Life of the Law is proud to feature contributions to our magazine from inmates at San Quentin State Prison. Here is an essay by Rahsaan Thomas, a jailhouse lawyer.
People who have committed monstrous crimes aren’t always monsters. I learned that recently while talking to a fellow prisoner.
My fellow inmate—I’ll call him Matthew—is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. He’s a Christian, just barely five feet tall, who helps anyone he can. He doesn’t have any money, but he will reliably run any errand you ask. Others rely on his good nature and dependability. It’s for these reasons that when I saw him constantly filing writs that got rejected on procedural issues, I offered my jailhouse lawyering skills.
Without warning, he handed over the paperwork to his case. I took it back to my cell and was horrified by what I read. This seemingly nice little brother had kidnapped a woman, took her to a secluded area, then raped and sodomized her repeatedly when he was 18-years-old. I was shocked by the nature of the crime and wondered if Matthew had us all fooled.
What I learned about Mark was protected under attorney-client privilege, a responsibility that I respect and honor, even as a jailhouse lawyer, and so the only thing I could do was decline to take his case. As I considered it, however, something bugged me. There was a detail included in the court papers that made no sense—it said that after the rape, he had given the victim his pager number. She then gave it to the police, and when they paged him, he actually responded. He called her and agreed to meet. They were waiting for him to arrest him. There, he confessed to raping her at knifepoint.
I called him into my cell and closed the door.
“What the hell is this?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Matthew said. He wouldn’t make eye contact with me.
I asked about the pager—what was he thinking? And that’s when I learned something I should have known, perhaps—that he had seen his father do the same thing. He told me he saw his father rape his sister. He told me he’d been raped. He saw his mother abused, too. What stood out to me especially was when he said, “My father would force me to do stuff, then he would give me candy and tell me he loved me and not to tell.” He’d grown up experience violence, sex, love and candy all in the same sentence—they came as a package.
I was speechless. I tried to imagine being subject to such horrors, how they would have affected my world view. How would I be? How would I know what was wrong or right? What if I were raised to keep the atrocities secret, so no one ever explained to me that my life wasn’t normal?
The pager made sense, now. He’d given her his beeper number as if they were supposed to become a couple later.
Matthew is serving 102 years to life. He’s not been enrolled in any counseling or other programs. He’s just been locked up until he dies.
The court won’t entertain his writ appeals which are based on substantiated sentencing errors, because it hears the charges and the facts of the case—neither of which includes his background and childhood—and declines to hear more.
Nothing excuses or explains away the heinous crime that Matthew committed. He did more than break the law; he ruined someone’s life, at least to some extent. No doubt, she has never seen the world in the same way after that trauma. But Matthew’s case highlighted for me a very real and sad truth when it comes to sentencing for these kinds of atrocities, which is that without understanding and acknowledgement of his childhood trauma, there is no rehabilitation. Dolling out penalties without consideration of what’s driving his behavior isn’t getting to the root of the issue when these things happen. I wondered: Might the victim might feel maybe a bit of relief, or closure, if she knew why he did what he did?
We’ll never know, because that’s not how the criminal justice system works, at least, not for Matthew.
Image: Jessica Whittle Photography via photopin