July 17, 2014 Dear Paris: I received your letter yesterday with a mixture of relief that, at least when you wrote it, you were physically okay, and trepidation over what the contents could be. I have so many thoughts running through my head, and so many conflicting emotions when it comes to you to sort out, I have no idea where to start this letter. Should I even start this letter weighs heavy on my mind too, because no matter how much I love you (and I do love you in a way you are not able to love me), you are capable only of offering me a future filled with more pain and suffering, while you remain seemingly aloof from any sense of suffering for anyone other than yourself. So I am just going to jump right into this letter by responding to yours, point by point. This thing between us is chaos; there is no real way to organize it, no sane way to respond to it, no easy way to work it out. So we will go with your attempt to organize our chaos with more chaos, and see where it leaves us, yet again. I am surprised the depth and swiftness of my anger should surprise you so. Who better than you should understand seemingly mysterious, but usually explainable, fits of deep and swift rage? I have every reason to feel rage at you. The ability to forgive does not erase the ability to feel rage. I am not a saint. I am human after all: very, very human. The remainder of your letter alone is evidence enough why I am entitled to my sporadic fits of mild rage compared to some of the things you’ve done in a rage: murder, lawsuits, the waging of psychological warfare on the only real ally you’ve ever had, past, present, and future. You are right, though. It is not Satanism that is the villain. I’ll admit the arrogant and narcissist part of me (we all have one if we’ve grown up in our family) was briefly and mildly offended you accused me of being so ignorant of what Satanism is purportedly all about: that you would forget that the only reason you are so intelligent is because genetically you have two intelligent and unconventional parents; that you would forget the only reason you are committed to being educated past the surface of what is generally accepted is because you have exactly one parent who taught you to be that way, by example. Don’t you remember there was a time in my life I thought about moving us to Seattle so we could get away from Mama and I could pursue a Ph.D. in Comparative Religious Studies? This was before Ella, after Brendan, when it was still just you and me trying to muddle our way through growing up. I decided it was more important you have family than I have independence and a chance to figure out who I really wanted to be, out from under my mother’s shadow and influence. I wonder how different our lives would be had we gone? Too late to second guess now. What’s done is done. Point is…I am not ignorant of Satanism. I have always supported your mental explorations Paris. You know this. One of the very distinct memories I have of you right before you killed Ella is you showing me your mind map in the garage. Becca was there. Too make sure I wasn’t embellishing the past, I asked her once if she remembered the conversation we had that night. She did. We both agreed, in hindsight (which is always so much clearer), that your words were strange, different from the Paris I usually talked to. We both remember me looking at you for a long moment after you stopped talking, not exactly sure what to make of the glimmer of strangeness I felt coming from you. We both remember me putting my arms around you, hugging you to me, and saying, “You have a strange mind, my son. And that is one of the reasons I love you so.” Or something very close to that. No matter the exact wording of what I said, at that moment, I knew you were different, that your years of teen angst and suffering were upon you, that I had to do my best to help you find yourself at the end of it all. I was right, sort of. I just didn’t know you were dangerous. And that I would end up constantly juggling just how much suffering I am willing to allow you. I digress. That is the beauty of just letting your mind go and writing, ironically, whatever comes to whatever mind is left when you let it go. Satanism is not the villain. I know it is not all it is claimed to be in the media and popular culture. I also know it is a philosophy that feeds your wolf, not your angel. And the reason it makes me so mad it because it is yet another of many examples you’ve given me in the last three to four months, and in your letter, that you are more inclined to feed your wolf than your angel as time passes for you behind those walls. It is hard to be the sole bearer of hope that my love can somehow redeem you when you are hell bent on caving in to the inner nature only you know more about than me. It seems we both assume or believe your nature is not capable of wanting to be redeemed. It seems we both assume or believe that, because of your genetic nature and the circumstances in which you live, you have little hope of doing anything but cultivating your dark side if you mean to survive. Which leaves me in a very tough place. I accept you as you are. I love you as you are. Some days it is very hard to like you as you are. Lately a lot of days are like that. But whether or not I like you has never played a part in whether or not I love you, or how to be with you. What I have trouble with is how does that translate into having you in my every day life, so to speak anyway. You are not, in my opinion, a sack of shit. Selfish. Yes. Argue all you want with the diagnosis of anti-social personality disorder, there is no denying you do possess the majority of the traits needed for a diagnosis of narcissist personality disorder. So, not a sack of shit. No. Selfish. Yes. You also used the adjective worthless to describe yourself. I do not agree with that assessment either. I never have. I never will. We are all worth something. I believe it is up to us to decide what that worth will prove to be. You seem to be the only one buying into the belief you are worthless. Well, to be fair, you and the majority of TDCJ. (Couldn’t’ resist the dig and attempt at levity.) Only you give power to the demon that makes you feel worthless. I know because I suffer from the same problem. Your three points about why you care whether or not you speak to me again are not surprising. Nor is the order of importance you placed them in. They do hurt, but I’ve learned to take you in stride. I accept who you are better than you accept who you are. I’ve known, and been honest with you longer than you’ve ever attempted to be honest with me (which is, I believe, almost impossible for you because you are a pathological liar), that the main reason you keep me around is for what you think you can milk me to do for you because I love you. What you seem to forget is that I told you at your transfer hearing that you only have as much power over me as I choose to give you because I love you. What I am learning is that I can love you and keep my promises (to love you no matter what, to be the best mom I can be, not to abandon you while incarcerated) without actually having to have you in my life, physically; without actually giving you any power over me. After all, real love has nothing to do with power or it’s differentials. What I am learning, what you taught me by taking Ella from me, by taking you from me with all your games and manipulations, by taking any future semblance of a peaceful or “normal” life from me, and now by virtue of his birth into this insanity your brother, is that someone, anyone, no one, has to be in my life for me to know I love them, to know I have done my best to do “right” by them in spite of all the “wrong” that has been perpetuated by all. I have done more right by you than many seem to think you deserve. I have always done more right by you than wrong.* July 24,2014 I had to stop writing because I did not know where I wanted to go next in this letter. I needed more time to decide how to proceed with you both in word and action. I received a call Monday from the grandmother of a friend of yours that you were escorted, in cuffs, out of your past living arrangement and sent to wherever it is your sent to await your disciplinary hearing. I’ve made all the necessary phone calls to the Warden’s office, and called to check on your status & the possible consequences you face. It is known you are being looked after. I don’t think your current issues have any effect, or affect, on what I feel is a decision that needs to be made about how to deal with you and your personality disorders for the time being. As your mother, or I should say that because I am the type of mother I am, of course my first instinct is to protect you at all costs, even when it is from yourself. The phone calls should suffice to do that for now. A new element has been added to how I make decisions about you now. I am not just your mother. I am the only real friend you have. I know I am not the only person who loves you, who can help you, who can be used by you. We both know I have more compelling reasons than any of them to be by your side long term. Except for one thing. I doubt you are so honest with all the others the degree of parasitic intention you have in regards to them. What kind of friend…fuck that…what kind of human being would I be if I consciously continue in a “daily” relationship with a boy/man who killed my daughter in such a gruesome manner, has fucked with my head and heart to such a degree the last seven years that I am essentially a hermit who has issues connecting with people other than my children and people who seek me out for help and healing, and who has made abundantly clear that although what he thinks he feels for me is love is really only a sense of possession and ownership of an object to do with what he pleases? I truly do not know what to do with you, Paris. You are my son, my first born that I love to the moon and back. I have walked through the hell you created with you for seven years. You have tried to destroy me, torture me emotionally, and are constantly trying to manipulate me. There is no peace with you. There is no peace without you. And now you tell me that you keep me around to get what you can out of me. Love, real love, is a two-way street, kiddo. Real love is kindness, letting go of ego when called for, and thinking of ways you can give to another, not take from them. Real love is about creation. So tell me, my firstborn who is loved to the moon and back, why should I stay in your immediate life when your primary purpose for keeping me in it is to use me? To the moon and back, Mom * I’m tired of using the quotes. I know you are smart enough to know I use quotes because words like right and wrong are so ambiguous in most cases. Not in all. What you did to Ella was wrong. No quotes. So much of what you’ve done to me is wrong. No quotes. How to deal with you the right way. So fucking ambiguous.
My son's 20th birthday was yesterday. This is the text of the letter I sent him. It is the only gift I am allowed to send. It seems my letter to him was prophetic, and well timed, because five days ago he was placed in solitary confinement and is scheduled to be transferred to another unit at some point in time unknown to me. He was told this was done because he finished orientation and could now be placed in a more permanent unit. He has been in TDCJ for more than a year. The transition from his teen years to his 20's is a big deal to me and I was going to try to make it as special as I could for him. I would have had he been home. This is the first birthday since he was born that I did not talk to my child. This is also the first time since he's been locked up that I won't get to see him around his birthday to hug him. This is also the first time Phoenix, my four-month old son, has been big enough to look at me funny when he sees his Mama really cry. I believe the real reason Paris was thrown in solitary and scheduled for a transfer is because Smoke & Apple Films requested an on-camera interview with him for a documentary they are shooting about juvenile justice issues/our story. The crew is in town this week to film with me. Inmates are not allowed contact with those of us in the free, family or film crew, as long as they are classified as "transit status". I can never prove that TDCJ moved Paris to show us all who in control. What I can prove is that they are wrong. They may have my son, but they don't have me. As long as Paris has me, TDCJ will never truly have him, no matter what they do, because while I can't stop them from locking my son up and throwing away the key, I can stop them from making him obsolete or powerless. What TDCJ fails to understand is this: if losing Paris and Ella did not shut me up, do they really think they can? The more inhumane, the more heartless, the more they engage in punitive behavior and call it justice, the more they motivate me to keep doing what I do....love all I can and raise as much hell as I can.... -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- October 10, 2013 Dear Paris: Twenty years ago, on the day you were born, I took one look at you and two things simultaneously occurred: a feeling of fierce love unlike any I had ever experienced before took root in my heart and the realization, and accompanying fear, finally hit my brain that I had absolutely no idea how to be a good mother, which had been engaged, until that very moment, in these blissful fantasies of mom and baby always in perfect harmony. I had no good example of how to be a good mother, but I figured I knew two things I hoped would work in my favor. I knew what not to do, how not to be, and I knew what kind of mom I wished I had had. Armed with that knowledge, I set about making you two promises that day, October 10, 1993. One of the things I knew not to do was make promises to your child you never intended or could not keep so, in spite of the fact you blissfully slept through me whispering my promises in your ear, I considered my promises the foundation of the house of love I wanted to build for you to live in. The first promise I made to you was to love you always, no matter what, unconditionally. I know too well what conditional love feels like; what damage is done to your heart and soul when you are judged unworthy because of your mistakes instead of loved for your existence. We all make mistakes. We should all be loved in spite of those mistakes. Then we should be loved even more because we make mistakes. Being loved through our mistakes is what gives us the confidence and will to learn from those mistakes to become a better person. I have kept my first promise to you. I can say with great certainty that I will continue to keep this promise to you for as long as I live. I continue to hope that loving you unconditionally will give you the confidence and will to be the best person you can be. The second promise I made to you was to be the best mother I could be to you and for you. This promise has always been, and still is, a bit harder to keep, for many reasons. As a parent it is hard to figure out what is the best thing to do to your child and/or for your child in “normal” circumstances. I think we can both agree that many of the circumstances that I have tried to keep this promise in are about as far from “normal” as one can be. At times I know I have failed miserably in keeping this promise but I hope the love I feel for you and have shown you has, or will, trump any damage my failures cause you to suffer. There have been times I believe I am doing the best thing for you and you (most likely) think I am full of shit and wish I would just back off or stop doing whatever it is I am doing that you disagree with. In these times, please reflect back on all the years I have kept promise one and try to love me as unconditionally as you can now that you are old enough to understand this concept and the emotions that accompany it better. We won’t always see eye-to-eye. I will never stop being your mom, but I am doing my best to make the transition to being a true friend to you now that you are growing up. It is confusing at times to determine if your child needs a parent or a friend. So here we are on the cusp of your 20th birthday. I can’t even begin to describe to you how it is possible, and how emotional and overwhelmingly surreal it is, for me to look at you and see both the baby I held close to whisper my promises in his ear and the full-grown, extremely easy-on-the-eyes, brilliant man who could (if he was allowed to) pick me up as easy as I used to pick him up. The best and simplest way to sum it up is just to tell you that, in spite of the passage of twenty years and all that has transpired between us, I still look at you and feel the same fierce, no…fiercer, love that swept me away the moment I first laid eyes on you. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice will not let a mother help her child celebrate and acknowledge the passage out of his teen years and into his young manhood. I can’t bake for you, send you a gift, see you on your birthday because it does not fall on a normal visitation day, or sing you Happy Birthday unless you decide to call me on October 10th. So I am left giving you what I hope you consider a gift and is something that no one, not you, not TDCJ, NO ONE, can ever take away from you. For your 20th birthday, I make you two more sacred promises Paris Lee, my first born, my first love. I promise I will always be by your side as long as you are locked away from mine. No matter where Texas sends you, no matter how much time passes, no matter what you have to do to survive, no matter what I have to do to get there to see you... I will never turn my back on you while you are incarcerated. You will never be one of the forgotten ones. You will always know that someone in the free loves you, thinks of you, and misses you. People often ask me how I can continue to stand by you after all you did and all the suffering it causes me. I always respond the same. I tell them that when you were a toddler I had to take you to daycare so I could go to class and work. I hated to leave you. It was so hard to walk away and a part of my mind and heart was always with you at the daycare. Every afternoon I would walk into the classroom to pick you up and you were fine, playing and content, so I would sit on the floor and wait for you to notice me. As soon as you saw me, your eyes would light up with a look of pure happiness, you would drop what you were doing, run across the room, and jump on me. That was the best part of my day, every day. Almost every time I have come to visit you since you have been incarcerated I still see that look in your eyes when you first see me. It may be for a split second, so quick I have to really be paying attention to see it, or it may linger the entire visit. Sometimes it has been replaced with a look of anger, hatred, or contempt but it has never been entirely demolished. This is how I know that MY Paris is still in there. I promise I will never give up on MY Paris; never give up my hope and belief that the Paris who got locked in the underground room inside you the night you killed Ella will find a way to survive both prison and that underground room. I know you are still in there. You may forget sometimes. Your environment may force you to hide him away. But when you are with me, you can let that boy out without any fear. I will love him the same way I have loved the other boy that lives inside you…unconditionally, no matter what. Happy 20th birthday, Paris Lee. Since I can’t give you a cake, I guess you have to settle for unconditional love, a mom who tries her best to be a good mom and a good friend, loyalty, and unwavering faith in the man I know you can be. All in all, not a bad gift to get I think…
A dear friend of mine who is incarcerated at the infamous Polunsky Unit, home of Texas’ Death Row, is the author of the second installment of ELLA’s New Voices series. I have known Paul now for two years and have visited often. Paul is a gentle giant and thoughtful soul whose worst mistake in life was not to stand up to his friend when he learned his plan for the day. Paul did not kill anyone. This is not a mistake he should die for. Paul is sentenced to death under the Texas Law of Parties, which basically states that Texas can execute anyone who was present at a crime that resulted in the death of another, even if that person is not the killer. While Paul moves closer to execution, his partner the day of the crime and triggerman who killed a store manager during the course of a robbery, now sits in general population serving a life sentence for murder because he made a deal with the prosecutor. Paul went to trial believing that justice would prevail and that he would be given, at most, a prison sentence (which he believes he deserves) for his role in the crime, not a death sentence. Paul’s mother is Marilyn Shankle-Grant, my sister from another mother. She and I lean on one another often because we both understand how the other feels when she thinks of her baby growing up, and possibly dying, in the custody of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Neither one of us gets to mother our children the way we wish we could. At least I get to hug my son. Marilyn has not touched Paul once in five years. If the state of Texas does execute him, she won’t be allowed to touch him before he dies. Only afterwards will she finally be able to give him the mother’s touch I know he so badly misses. This inhumanity is what “justice” in Texas is all about... Paul has been on Death Row five years now and has engaged in numerous acts of non-violent protest over the conditions he and the others live in. When I asked him to write for ELLA, this is what he sent. Please leave Paul feedback in the comment section. I will send it all in to him. If you’d like to write him directly, you can send your letters to the following address: Paul Storey TDCJ #999538 Polunsky Unit 3872 FM 350 South Livingston, TX 77351 My love to all of you, Charity Lee
Not What You Think When a person is on the outside looking in, the first image that probably comes to mind upon hearing the words “Texas death row” is of a cold-hearted killer; someone who has no regard for human life; someone who will murder another just as easy as they would open a can of soda…only someone like that could be housed here. A long time ago, before I understood the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” and I was still a free man, I probably had a thought like this. After meeting and getting to know the people on death row, I wouldn’t dare to think so foolishly again. There are a lot of good men in this place. Many have looked out for my well-being, both mentally and physically. Even more, they’ve kept me focused on the positive when my mind veered toward the negative. If I am having a bad day, they ask me what is wrong and are sincere with their concern. I can share a secret with them and be confident not another soul will ever know it because the particular individual I told it to is trustworthy. There are some I would go as far as letting them come around my family members. The men here exercise, play games, laugh, read comic books, and every thing else associated with being a normal person, not a heartless murderer. More often than not, when the media speaks of death row, they make a lot of harsh comments and this creates a domino effect, resulting in most of the world thinking a similar way, or maybe even worse. We become known as the scum of the earth, animals, monsters, and even, sometimes, boogeymen. Yet if these same people who call us such horrid names were ever to meet me, or any other death row inmate, they would see….we are simply men who made a mistake. We are not men who deserve to be executed.
On Friday, May 10th, I was interviewed at the Clemens Unit, the unit to which I am assigned, by Mike Barajas, a reporter with the San Antonio Current. To the best of my already considerable and perpetually growing knowledge of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s (TDCJ) rules and regulations, offenders meeting with media representatives are to be afforded a measure of privacy. No such privilege was granted to Mr. Barajas and me. Our meeting took place among a group of interconnected offices located just past the gate that admits one into the prison proper. The “walls” dividing one office from the next are hardly more than whitewashed wooden partitions; the doors are not much thicker and have (what I posit are not glass) windows set into them at chest height. I find it hard to believe that anyone in the office could have missed our conversation had we spoken loudly enough.
As if this wasn’t enough, a Clemens official insisted in sitting in on the interview. I do not remember his name, only that he claimed to be the Family Liaison Officer. His justification? Security concerns. Let me point out that at no time did I give any indication that I wanted to harm Mr. Barajas. If harming him had indeed been my intent, then I would not have gotten very far with an attack for having everyone in the office know about it immediately. It would not have been much trouble for officials to place us in the general-visitation area, to be separated by a partition of bulletproof glass. Clemens is a mid-level security unit: if the officials had insisted upon placing me in mechanical restraints, I would have gladly complied.
But no. We had the Family Liaison sitting there, not ten feet from the table at which we had been directed to sit. Throughout the interview, he stared coolly at Mr. Barajas and I. He could hear every word that was said. The topics discussed were very sensitive, as they concerned my offense. His presence affected the interview badly, making my discussion with Mr. Barajas very awkward.
I believe his intent was to intimidate me, at the behest of his superiors, into saying nothing that might reflect poorly on TDCJ. TDCJ’s shortcomings were not the topic of the interview, yet he could not have known that. We were given an hour for the interview. By my reckoning, we took roughly forty-five minutes to work through the questions Mr. Barajas has prepared. Afterward, he asked me if I had any questions for him, concerns, etc. I mentioned that I felt I would make a better source for an article about TDCJ’s failures, its lapses in upholding policy consistently, and the abuse of our (offenders’) rights by officers, because my natural aversion to sharing personal matters would not affect such a discussion. As he was replying about being glad to consider me for future pieces and sharing my name with his colleagues, the family liaison was quick to declare our time had expired and push me out of the room.
Before I left, however, I turned to the family liaison and asked if I could count on him to leave what was said in the room there. After all, I pointed out, I had just spoken at length about a brutal crime I perpetrated against an innocent child—my little sister, no less--, and who but child murderers and molesters are bigger targets deserving a beating in the eyes of my peers? (Never mind that I myself was a child when I committed the offense; few here would make such a distinction.) A slip of the tongue would have everyone knowing the details of the interview by Monday. He seemed offended by my boldness. He told me sternly, “It’s my job to know about everyone and what they did. You don’t have to waste your time worrying about me telling your business.” More or less. I was not assured.
It seems obvious to me that the officials are worried about what criticisms I—or any offender, really—have to offer to the media. Yet this does not mean that those who wish to speak out should not be afforded the same rights and privileges as others (i.e. privacy). For TDCJ not to do so makes it seem a lot like Big Brother.
The ELLA Foundation is pleased to announce that we are turning over our blog to the inmates, inmates’ families, and victims of violent crime that we serve. A large part of what we do at ELLA is two-fold: we strive to educate the public on the horrible and often inhumane experiences of those in prison and to help those who have been affected by violent crime to find their voice and to use it to create good in the world again. What better way to achieve either goal than to let those ELLA embraces use our blog? The first entry is by my son, Paris Lee Bennett, whom most of you know has been incarcerated since the age of 13, for the offense of Capital Murder. He is six years into a 40-year sentence for murdering his little sister Ella in 2007. Paris was first held five and a half years by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department and has now been in what I call “big boy prison”, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, for a year. In his first essay he touches upon the issue of First Amendment rights as they pertain to prisoners, guard intimidation, and the reality of his life in danger because of what he did to his sister. We have lots more essays ready to be published addressing topics such as prison health care, the effects of long-term solitary confinement, and what it feels like to watch your children grow up through bulletproof glass. Many of these essays are very hard to read. When ELLA posts a new essay, we will send a copy to the author with all comments and feedback from readers (at least those that are constructive-if you have something mean to say, go elsewhere because we at ELLA are not supportive of hate), so please be sure to comment after you have finished reading. So many of the authors want, need, more interaction with those of us in the “free”. If you’d like to tell your story, or you are in contact with someone incarcerated who would like to tell theirs, please mail them to the following address: The ELLA Foundation 222 Furr Dr. San Antonio, TX 78201 Make sure to include a return address so we can mail the post and comments back to whoever authored the piece. You can write about whatever you want as long as it concerns the issue of incarceration and/or violent crime and your message does not contradict ELLA’s stance of using Empathy, Love, Lessons, & Action to make the world a better place. I hope everyone enjoys our new blog format! I look forward to giving you new stories and to hearing new stories from you. Much love & many hugs to all of you! Charity Lee Founder & Executive Director The ELLA Foundation
I was asked to come speak to you today about motherhood…something I hope I know a little bit about considering I’m about to give birth to my third child any day now! I must admit though…I was notified of this event about two or three weeks ago and I’ve been more than a little stumped since about what to say. You see, I run a nonprofit here in town named The ELLA Foundation that deals mostly with issues related to violent crime. I speak all the time about the effect of murder and incarceration on families. I speak out against the death penalty. I advocate on behalf of murder victim family members and for those who commit violent crimes. In short, my area of expertise and the main topic of most of my conversations is crime, violence, mayhem, tragedy, so I had my doubts about being able to speak to you about motherhood. Until I remembered that all my thoughts about motherhood were made clear, put to the test, and proven to be valid, because of crime, violence, mayhem, and tragedy. Six years ago my firstborn murdered my second born. My son murdered my daughter, his sister. He was 13; she was 4. I lost them both, one to death, one to prison, and have lived a life since that no mother should ever have to endure. But in the six years since losing my children, I have learned more about mothering than I did in the 13 years I held each of them close in my arms. So what is a mother? According the Webster’s dictionary, a mother is a : a female parent b : a woman in authority; specifically : the superior of a religious community of women 3: something that is an extreme or ultimate example of its kind especially in terms of scale <the mother of all construction projects> While these definitions begin to define what a mother is, they tell us nothing about who a mother is. So I am going to share with you today who I believe mother’s to be, or at least, who I believe mother’s should strive to be, because let’s be clear on one point. I don’t like to gloss over reality. Not all women who have children are mothers. And not all mothers are women who have biological children of their own. Motherhood is an art, a feeling, an act of creation, and like all art, it requires work, effort, creativity, mistakes and imperfections, blood, sweat, and tears to create something beautiful and meaningful. So what makes a woman a mother? What defines us as mothers? What do we give to our children that make them wish for us when they are sick or in trouble? What is it about us that make our children turn to us for advice, lash out at us in anger, and weep for us when we are gone? What is it about us that binds us to our child, even after he has murdered our child? It’s simple really. Well, it’s simple to identify, but hard to deliver some days. We give them love…fierce, deep, and unconditional love. In the six years since my son murdered his sister, I have learned that a mother’s love for her children, is the one feeling that even begins to get close to the love that God must feel for us. The love I feel for my children is the most holy feelings I have ever felt. So what does a mother’s love look like, feel like? The Bible tells us this in I Corinthians, chapter 4-7: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” Ironically enough the original verse in the King James version uses "charity" instead of the word love, so I was lucky that I had somewhere to look for answers when trying to figure out how to mother my son after he killed his sister. But this is a simple guide that we can all look to when trying to determine how to be the best mother we can be. This does not mean that we are doormats for our children, allow them to walk all over us, never discipline them, or never make mistakes. We are not God. Our efforts to love are imperfect and we will stumble many days in our journey of motherhood. And this ok because how we handle our mistakes gives us yet another chance to show our children how deeply they are loved and how powerful love really is. To each of you who struggle every day to perfect the art of mothering, I offer you these words of encouragement. Never give up. Never stop loving your child, no matter what. Never doubt for a moment that you are the embodiment of God’s love here on earth. To those of you who have no children, I offer these words of advice. Love the world, your neighbor, your fellow man as you would love the children you may one day have. Mother those in need, in despair, in pain. The act of mothering is not exclusive to a mother and her child. It is something we can all do…even all you men out there. My love to all those here today who can claim the art of mothering as their own. Your love is the rock, the foundation, the blueprint of creation for those you love. It is for that you are honored here today.
To Whom It May Concern: The ELLA Foundation needs your help! We are holding our first ever fundraiser on April 14, 2013, at The Cove Restaurant. Up until now, all services provided by ELLA have been paid for out of my own pocket and monies raised through cash donations. I created The ELLA Foundation after my 13-year old son murdered his little sister Ella in 2007. I created ELLA because I came to believe through my own experience with violence there are four things all people need in order to recover and lead meaningful lives again after violence has destroyed their lives: Empathy, Love, Lessons, & Action. As part of our fundraiser, we are holding a raffle of donated goods & services. We are actively seeking donations of gift certificates for services your company performs or for tangible goods and products your company sells. If you would like to donate a good and/or service to us, please contact us either by phone, email, or through our website and an ELLA representative will come to your place of business to collect all donations. If you cannot donate a good and/or service, but would still like to help ELLA, we can hang a banner or hand out advertising materials from your company at The Cove on the day of the fundraiser. Upwards of 500 people per Sunday stop in at The Cove for their great food, great beer and wine selection, family friendly atmosphere, laundry mat, and car wash. For $50, an ELLA representative will pick up your banner and/or advertising materials, hang the banner and/or hand out marketing materials to all who stop by our table that day (which will be located at the entrance to The Cove), and be on hand to provide interested parties with information about your business. Funds raised will be used to pay for ELLA’s I Have a Voice program, a new therapeutic creative writing program for children with a loved one in prison, which begins in May 2013. Without proper intervention, these children are 5-6 times more likely to end up in prison themselves as adults. ELLA is hoping to help these innocent victims of the criminal justice system break that cycle. If your business is willing to donate a good or service to be raffled off, I will be very grateful and ELLA will provide your company with a donation receipt for tax purposes. We are a 501(c)3 so all donations are tax deductible. To learn more about The ELLA Foundation, the I Have a Voice program, the other work ELLA does, and me, please visit our website or feel free to give me a call. I am more than happy to answer any questions you may have. Any help you can give is much appreciated, and if you can't donate services, please do stop in at The Cove on April 14, 2013, for great food and fun that supports a great cause! Thank you in advance for all you do to make your world a better place! Charity Lee Founder & Executive Director
I recently had the honor of writing a blog for One For Ten! Just learned that is has gone live! Take a moment, give it a read, and support One For Ten's efforts to shed light on the inhumanity of the death penalty in America... http://www.oneforten.com/a-story-of-violence-love-and-charity Much love to all my ELLA peeps today!
February 4, 2013 Dear ELLA supporters, friends, and allies: Today I write to you with a pain in my heart but with great hope uplifting my soul. Today was the 6-year anniversary of my daughter Ella’s murder by her big brother, my son. My heart is heavy because six years is too long for any mother to have not held her child close, but Ella’s short life, and her brutal untimely death, have constantly inspired me to seek and create what I know are the four things needed by those who create violence and those who suffer violence to have meaningful, productive, and loving lives again after a tragedy such as Ella’s has occurred: Empathy, Love, Lessons, & Action. My soul is filled with great hope because today I am happy to announce that The ELLA Foundation, in association with Greater Faith Institutional Church, has created a new creative writing workshop for children who have a parent and/or loved one in prison, aptly named “I Have A Voice”. 2.5 million children in America have a parent and/or caregiver incarcerated. That number grows even more drastic if you consider all the children in America who have a loved one of some sort in prison. Often these children feel isolated, ashamed, confused, and/or guilty, all through no fault or action of their own. These children are 75% more likely to end up in prison themselves because they have a parent or loved one incarcerated. Through no fault of their own, they are caught in America’s vicious cycle of mass incarceration, often before they even start elementary school. “I Have A Voice” will bring these children together to help them find their voice in a loving and supportive environment, surrounded by other children who share their experience and pain. Creative writing is a form of therapeutic catharsis for children and adults alike. Coming together with other children in their situation gives the children a sense of belonging and extended family, which serves as a protective factor in their lives, reducing the effects of the trauma and negativity associated with having a parent, caregiver, or loved one in prison. The children will meet once a month for six months, beginning on May 13, 2013 for two hours each meeting. We will gather for a potluck meal, then we will spend about 45 minutes to an hour discussing various questions, such as, “How did you feel the day your (mom, dad, brother, etc.) was arrested?” or “How do you feel when you visit your (mom, dad, brother, etc.) in prison?” Then we will spend another 45 minutes to an hour helping the children write their stories in their own words. Published writers in the San Antonio community will visit from time to time to pass on to the children creative writing advice, skills, and insights about the transformative role writing has played in their lives. The end result of the workshop, other than the children finding their voice, expressing their feelings, and making new friends, will be a published book, composed of the children’s stories they choose to share. Each child will be given copies of their published book to sign and share as they wish and the book will be distributed to social service agencies in the city of San Antonio who work with children who may have incarcerated loved ones so they may give them out to those kids. So on this day of Ella’s death, I ask you to support her legacy of using Empathy, Love, Lessons, & Action to make the world a better place by making a 100% tax deductible contribution to The ELLA Foundation to help fund the “I Have a Voice” creative writing workshop. Our expenses are minimal but the rewards the children reap are great. We need funds to cover the costs of notebooks and pencils for the children, publishing costs for the book, and whatever expenses may crop up as the program progresses (food for the potlucks, fees for guest speakers if they are unable to donate their time, etc.) Any contribution you can make, big or small, is greatly appreciated and goes 100% towards program costs. I am the only “employee” of ELLA and I do not pay myself a salary. Volunteers do all other work and costs not covered by donations are paid out of my own pocket. Donations can be made on ELLA’s website, by clicking here, or you can mail a check to The ELLA Foundation, 222 Furr Dr., San Antonio, TX, 78201. Should you have any questions or would like to discuss the program, please feel free to call me at 210-601-9951. My thanks, and love, to all who support The ELLA Foundation, the work we do, and me. Without your support and kindness, neither ELLA, nor myself, would have made it as far as we have. Charity Lee Founder & Executive Director, One Who Still Has a Voice
There are many ways to take a stand. There is an equal amount of permutations in what people should take a stand on. We have all taken a stand on something; from what we want to be called to what our political beliefs are, i.e. voting or protesting. In prison, one becomes circumspect about what "stands" they take for obvious reasons. A few years ago, January 2002, I was faced with a chance to take a stand. The prison was a wreck and there were several problems that needed to be fixed. Both internal and external means were employed to get something done and there appeared to be utter indifference. Expected, I guess, we are death row, and who really cares about us? A very small minority! What were we to do? We needed to prove to the right people that we were serious, that we needed help and our complaints were legitimate. A protest was proposed: a hunger strike. There seemed much enthusiasm from the row with a fair bit of grumblings and nay sayings. As the discussions progressed I saw a problem that needed to be remedied. We had tons of suggestions that needed to be conveyed in the form of a petition that explained our dilemma to the "right" people, but no criteria of what should be included. I proposed a constitutional/privilege approach. Constitutional would be all issues that we could arguably show were rights in court. Privileges would be those things that were able to be taken away and no legal recourse available to return them. Once we got a general idea of who would participate on a hunger strike we delegated duties to those that would not. For example, they would write letters make phone calls and pressure the prison in whatever non-violent manner they could bring to bear. When the final amount of days was proposed to strike I was not at all sure I was ready for it. Thirty days without eating seemed like a long time. I expressed my concern as I had never gone more than a day without food in my whole life. This would be a test I had never faced. I stated that I would surely participate and that if 30 days was not attainable I would shoot for the closest number. What we ended up agreeing on were ten things that needed attention. One, the toilets were hooked together pipe wise so that the guy in the adjacent cell could flush his feces and it would come into your toilet. It acquired the name ping-pong toilet. Two, we wanted brighter lights in out cells, a 65 watt bulb made the cell look yellow, hurt eyes and caused headaches. Three, something needed to be done about the bug infestation from mosquitoes, spiders, beetles and the occasional rat, snake, or turtle. Four, psyche patients needed to be separate from the bulk of death row. Five, the whole building needed a paint job as the paint was peeling and worn away in large swathes. Six, we wanted our shoes back. All we were permitted were flip-flops. This meant whatever the weather we had no cover for our feet but socks and flip-flops. Seven, a laundry that worked. Frequently the clothes came back worse than they went or mildewed. Eight, we wanted the roof fixed so that when it rained we didn't get flooded in our cells. This contributed to the peeling paint problem. Nine, we wanted a medical, dental and psyche department that was more than a name. Ten, we wanted better ventilation, that helped us deal with the sweltering heat of summer and the stagnant air of so many enclosed men. The bugs kept windows closed that otherwise could have helped with the ventilation. We started on a Monday and quickly saw that the number of participants would not be as many as expected. About 75 on death row and only 10 of us were committed to a hunger strike. Many did contribute with letters, phone calls and trying to persuade outside help to come to our aid. That first morning we told the officer that we did not want our tray; that we were on a hunger strike. He upped the ante by saying if we did that that we also had to refuse liquids too -- coffee and milk. To each a man we followed suit. Next came the Rule Violation Reports for refusing to eat. Nonsensical, to say the least, but we dutifully signed our names to them. On the third day of our strike the prison moved us from around the other death row prisoners. Each of us then had to go through a shakedown of our property and we were limited to the basics, toilet paper, toothpaste, etc. We were then told to send all other property home before February 2 or the property would be destroyed. Once completed we were put on a separate zone and tier form death row; segregated. The next day I had a lawyer visit and gave her all my property to give to my mom. The guys didn't much agree with my decision, but I looked at two things; one, the officers wanted to use the property as a ploy to stop the strike. "We'll give you your stuff back if you come off." Two, I knew I could easily replace any of the items by buying more or getting my mom to send it back by mail. As a group we did well until the night of the sixth day. One of the guys got sick and started dry heaving. Once he had been taken to the hospital a debate about coming off started. Several didn't want to go through what the sick one did. I was for staying on along with two others. That night five started eating again. Four of us continued into the seventh day. I was demoralized because the guys seemed so dedicated at first, but the first sign of real trouble brought a halt to a cause I felt warranted a stiff resolve from all of us. I refused breakfast and lunch that seventh day and then gave up myself. Any momentum was lost, and the cause seemed equally so. I missed a total of 20 meals. Far, far from the proposed 30 day goal, but I did have a small measure of pride in that I had contributed in some way with something I genuinely believed in. Being on death row you lose so much autonomy and this protest had given me a bit of it back. The morning of the 8th day the three hold outs were taken to a clinic to be examined. It was the first time anyone had actively sought out our medical condition. Sadly, it was only because of the standard procedure to examine a person only after 7 days committed to a hunger strike and not to some altruistic tendencies. When they came back two began eating again to leave one still standing. Two more days of segregation and we were moved back to our original cells. The one hold out had been in a segregation cell on death row so was never moved. He lasted until the eleventh or twelfth day and came off as well. Property was returned as the guys had pointed out to me would occur when I sent mine home. There was still no complaint from me as I felt comfortable with my decision. Disciplinary proceedings began son afterwards. For each meal we missed we were given one R.V.R. Each R.V.R. had to be heard before a board that would impose a sentence of 5 to 30 days loss of privileges; canteen, phone calls and loss of one or two visits. Depending on the hearing officer you could quickly rack up a lot of time. I ended up with two-thirds of a year loss of privileges and a slew of visits. No complaints here either. I knew that taking my stand would result in certain consequences. During the strike we attracted the attention of the A.C.L.U. in Jackson and in Washington DC. We could describe as much as we wanted, but the attorney's needed to see for themselves if things were as we claimed. They told us to implement internal emergency Administrative Remedy Procedures because they had to be done before a lawsuit could be filed. Simultaneously they got federal authorization to tour death row. Ironically, they were pleased to see our living conditions were fairly bad and that our descriptions were exact. By the time the first tour came the prison had started painting a tier. It was only half done and actually heightened our cause because an immediate before/after scenario was there for the attorneys to see. More tours, motions, conferences, and briefings ensued. No headway was made on voluntarily fixing the problems so the A.C.L.U went to court for us. After a trial with a myriad of experts we secured a wonderful ruling from the court. You can review it at Russell v. Epps, 2003 WL 22208029. We got pretty much what we wanted, but we didn't get shoes. On appeal we lost on the laundry but the court 5th circuit, upheld the district court's ruling on all other particulars As I write this in 2005 I can state a lot has been done to improve our living conditions. The plumbing has been fixed so that the feces aren't pushed back and forth. Bright fluorescent lights have been installed. Screens have been placed on all windows to prevent bugs coming in. A spraying system has been installed over each entrance to kill bugs. The building is painted and for the most part clean. To help combat heat we get showers everyday from May 1st until September 30th. Each of those days we get ice three times: morning, noon and evening. Fans were given to each man for his own use. Psyche patients are housed separately from us. The roof has been resurfaced. Ventilation has been improved slightly. Medical issues are better and actually addressed fairly quickly. The ruling ended up only applying to a certain class, death row, so state prisoners, those not in the row, have filed suit. The A.C.L.U has led in that one, too, they are asking for the same changes for them. They are also challenging the medical issue in a different light as it appears some of the personnel are not qualified to practice medicine. Taking a stand can be a wonderful rewarding experience. It can lead to great results and actually improve living standards. Where you are shouldn't stop you, I'm on death row, but you should choose your causes wisely. You should also be as dedicated as possible. Sometimes you won't have people to stand with you--that should not be a deterrent. Ultimately it is you that must decide and you that must take a stand. No matter what, this country allows you that right, exercise it, but treat it as if it will go away if you don't. Larry Matthew Puckett