Tamms are forced to live alone, 24 hours a day, close to seven days a week in 8 x 10 concrete cement cells that contain concrete beds, stainless steel sinks and toilets. Although each cell has a window, the windows cannot be opened, and the only way to look out of them is to stand on the bed. The doors to each cell are designed to completely isolate the prisoner inside his cell. When I did a little research, I discovered that when Tamms was first opened in 1998, the warden, George Welborn was quoted as saying “Tamms is not about rehabilitation, it’s about punishment.”
So you can imagine my amazement when Addolfo told me “For some people it’s the worst – but Tamms was the best thing that ever happened to me.” He explained that as a result of his stay there, he actually experienced real solitude and inner peace for the first time in his life. Whenever he felt himself growing claustrophobic, he taught himself how clear his mind and calm himself down. He also started writing and reading. The book “Conversations with God” by Neale Donald Walsch had a particularly strong spiritual impact upon him.
I asked Addolfo if he identified with any particular religious faith and he told me no. He said, “I believe in God with all my heart, but I don’t belong to any religion.” He said it all comes down to “love your neighbor,” adding that “God is a caring, forgiving God. God will straighten everything out in the end.”
Addolfo told me he read the Bible and the Koran every day, and that in prison he was learning the true meaning of spiritual struggle. Every day, he said, is a challenge for him to hold on to his humanity in an inhumane world. He quoted his grandmother: “When you turn yourself over to God, the devil works overtime to pull you back.”
Although he is very, very happy to be out of Tamms, Addolfo did say that it is much harder to find the same kind of solitude in Stateville. He said sometimes he’ll just put on his ear buds and listen to music, sometimes even just static, and he can get back to a focused, clear minded place.
As I did with Cedric, I asked Addolfo for his definition of forgiveness. He said that the first step in forgiveness was forgiving yourself so that you can take personal responsibility for your own actions. When he was in the solitude of Tamms, he said, he learned that once he forgave himself, he was able to forgive others more easily and not simply point the finger of blame. Once he quieted down his mind, he found forgiveness for his mother, realizing that her drug use was not her. He was then able to see past her actions to her inner humanity.
Addolfo also said to me that since he never had a childhood, he was learning how to be a kid. And more than anything, that meant learning how to love unconditionally. As he put it, his challenge is learning how to truly love someone who isn’t ready to take accountability yet. It is not a simple process, to be sure. His approach, he said, is: “I love you, I forgive you, but I’m gonna keep my distance. When you’re ready, I’m always here for you.” He makes a point of talking to everyone, even members of rival gangs, which is not considered a particularly advisable thing to do in prison.
Needless to say, most of the prisoners aren’t used to this sort of attitude from an fellow inmate – but Addolfo said he has found that when they get used to it, they eventually respond. That is essentially his struggle: learning how to live the faith of “love your neighbor” each and every day.
I’m telling you the stories of Cedric and Addolfo tonight for two reasons. The first is because I believe they are truly my spiritual teachers. Indeed, I believe they are spiritual teachers for us all. I say this with some hesitation – only because I do not in any way want to patronize them or over-romanticize their situation. Still, as we find ourselves in the midst of this season of forgiveness and reconciliation, I can’t help but wonder if there are countless spiritual teachers out there just like Cedric and Addolfo, locked far away from us, forgotten by everyone but their families.
This Yom Kippur, I’m thinking of Cedric’s letters to his mother, his brothers and his community – and his burning desire to bring honor back to his life and to those he loves. I’m thinking about Addolfo sitting alone in a cell in a super max prison, finding inner peace for the first time, and struggling to live up to the teaching “love your neighbor as yourself” in a place almost wholly devoid of anything resembling love.
Of course these spiritual lessons come at a huge price – to them and to us all. And that brings me to the second reason I’m telling you their stories. It’s because I sincerely wish to God they weren’t my spiritual teachers. They shouldn’t be. And if they are, then shame on us.
I don’t know any other way to say it: we live in a country that loves to lock people away. The US has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners. We’ve locked up 2,000,000 people in our country. And to our further shame, 70% of these inmates, like Cedric and Addolfo, are people of color.
But our shame grows even deeper than this. Our country – the United States – is the only country in the world – in the world – that sentences children to life in prison without possibility of parole. Right now there are approximately 2,570 child offenders serving life without parole throughout the US. 99 of them are right here in Illinois. The total number in the rest of the world is zero.
The shame yet deepens: outside of the United States the practice of handing down juvenile life sentences has become so unthinkable, it is now illegal as a basic principle of international law. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – which the US has still not ratified – prohibits life imprisonment of children. The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice requires that imprisonment of children can only be imposed as a last resort and that it be limited to the shortest length of time necessary to protect society. And the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the United States is a party, requires that in sentencing children, states must “take account of their age and the desirability of promoting their rehabilitation.”
Now when it comes to innocence cases, I think we can all agree on the clear injustice that is being committed. No one condones imprisoning the innocent – least of all children. However, when it comes to locking children up, the injustice should be no less obvious to us. There is compelling evidence, for instance, to indicate that Cedric Cal is totally innocent of the crime of which he was convicted. But in a deeper sense, this is not and should not be the issue. The issue is that when we sentence children to life sentences for their crimes – even of murder – we as a society are essentially giving up on them..
It should come as no surprise that there is clear racial component to this shame. Here in Illinois, for instance, 82% of our imprisoned child offenders are people of color. And as my stories to you obviously indicate, there is an obvious socioeconomic component to consider as well. But again, on a deeper level, if we look deep into the heart of it, even this should not the basic issue. We simply should not be locking away our children and throwing away the key. When we lock children away without even the possibility of parole, we affirm that they are no longer our problem, that they simply do not matter to us any more. When we lock them away, we deem them irredeemable.
We say this even though we know there is considerable evidence to the contrary. Science has shown that teenagers are not yet completely formed, either physically or emotionally. Although children are able to grasp the concepts of “right” and “wrong” at a very young age, the nuances of weighing long term risks and benefits are lost on even late adolescents, making them more prone to take risks, more vulnerable to peer pressure, and less likely to understand the perspective of others or the consequences of their decisions.
We also know, through neurological research, that the brain does not fully develop until late adolescence, around or after the age of 18. Doctors have now provided a medical reason for the various behaviors identified as typical in adolescents: they are not capable of behaving like adults because they lack the developed brain structure to do so.
Psychological research also tells us that, it is precisely because their characters are not yet fully formed that children are uniquely susceptible to rehabilitation. It is reasonable to assume that given the chance, many child psychology experts say, even those young adults who commit the most serious crimes will be able to grow into mature and responsible adults.
The Torah has something quite interesting to say about society’s response to its “problem children.” It may not be what you’d expect. In Deuteronomy 21, we read the following:
If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town: “This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Thereupon, the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
It is, of course, a horrific passage. No other way to describe it or rationalize it. Interestingly enough, though, these notorious verses do manage to shine a harsh light into our deepest and darkest insecurities – on adult society’s latent fear that we might somehow, God forbid, “lose control” of our children. And our temptation, as a result, to simply give up on them.
Taken to its furthest extreme, when we deem our children irredeemable, we ultimately treat them as somehow disposable. Now anyone who has ever parented an adolescent knows that there are those moments when we are tempted to go to these dark places. But of course we resist these impulses because we know it would simply be unthinkable – unthinkable – to give up on our children.
And yet that is just what we are doing to our children in this country. In 26 states – including the state of Illinois – we are locking our children away and telling them they will have to live the rest of their natural lives in prison. We are the only country in the world that locks away its children forever.
I know these aren’t easy issues to talk about. Violent crime and criminal justice are perhaps the most gut-wrenchingly painful issues there are. The violation that results from violence goes deep and lasts life long. But having compassion for victims does not an should not exclude our compassion for perpetrators. We can and we must hold them together, especially when it involves children. This is, after all, the very essence of reconciliation – a spiritual ideal we have been wrestling for the past eight days. How can we, how will we, dig deep and discover reservoirs of compassion for all?
I’m sharing Cedric and Addolfo’s stories with you tonight because I believe we have much to learn from them this Yom Kippur. They have a great deal to teach us about how we might live our lives – and the ways we should live as a society. On this night of our vows, we must vow to do better by them, and by all the “child offenders” that are locked away in prisons throughout our state and our country.
I’m asking you now to join me in being a voice of conscience on their behalf. On the table as you exit tonight, you will find flyers with more information on this issue and a checklist of very concrete actions you can take. On this night of our atonement, I can think of few deeds more worthy or sacred.
Before I end, I’d like to personally thank JRC member Sarah Silins, who works at Northwestern’s Children and Family Justice Center for inspiring my remarks to you tonight. She arranged my trip to Stateville, truly one of the most spiritually and politically challenging experiences of my recent memory. Like so many other JRC members, she has educated me deeply with her passion and her work for social justice. I know Sarah and JRC member Julie Biehl, who is the Director of the Children and Family Justice Center, are ready to speak to anyone in our congregation about these issues and would be delighted to share ideas with you on how you might be an advocate for this profoundly important – and largely unrecognized cause.
I’d like to end by reading a letter. I received it from Cedric just this week:
Salaam Alaikum (Peace be unto you)
Dear Rabbi Brant,
May this missive find you in good spirits and health. Thank you for coming to spend a moment in time with me, to hear some of my life story to share with your community. Thank you for acknowledging our humanity. For we who are incarcerated are human beings that lost our way who are trying to find our way back. As you celebrate Yom Kippur as an individual, community and a nation, I hope that the spirit that comes forth from such activity gives you a determination to serve the voiceless and disenfranchised who desire to reconcile with the community and become productive citizens.
For once one atones, he/she has entered into God’s mercy and is absolved from past sins and transgressions and is free from it never to be judged again. I was a rebellious youth who lacked knowledge and suffered great chastisement from Allah/God. I believe I have atoned to God but yet I’m still despised and rejected by society because of being convicted of a crime. What will be the atonement process of prisoners and society at large? What will wipe the slate clean like God does for the Jews after Yom Kippur?
How long shall a child be held responsible for these transgressions? I was a 17 year old boy but I am 36 years old now. As a child, I thought as a child – now that I am a man I put away childish things, so says the Scriptures. I never experienced manhood outside the confines of prison. I truly desire the opportunity to be a father, the opportunity of marriage and to have a wife and children. To vote in an election. To own property, have a bank account. All these little thiings we take for granted, some of us have never even experienced.
I humbly ask that you lift your voice to deliver youth from inhumane sentences. We are your children. A mistake or error should not, must not, define our lives. We are redeemable. We are the product of society’s neglect and degenerative culture. I have been ashamed, abased for being such a child. I’ve repeated and made the determination to never return to such past transgressions again. I need society to give me a chance to prove myself worthy to be accepted back into the community.
I hope your speech to the larger community takes on the spirit of forgiveness and mercy. Then the action of bringing your collective voices to change a law that is against the principles of atonement. It would be a great demonstration of your forgiveness of us who transgressed the community. And a great proof that God is Most Merciful of those who show mercy.
May Allah (God) bless us all with the light of understanding.