“I turned 75 not long ago,” Larry told me as we walked.
I was astounded, because to my eyes he looked about ten years younger. As we made our way the short five blocks to a meeting with the organization I work for, New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, I had trouble keeping up with his brisk pace. Larry was not just physically fit—he moved like a man on a mission.
Larry White works for the Fortune Society, an organization that provides re-entry services for newly released prison inmates. He traveled 150 miles from New York City to Albany to meet with our organization’s victim/survivor advocate to discuss sentencing issues.
For Larry, issues surrounding crime and punishment are both systemic and intensely personal: Between juvenile hall and state prison, he has spent about 36 years–nearly half his life–behind bars.
“I grew up in this really tough neighborhood in Brooklyn,” he confided. “I still remember one day when I was just a little boy playing in this shabby, cramped back yard behind our apartment. My grandmother, who raised me, tried to brighten up the yard by planting a rose bush. Now it was October and there was just one bloom left on the bush. My grandmother called me over to look at the bright red rose blossom. I was puzzled when I noticed tears in my grandmother’s eyes. ‘Larry,’ she said. ‘This is what they call a late blooming rose. Son, I believe that’s what you’re going to be: a late bloomer.’ Ha! I guess she was right.”
New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty recently expanded its mission to focus on violence prevention after New York abolished the death penalty. NYADP’s victim advocate, Marie Verzulli, who is the sister of a murder victim, now spends her energy working on community organizing for nonviolence and victims’ rights.
As the meeting between the three of us began, I felt some tension in the air. In the aftermath of crime, there are no easy solutions. How do we resolve the tension that exists between our need to protect society and our desire to believe in human redemption? Just as Marie is passionately dedicated to preventing violence, Larry is passionate in his belief that people who have done wrong can change for the better and give back to communities they once harmed.
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To their great credit, Larry and Marie were able to listen and share perspectives based on their deeply felt personal experiences of crime and punishment. There’s nothing like a face-to-face meeting to help us appreciate where another person is coming from. While we may be separated by differing life experiences, we are nevertheless linked at a far deeper level in our shared humanity. Soon, I saw wariness and defensiveness turn to appreciation and warmth as Marie and Larry discovered common ground.
Near the end of our meeting, Larry declared: “For the good of both our communities, we have to work together to reduce violence.”
“You’re absolutely right!” Marie agreed.
The meeting between Larry and Marie eventually turned into a series of meetings between Larry’s prisoner support group and Marie’s victims’ group, Family and Friends of Homicide Victims. While some policy differences remain, the spirit of these meetings is always cordial, heartfelt, and hopeful.
Hope comes in recognizing that we all want to be part of a better world. For this goal to be achieved, we must embed the outcome in the process. To heal our interrelated world, the place to start is in relationship.
- More from , the Summer 2011 issue of .
The American problem with mass incarceration is less about crime than it is about how—and who—we lock up.
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