By Michael Saltz
For Columbia-Greene Media
You would think that we just discovered the necessity for criminal justice reform, given its downright buzziness these days. Congress actually passed something or other about criminal justice reform. It’s about time, yes?
New York state seems determined to pass meaningful reform this year. Hooray.
Here in the Twin Counties area there is a lively debate over how many cells are really needed in a new jail. Surely fewer than had been planned for before we decided that there are too many people in jail.
A friend sends me an article from The Guardian filled with details about the number of prison inmates in the USA compared to those in any other country in the world. No, we don’t come off too well. We’re either a truly lawless society or we criminalize too much behavior that others don’t. Or both.
Another friend sends me an article about a candidate for DA in San Francisco whose parents have served lengthy prison sentences for being accessories to murder. His mother was released after serving out her sentence (over 20 years). His father is still in jail and has never expressed any remorse for the murder (nor, so far as I know, has the mother). Would you be surprised to know that their son, the DA candidate, thinks there are too many people in jail?
As a result of the killing of an unarmed black man by the police a couple of years ago, many of us first heard of the crime of being poor, meaning being jailed because you couldn’t pay a fine for a minor violation, like a traffic ticket. And, of course, there are those who can spend a year or more behind bars awaiting trial, sometimes for pretty minor infractions, simply because they can’t come up with the bail money (we’re not talking about murderers or rich people here, folks). That’s no doubt because since they’re innocent until they’re proven guilty they belong in jail.
Criminal justice has even been a kind of grisly entertainment. The long dead and very famous 17th century English diarist Samuel Pepys, along with thousands of others, attended a public execution of a man who was hanged and then drawn and quartered. Yes, that means being literally cut into four pieces, in case you were wondering. Much cheering, no doubt. William Makepeace Thackery, an 18th century English novelist, describes an execution attended by 40,000 onlookers. In our own country, you can easily find photographic postcards people sent to friends and family. The pictures were of lynchings, some of them attended by thousands of people, men, women, and children, all dressed in their Sunday best.
There’s nothing new about any of this. Criminal justice reform is always needed because of ever-evolving patterns of criminality, and changing ideas of what it means to be civilized. Too, we never can decide what the purpose of imprisoning someone is, much less how to achieve it. Punishment? Prevention? Rehabilitation? Something else? What we decide today will surely change tomorrow, at least partly because, like the military, we are always planning to fight the last war and have no real idea what comes next. And we never want to pay the price, either in social disruption or dollars for whatever we decide. Or we have no real idea what the unintended consequences may be for our actions.
But I am struck again and again by the notion of people being jailed for the crime of being poor and so I want to tell you a story, one that has gnawed at me for 40 years, a story about a girl named Anne Marie Venne. She was a girl I never met, a girl whose life never meant much except, perhaps, to those whose lives she directly touched. But to the wider world, neither her life nor her death caused more than a temporary ripple, if that.
Anne killed herself on the night of December 21, 1979. She hanged herself by a bed sheet that she had tied to the duct of a ventilator in the ceiling of her cell in the Albany County Jail just five days before she was due to be released. She was 16 years old.
On January 14, 1980, a Monday morning, I was sitting at my desk at the PBS’s MacNeil/Lehrer Report reading the New York Times. A headline caught my eye: “Suicide of Girl, 16, in Albany Jail: Troubled Life, Troubling Death.” The first lines of the story by Clyde Haberman intrigued me enough to read the whole thing. “By anyone’s yardstick, Anne Venne had done a lot of living for a 16-year-old. Not much of it was good.”
I would have left it there, just another sad story like so many that one can easily find in the news, except for this: It was something that the girl wrote, Haberman said, while she was in George Jr. Republic, a non-profit residential shelter in Freeville, NY, where she had been sent in June, 1978 by the courts.
“I am: a prisoner of love
“I am: a prisoner of life
“I am: a prisoner of the world
“I am: a prisoner of sacrifice
“I am: a prisoner of”
I read those words and I was caught. What was it about Anne Marie Venne that I found so magnetic? Was Anne simply a drama queen, a melodramatic teenager? Did she see something that was all too real in herself and the world around her? Did she kill herself to escape her prison, the trap that was her life? Did she kill herself as a final thumb in the eye to everyone around her? She was just 16 years old!
You will at least understand that I found the story so compelling that I took a day off from work and spent a weekend trying to see if I could find out more than was in the NYT article, possibly something that I could turn into a … well, I wasn’t sure what. And so, on March 7, I flew to Plattsburgh in upstate New York, the closest airport to the town of Lyon Mountain in the northern reaches of the Adirondacks where Anne had lived. There I met with Anne’s mother, a seemingly physically and psychologically frail and exhausted woman who, perhaps, drank too much too often. Over the next couple of hours, she told me her version of her daughter’s life. I left with a carton filled with copies of the papers Anne had left behind, mostly letters to her and that she had written but never sent, random pieces of scribblings, and an orange notebook. And then, in the brief time I had left, I set out to find out whatever I could that was true of Anne Marie Venne’s life. And her death.
(to be continued next Friday)