James Childers' Letter

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Jims:
My name is James Childers and I am 45 years old. Since July 9th of 1978, I have been incarcerated at Menard CC, serving a Natural Life Sentence without the possibility of parole.

I come before you not pretending to be an expert on the justice system in Illinois or an expert in criminal behavior. I come before you to offer my personal insight into the problems currently facing the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) as well as the sentencing scheme currently in place.

The task before this committee is great. It is monumental as it related to House Joint Resolution 80 and I thank the committee members for their time and their effort.

I write this letter not to point fingers or to point blame at anyone. It is also not my intention to belittle the victims of crime or to minimize their experiences or their feelings. Instead, I hope that after 28 years of living in this madness we call prison I can help shed some light on the problems and answer some of the questions facing this committee.

The Illinois Department of Corrections is responsible for housing safely all inmates who have been convicted of crimes and sentenced to a period of incarceration. The number one priority of IDOC is public safety and security. Security is to be maintained at any cost to ensure that the inmates remain securely behind bars until all of their time has been served.

There was a time when a second priority of the department was to assist in the rehabilitation of all inmates. Over the last 28 years, IDOC has faced many budget cuts. Funding for most inmate programs has been cut severely or eliminated altogether. Thus, rehabilitation of inmates in the eyes of the Illinois Department of Corrections is no longer a concern at all. The prevailing attitude of the administration and staff is to see that inmates are punished for their crimes.
   
The “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” mentality has done nothing to deter crime and has only contributed to the overcrowded warehousing of prisoners, the so called “misfits of society.” The get tougher on crime policies on the street, the harsher and longer sentencing schemes for those who break the laws were originally put into place in order to curb the violence that has been on the rise for years. Ironically, these get tough policies have had unintended consequences while doing little to stem the rising crime rates. On a tangible level, it has led to higher taxes or at least a higher outpouring of tax dollars into fighting crime and building prisons, so that now more money flows into the criminal justice system than education!
   
It is no secret the entire judicial system, the prison system is in complete chaos when it comes to operating the prisons in an effective and safe way. Budget cut after budget cut have come and gone in my 28 years of incarceration and with each budget cut comes a lesser and lesser rehabilitative mentality when it comes to helping inmates enter back into society as productive citizens.

Gone…gone…gone are so many of the vital inmate programs that once helped inmates to ready themselves for a life back into society as productive citizens. The recidivism rate in Illinois is mind boggling to me because I find it hard to comprehend why someone would want to come back to prison after having spent any time at all inside? Yet, even as I ask the question, I know the answer. I’ve seen changes over my incarceration that are disturbing. I’ve seen prison become less fearful to inmates. I’ve seen inmates who seem to expect that someday they will come to prison, maybe do multiple bids. It’s a way of life for them, and has lost much of the stigma that once was attached to getting a prison sentence.

There are many adjectives to describe prison and no matter the adjective one may use to describe it, when all is said and done, prison is nothing more than a human warehouse in which Human Beings are made to endure life amongst fear, hopelessness, evil and loneliness.

I’ve seen it all in my 28 years of incarceration. I’ve personally lived the horrors, the human violations upon myself that are associated with prison life and I am here to tell this committee, to plead with this committee, to help stop the madness within the system that has only made the prisons more overcrowded, more filled with hopeless souls and is breaking the state financially speaking.

The solutions to the crisis facing the Illinois Department of Corrections and the judicial system is NOT tougher, longer, harsher sentences for criminals. The solution begins with smart sentencing, smarter laws, smarter management, smarter inmate programs, smarter rules when it comes to the release/parole and supervision of offenders.

The Illinois Constitution does not state “lock-em up and throw away the key.” It does not say “humiliate them, keep them in cells for 23 hours a day with little human contact.” It does not say, “belittle them and their families” or “punish them as you see fit.” In Section 11 of the Bill of Rights of the Illinois Constitution, it says:

SECTION 11. LIMITATION OF PENALTIES AFTER CONVICTION
All penalties shall be determined both according to the seriousness of the offense and with the objective of restoring the offender to useful citizenship.

That philosophy has been tossed away along with the key that keeps inmates locked up and warehoused for the entire period of their incarceration. We live in a society where no one human being is perfect. Yet we judge with the impression that perfection is a possibility, a goal that can be achieved by everyone. I say there is no such thing as perfection; only degrees of imperfection. We are largely an intolerant society and one with double standards. We call ourselves a humane society and we preach our religious beliefs and call up our moral beliefs only when they are convenient. Part of being a religious, spiritual, or moral individual is to be just, fair, compassionate and merciful. Believing in right and wrong, but helping others when they have gone off the path to get straight again. The United States tries to lay claim to being the greatest nation of all. I ask, how can a nation who continues to lock up its youthful citizens younger than 18 years of age for life without possibility of parole, consider itself to be great? The United States is one of only two countries who has yet to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The other country, Somalia, has no functioning government permitting them to legally ratify the treaty. In the United States, there are almost 2,500 juveniles under the age of 18 serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. In the entire rest of the world, there are only 12 juveniles serving LWOP.

We judge not the individual when it comes to the crime, but the criminal act itself. If it is deemed brutal and heinous (and what murder is not?), then courts pay no attention to the defendant. They disregard his past and any and all factors that may have caused or contributed to the kid committing the brutal and heinous act in the first place. They disregard the physiological and psychological factors inherent in adolescents. Teenagers, especially teenage boys, can be physically strong and imposing, they usually exhibit more risk taking behavior during their teenage years than at any other time of their life, they are particularly volatile and susceptible to mood swings, and they are impulsive. This combined with an inability to fully understand the consequences of their actions can and unfortunately sometimes does lead to violence and sometimes murder.

If the crime is horrible enough, we don’t care about what may have happened in the kid’s life to lead up to it. A history of abuse is looked upon as a convenient excuse to mitigate culpability, even if a kid is only 13, 14, 15, 16, or 17 years old. You may not want to believe this or even to hear this, but I’ve seen what can happen to a 16 year old or 17 year old kid who has been tried and sentenced as an adult and sent to this maximum security joint and placed inside a prison with grown adults where hope is void and hatred reigns.

I’ve seen kids raped, I’ve seen them lose all hope and self worth and find freedom at the end of a bed sheet noose as they just give up and hang themselves. I hear the pain, the sorrow, the remorse, the hatred, the fear, the despair and loneliness every day and night as grown men and kids around me scream from their cells into the night. Inmates are too afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation by staff and administration. Inmates are told on a daily basis that we are nothing more than scum, convicted felons, and that no one will believe anything we have to say.

With all that said, I am still of the belief that rehabilitation is possible. In order for it to work, it must first begin with the inmate wanting it and realizing he needs to be rehabilitated and then taking responsibility for the actions of his life.

I am fortunate in that upon my arrival into prison, I was able to take full advantage of those vital Inmate Prison Programs once in abundance in the IDOC. While in county jail, I finished my GED. At Menard, I earned first an Associate’s Degree and then a Bachelor’s Degree, and graduated with honors.

Twenty eight years ago, I took a stand to challenge myself and to change my life for the better. I did so not because I thought it would help me get out of here. I did so because it was, it is still, the right thing to do. In doing so, I wanted to do my best to help others avoid my situation in life that resulted in my sentence of LWOP. I hoped in some way to be able to give back to the community in a positive way. I put together a program that would bring inmates and young people together for an injection of reality, and hopefully would be effective in helping to keep kids out of prison. This program was approved at a prison administrative level. But department budget constraints have kept it from being implemented.

I am also fortunate that along the way I have met many staff who believed in me and took the time to help me not only better understand myself but understand why I ended up in prison. To them, I owe my life literally. I didn’t want to live when I first came in. The first few months, all I thought about was how to end it. For years I was haunted by periods of deep depression and self loathing that made it hard to hold on. Had it not been for the unflagging support of many good staff members, I would have given up. In a way, I continue the work I do as a tribute to them because without them first believing in me, I would never have been able to start believing in myself again and realizing that I do have something to offer.

But now, those vital inmate programs I once had the privilege to participate in are gone. Gone also is the belief that rehabilitation works. I think it is all too convenient for the IDOC to say rehabilitation doesn’t work; only harsher punishment works. All they have to do is take a look at the “old timers” such as myself and compare us to the guys coming in who haven’t had the benefit of the programs. Who are the troublemakers? Who are the behavioral problems? Who are the ones who exhibit poor attitudes and lack of respect for themselves as well as for anyone else? Not the inmates who came up through the old system.

I ask this committee to offer recommendations to bring back those vital inmate programs that in turn will help inmates to no re-offend. I plead with this committee to offer recommendations to revamp the sentencing scheme in Illinois especially when it comes to the sentencing of juveniles and to do away with Natural Life sentences without the Possibility of Parole.

I ask the committee to recommend that the Parole Board be brought back in full and to change the sentences of those currently serving sentences without parole.

I also ask that this committee talk directly with inmates and see firsthand the makeup of prisons and its population. I also suggest talking with the families of inmates to get a better grasp of what they must endure, the hardships they face both financially and emotionally. Get the perspective of the family members to see how the system does everything it can to alienate those family members from the inmate.

Toss out the politics because politics is the root of the problems now facing the prison system; in fact, the entire judicial system. Make the necessary changes regardless of the popularity or unpopularity because the system as it is does not work, does not protect, does not rehabilitate as the Illinois Constitution mandates.

Respectfully,
James L. Childers

Dazzler:
This is an amazing letter...it has moved me to tears and then anger....he is so on target with his recommendations and pinpointing the root of the entire penal and justice system problem in Illinois.  Makes me wonder why someone this insightful is in prison for Life while others, less knowledgeable, less intelligent, less humane are holding public office....and administrating our prisons.

EMERALD:
You said it all Dazzler!! +_@#!

jewels:
Dazzler I am always asking myself the self same questions!

FIGHTING4urFREEDOM:
I agree as my brother is in this situation...it upsetting my stomache and making me want to vomit!..I give props to the gentleman to write a letter and tell everyone how the situation is..it's a sad one. Its also opened my teared up eyes and gave me the energy and motivation to also write a letter. Why is it this way why isn't this America the Beautiful? Where is the Justice? With all do respect I admire Mr. Childers to also look on the other side of things..he made something out of himself and became an advocate for pushing this foward. May god bless you...
thank you for the insight

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