How do you get redeemed in America?

“Well ‘at’s it, boys. I been redeemed. . . . The preacher said all my sins is washed away. Including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo!”

“I thought you said you was innocent a those charges.”

“Well? I was lyin’. And the preacher said that sin’s been washed away, too! Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me, now. C’mon in boys, the water is fine!”

O Brother, Where Art Thou

Two weeks ago, my friend’s mother, who had been a getaway driver 36 years ago for an armored car robbery, was denied parole. A guard and two police officers were killed, and though Judith Clark had not been the shooter, she had shown no remorse at her trial for her involvement, and refused a lawyer. She belonged to a radical group that planned on using the stolen money to fund a revolution. It wasn’t a surprise that the original sentence of 75 years didn’t include parole at all. Harriet has never known her mother outside of prison.

36 years is a long time. How are you different from who you were in 1981? Depending on how old you are, the big difference may even be that here you are and then you weren’t. Judith Clark changed over the years. It was slow. She was a very angry person when she got into prison, a true believer. It was complicated, because she had a baby daughter whom she loved very much, but she had radical politics and—somewhat perversely, in the way we all act perversely when we feel a need to prove something that doesn’t need proving—she was determined to show (herself) that being a mother wouldn’t make her abandon her hard-ass ideals.

Half a decade later, though, she began to re-think some things. In 1986, after she’d been in prison for five years and in solitary confinement for many of them, someone said to her, “I understand how you did this to yourself. What I don’t understand is how you did it to your daughter.” Harriet was six. Clark cried for the first time since she’d been put behind bars.

That was the tipping point. Her essential views about injustice in America didn’t change, but she began to recognize the damage she’d done, how her collusion in acts of violence had not been helping that cause. And then she began the long, slow process of atonement. She earned two degrees. She worked in AIDS education with her fellow inmates. She began attending Jewish services. She made public apology to the families of the victims. When a newsletter that had published one of her poems referred to her as a political prisoner, she refused the title. “I feel only enormous regret, sorrow and remorse.” For the majority of her time in prison now—this span that’s often called a “generation”—Judith Clark has been a very different person from the one she was at her trial.


Whenever friends start harping to me about how awful things that have been done in the name of Christianity, all the damage this religion has done, I agree with a lot of it. But I stick up for redemption. Redemption is the big gift Christianity has given the world. For anyone carrying a burden of guilt—and who hasn’t at least once in her life?—the news that our debt has been paid is utterly transformative. The problem is the disconnect so many Christians have with their faith about redemption in the here and now.

A number of participants in the Brinks robbery have long since been free. They all were arguably guilty of worse crimes than Clark, who drove a getaway car. Not even the getaway car. A backup. The principal driver, who also had a young child, got a good lawyer, pled guilty, and was given twenty years and paroled in 2003. Two others were tried as accessories and served less than ten years. Another got 43 years but was eventually released to serve the rest of her time in Italy, her native home, and was released there in 2006. The mastermind, Mutulu Shakur, is still in prison. The only way to explain Judith Clark’s extraordinary sentence—15 years longer than Shakur’s, no parole—is the attitude she displayed at her trial, which was particularly callous, particularly contemptuous of those who would decide her fate.

Last December,  though, New York governor Andrew Cuomo commuted Clark’s sentence, for “exceptional strides in self-development.” He did not free her, but made her eligible for a parole she wasn’t granted at her trial. In part, this commutation was due to the intercession of Elaine Lord, a prison superintendent who’d once had to have personal protection against the possibility of Clark’s associates attempting a violent jailbreak. Lord said she’d watched Clark “change into one of the most perceptive, thoughtful, helpful and profound human beings that I have ever known, either inside or outside of a prison.” I remember hearing this news and being dumbfounded that Harriet’s mom finally had a chance, after more than three decades reflecting on her actions—living a life, however confined, that engaged with her own culpability, did not turn away from it, where all her present moral decision-making was informed by her responsibility for one dark day—that she now had a chance to live out among other free citizens the lessons she had learned. 

But on April 21, the parole board denied her that chance. There are, understandably, many who remember the Brinks robbery, including the children of the slain men, who are not unhappy about the decision. Many in law enforcement opposed her release, and Republican state senators presented to the board a petition of 10,000 signatures not to let her go. From the New York Times, quoting the parole board: “. . . its members ‘respect and understand the governor’s lawful decision to exercise his unique discretion in your case.’ . . . [Their decision to deny] focused on the unique nature of her case and the message  her release would send to law enforcement. . . . ‘You are still a symbol of a terroristic crime.'” Obviously there was always the chance that the board would decide this way. The governor could have simply freed her, but the case was fraught, and he was expending lots of political capital already. He was going to spread either the credit or the blame around.

As astounded as we were, all Harriet’s friends, by the good news in December, I can’t say the bad news in April was a complete surprise. It was a gut punch, but it wasn’t out of the blue. In a country that elected a man who’s said, “Nobody’s safe. I mean, who’s safe?” the release of a prisoner who’s a symbol of terroristic crime would seem, at the very least, not to have found quite its political moment. And yet I was dismayed by the reasoning. Judy Clark will be eligible for parole again in 2019. But no matter how exemplary a prisoner she is in the meantime, how will she be any less a “symbol” in two years than she is today? I have learned since that denial of parole based on the nature of the original crime—rather than the changed nature of the prisoner—is actually not uncommon. A man who’d been denied parole for the tenth time last year, John MacKenzie, finally gave up and killed himself. I expect more than one of the many people who lobbied against his release were just fine with that. He’d killed a cop, and if the state had just executed him right after he’d done it in 1976, they could have saved the taxpayers the cost of 41 years’ room and board. Of course, they’d have saved us all a repentant man, too.  MacKenzie had long had a record that was (here’s that word again) “exemplary.”

So what about redemption? What are prisons for, and what’s justice?

After 9/11, I remember thinking that the punishment I’d want for anyone involved in that heinous crime was to make them sit down with a family member of each of the victims, a different survivor every day, for 3,000 days. And then over again, with a different survivor. Another 3,000 days. I never thought about how long I’d want this to go on. It was symbolic, anyway, not a real idea. Basically, it was just you wanting a man who’s done something terribly wrong to face the consequences to others of his action. Look his desolation in the face. Just killing a murderer doesn’t do this. I don’t just want the act acknowledged. I want the sinner changed. I mean, as long as we’re in the theoretical . . . that’s what I want.


I’ve wondered, among other things, how Judy Clark’s parole hearing would have gone if, rather than teaching prison mothers about pre-natal care and AIDS, and rather than becoming a practicing Jew, she had become an outspoken advocate for police and prison guards. How it might have gone if she had accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior. This sounds a little cynical, I know—accusing a parole board of being picky about the kind of conversion a prisoner’s allowed to have, with no evidence whatsoever. Pure speculation. Yet still I speculate. Because if Judy is staying in prison because she’s a symbol, surely the kind of conversion she’s had is symbolic, too. And I can’t imagine it helping that her basic political perspective has not moved from left to right in the same way that, for instance, Eldridge Cleaver’s did. If she were out, there’s no question she’d be a Bernie Sanders voter. What if she’d converted to the Republican Party? Well, who knows, right?


For people who talk up redemption so much on Sunday, Christians seem to me notoriously dismissive of it in the earthly realm. I know this parole hearing didn’t have anything to do with Christians, but this blog does, and really I’m just wondering about how much thought the average evangelical joe gives to crime and punishment in America. Whether the situation with American prisons bothers him the way, say, the persecution of Christians in the Middle East bothers him. Or her. Whether she knows that the land of the free has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prison population. Or that five times as many Whites use drugs as African Americans, but that African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at ten times the rate of Whites. That we have prisons in this country that are for profit, and which therefore have a financial incentive to get tougher sentencing laws.

If you sit and think a minute, what should justice look like? What’s the point of punishment and how should the scales be leveled? I mean, obviously I’m kind of invested in this because of a good friend. But if you’d feel one way about this if Judith Clark were your mother or daughter, and another way if she weren’t, maybe the point is not that one can’t judge well when one is too close to a situation. Maybe empathy could actually give some insight. It’s interesting that the parole board invoked symbolism in its decision. Because Judith Clark had been obsessed with symbolism once, too:

I thought of myself as a symbol of revolutionary fervor and commitment,” she said this week. “I didn’t think about my child. I didn’t think about the families sitting in that courtroom. Because it was all about symbols, and not people.”

No matter what one believes about justice, I would hope it’s obvious that it should be in the service of real people—the victims and the offenders both.

“My mother did not kill anyone,” Harriet said two weeks ago, “and it’s hard for me to understand who is served by making her die in prison, which is what decisions like this eventually amount to.”

It’s about who is served.