Sturdevant spoke of his failed efforts to stop the 1996 execution of William Bonin, the notorious “Freeway Killer” who was convicted of the rapes and murders of 14 young men and boys. The crimes were horrific, but Bonin had been victimized by sexual abuse as a child. He was hospitalized in a mental hospital after two tours of active duty in Vietnam but under the Reagan administration policy of deinstitutionalization, Bonin ended up, still mentally ill, on the street. “The State of California was there to kill him,” Sturdevant concluded, “but not to provide any help.”
Indeed, our prisons have become the very expensive and inhuman substitute for affordable housing, adequate public education, living-wage employment, mental health services, and welfare. And, said Clements, “We’re sitting here listening to a government that lies to us saying ‘We ain’t got no money.'”
Wright cited estimates that from 40-80% of inmates are illiterate or functionally illiterate, but educational programs have been cut. Most of these prisoners will be released at some point and what sort of livelihood are they likely to find? Clements was taking college courses while in prison until, under the Clinton administration, the grants that made this possible were eliminated nationwide. Today, said Wright, Texas is the only state with funding so that prisoners can obtain higher education. Here in California, I’ll never forget the struggle Duc went through in prison as state authorities again and again blocked his attempts to finish high school.
“We’ve had a criminal justice solution to social ills,” according to Wright who said that Mario Cuomo, the former New York governor and Democratic icon, took federal funds intended for low-income housing and used the money to build 50,000 prison cells instead.
The speakers stressed that public safety is better served by education, treatment, and rehabilitation rather than prolonged incarceration and State-sanctioned murder.
“We better wake up because we have failed,” said Clements. “Where is the love?” He–whose own youth was spent in a cage–today works with youth, the kids who are labeled “out of control” and he warns we have to listen to young people. “A lot of their anger is directed because they have no one to talk to. You got to pat them along to pull them out of the mud.”
“We welcome the hard questions,” said Sturdevant when an audience member raised the question of victims’ families and said if he’d lost a family member to murder, he wouldn’t want to see the killer walking down the street.
“I’m sorry if my presence here offends you,” said Wright who served 17 years for murder. “Unlike Mark,” he acknowledged, “I did it.”
But if Paul Wright is a danger today, I believe the only threat he poses is to the continuing injustice of the system.