Crime and Punishment

Jack is again deputizing for Wendy while she battles to meet her writing deadline –

The small Quaker group that meets monthly here at the bookstore believes in community service as a fundamental part of our daily lives. We try to do that in various ways from pet rescue to refugee resettlement and more. However, three members of the group have for years now been regularly visiting with inmates at our local Federal prison in nearby Lee County.

The three who carry out the visitations do so as part of ‘Prison Visitation and Support’ (PVS), a long established national organization based out of Philadelphia.

We (for I am one of them) who do the monthly visits meet with two inmates each and for 45 minutes per inmate, trying whenever possible to go on the same day. Once we start visiting with a particular inmate we carry on visiting him for as long as he is held in that prison, which can mean for quite a long time.

All the foregoing is simply to give context for what follows –

There is one guy who I’ve been visiting for three years now, who I will call ‘Brian’ to preserve his anonymity. He epitomizes something all three of our team agrees is what makes life bearable for our ‘visitees’ – hope. No matter that he has a whole life sentence with no parole he has continued to rely on fairly tenuous attempts to have his case re-opened or sent to appeal and our monthly visits have always ended with his latest news on that front.

So far, so normal – until last Saturday.

When Brian arrived another of our team, who’s inmate had refused a visit (it happens occasionally) was able to join our conversation which turned out to be very different from usual. He had been suffering from some throat discomfort and had been taken to a local hospital for an examination and biopsy. Naturally he had been very worried, but the results were waiting for him when he got back to the prison and he was told they were clear – not cancer. At times during the conversation he was close to tears of relief as he explained his feelings and for once there was no running commentary on his attempts to appeal his sentence. On our way back to our lives of normality in the car the three of us were discussing the visit and how Brian’s experience might affect his attitude to prison (he had commented on how caring both prison staff and hospital staff had been).

But then –

Yesterday a guy who also visits the prison regularly (not part of PVS) dropped into the bookstore with a message Brian had asked him to pass on. The hospital had redone the biopsy and it had turned out positive for cancer after all – and at an advanced stage. Brian is being transferred to a different prison today to be close to a cancer center with a very good reputation and, knowing he wouldn’t be visiting any more with me, wanted to say how much he’d appreciated our conversations.

There will be some folk (in fact I know some) who will say that he deserves no sympathy – that he was found guilty by a jury of his peers of terrible crimes and is justly suffering the appropriate punishment. They might even say that the possible death sentence this 52-year-old is facing is simply a further judgement from ‘on high’.

But I had grown to like Brian and I was stunned when I heard the news. I was also very moved that, in the midst of his traumatic situation, he made sure that I was made aware how he valued our friendship.

As a Quaker I will be holding my friend Brian ‘in the light’!

PVS is always in need of volunteers – their website is

5 thoughts on “Crime and Punishment

  1. The fear of a life-threatening test result has to be the same for anyone-regardless of his/her circumstances. The sense of being so alone and so afraid cannot be the sole experience of only “good” folk. I will keep this man in my thoughts and prayers, just as I do a special-ed teacher friend of mine–going through multiple treatments and continuing bad results. Bless you for sharing this, Jack.

  2. Such a poignant post. “I was in prison and you visited me …” comes instantly to mind. Your thoughtful, useful lives inspire me. Tell Wendy I am looking forward to her new book. I have told everyone I know who loves books about The Little Bookstore in Big Stone Gap. Even wrote an Amazon review!

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