‘Where Is God in Our Justice System?’

September 3, 2012
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Judith Clark

I have served 31 years of a 75-years-to-life prison sentence for my role as a getaway driver in a 1981 robbery in which three men were killed. Six years into my sentence, on the eve of Hanukkah in 1987, I was suddenly whisked out of the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in New York and taken to an isolation unit in a federal men’s prison in Tucson, Ariz. I had no idea if the transfer was permanent or what would become of me.

Before this jolt, I had reached a turning point in my life; I had begun to reckon with the enormity of my crime, the loss of life it caused, and my separation from my child. I had shed my militant political group identity, but I was unclear about what would take its place. I attended Jewish services at the prison, for reasons I could not yet enunciate, and found comfort in our biblical explorations.

Exiled in the Arizona desert, I continued to study, turning to the book of Jonah. I identified with Jonah because I felt that I, too, had been swallowed by a great fish and was being transported by forces other than myself. I was surprised to discover that this fish, rather than being Jonah’s undoing, was God’s means of rescuing Jonah from his own suicidal impulses. Perhaps, I, too, had to decide if I was being offered a choice.

Jonah’s story raised other questions for me: Can one change enough to alter the course of one’s life? Are some terrible deeds too indelible for one to be able to shift the consequences? Like Nineveh, I wanted to repent, but could I ever be forgiven?

I tried to understand Jonah in order to understand myself. Jonah is on a death trip. Unable to stand and argue with God, he disengages. He hides and flees. On the ship, he opts for the oblivion of sleep. How can one escape an omnipresent Being except to jump into the great sea and drown?

How many times had I fled from my reality rather than stand and address the conflicting choices that pulled me — unable to acknowledge my fear, conflicts, and confusion? I’d chosen the oblivion of group dogma rather than face the storm of doubt and self-doubt.

Jonah appears to have a change of heart when he recites a prayer of entreaty from his depths. The fish spews him out onto the shores of Nineveh, where he brings God’s message of condemnation. But the shallowness of Jonah’s shift is revealed when God rescinds the decree against Nineveh. Jonah is angry with God’s mercy. Jonah cannot do what we are all called to do during the Ten Days of Awe: forgive. There is no repentance without forgiveness of self and others. Jonah’s “stuckness” is not his alone.

As I endeavor to do teshuvah, I look to the God we find in the book of Jonah, the Creator of all: Hebrews and Ninevites, humankind, animals and plants, land and sea. We are all from the same source. When I face my worst enemy, I must recognize our kindredness. When I witness another’s misdeeds, I must recognize that she could be me and I, her. God’s compassion grows out of the Creator’s willingness to feel connection, loss, and mourning. This God is fallible, willing to be moved and to repent.

It is so apt that Jonah’s story ends with a question that we, in each generation, must answer: Where is this compassionate and vulnerable God in our world today? Where is this God in our justice system and social policies? Where is this compassionate God in each of our hearts? Now, 31 years into my sentence, the God I encounter in Jonah challenges me to deepen my teshuvah — to seek ways to communicate my remorse to my victims; to nurture my bond with my now-adult daughter; and to allow myself to believe in my own redemption and desire for forgiveness, for mercy, and for freedom.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sh’ma sought to include a response to this essay by one of Clark’s victims’ family members. The family member declined, beyond saying: “She can repent while she’s in prison; I don’t want to have anything to do with her.” Clark is currently petitioning New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for clemency. For an account of Judith Clark’s life — her involvement in the Brink’s robbery of 1981, during which three men were killed for which she received a 75-years-to-life sentence — see the January 29, 2012 New York Times Magazine article, “Judith Clark’s Radical Transformation” by Tom Robbins (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/29/magazine/reply-all-judith-clark.html).

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Judith Clark writes, studies, teaches, and mentors mothers in prison. She raises service dogs for wounded veterans as part of Puppies Behind Bars. Her work and story can be viewed at judithclark.org.

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