HFP Vice President Holly Honig-Josephson and her husband Tony recently drove to the U.P. for a prison visit. Here is Tony’s story:
As I left Kinross Prison in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and drove south across the Mackinac Bridge, a disturbing and unsettled feeling kept creeping into my subconscious. I had spent the weekend there visiting my friend.
Joe is serving a life sentence for robbing an ice cream push cart with a friend when he was 18 years old. They used a broken pellet gun as the weapon. During the robbery, which he openly admits, he stole $27 and an ice cream sandwich. Ironically, he also made change and served ice cream to a child who was unaware of what was occurring. He had no prior offenses, and the accomplice with him who held the gun during the crime received 7 years. He received life. This was in 1981. He’s now 56.
During my visit, he and I discussed things that normal friends do. Books and politics took up a lot of the discussion. Also music. He has a love for blues guitar. We also talked about family. Except for the surroundings, it was much like many other conversations I have had with old friends over beer at my neighborhood bar.
As we discussed family, I was amused and shocked by his quiet admission that he was an avid follower of “I am Jazz” – a show on TLC about the life of Jazz Jennings, a transgender teenage girl navigating her world during adolescence. He said he didn’t fully understand being transgender, but thought she was courageous and amazing, and should be allowed to be whoever she needed to be. He then went on for some time expressing his admiration for her parents for “loving and supporting her.
As I traveled south, the unsettled feeling I first experienced earlier had now turned to a full-on knot taking residence in my stomach. And then it struck me. What responsibility do I have for his incarceration?
The state says Joe is being held in prison to protect me, and others like me, from him. Some candidates for public office still talk of expanding the prison system. As I look at my friend’s incarceration, I have to wonder how many of the 38 years that he has already served is he responsible for due to his original crime? And how many am I for supporting a broken system? Is a lifetime sentence for making a bad decision at 18 justice? And if I am even partially responsible for supporting those that create and maintain this system, then what am I morally obligated to do to right this wrong? And if not me, then who?
I wish I had answers. I don’t, and am troubled by these thoughts still. As I prepared to leave, I saw a tear come to his eye. I knew I was the only other human being to have visited him in over 13 months. He and I hugged, an embrace that conveyed a sense of warmth and humanity that is sadly too rare in the world today.
Then I went home, and Joe returned to his cell. That’s his name, Joe, and he is my friend.