What is the Road to Redemption?

Leslie Van Houten. Courtesy of abcnews.go.com.

By Tomiwa Adeyemo, Staff Writer

Two weeks ago, it was revealed that the president of the United States had pressured a foreign leader to investigate one of his (the President’s) political opponents, using military aid as leverage. The very stable genius reacted to this revelation on his favorite social media platform, sending out numerous tweets railing against the Democratic party, the “fake news media” and a political opponent, Joe Biden. In what I can only speculate was an attempt to clarify things, Rudy Giuliani went on CNN in an interview that devolved into a rambling, chaotic mess. As I saw and read article after article about the situation, I found myself experiencing an unusual emotion considering the gravity of the circumstances:


Not surprise. Not outrage. Boredom. Why? Well there’s a popular saying: when someone shows you who they are, believe them. And I have chosen to believe that Trump is who he has shown he is. Surprise and outrage at his actions, while warranted, are a waste of time because at his age and position, he isn’t going to change. So now that I have gotten that brief soliloquy off my chest, I’ll be moving on. This article isn’t about the latest revelations about the U.S. president. It’s about something entirely different. It’s about redemption.

One of several articles I read over the weekend was this one from MSN. I read that two out of three appellate judges upheld former California Governor Jerry Brown’s decision to deny Leslie Van Houten parole. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Van Houten is an ex-Manson follower who is currently serving time in excess of forty years for her role in the 1969 horrific slayings of grocer Leo LaBianca and his wife. The California Board of Parole has found Van Houten “suitable for release” three times, but each time her release has been blocked: twice by Jerry Brown and once by current California Governor Gavin Newsom.

The article stood out to me for several reasons, the main reason being Van Houten’s age. She is seventy and, as I mentioned earlier, has spent more than four decades in jail. To be clear, this is not to say that there should be no septuagenarians in jail. In fact, no one that played a direct role in the Tate-LaBianca murders has been released from prison and they are all over seventy. But this is not about them, it’s about Van Houten, specifically. And when someone has remorsefully admitted fault, spent more than half of their life in jail and has been described as a “model prisoner” by the very governor that denies their parole, it makes me wonder: At what point does “punishment” begin to border on torture and what exactly is the path to redemption?

To properly address the former would require an entirely separate article, so I’ll focus on the latter. It is often said that America loves a good comeback story, but more often than not, that’s a saying that mostly applies to celebrities. Tiger Woods, Martha Stewart and Mel Gibson are quintessential examples. Yet even for them, there was no definite path to redemption. Sure, there are some similarities, one being that they all apologized for their misdeeds (in the case of Gibson, numerous times over). But after that, their paths mostly diverged, proving that there is no one definite path to redemption in our society. And if a celebrity in a society that worships celebrities struggles to find redemption, how much more a prisoner that has been cast out from society.

When we talk about “comebacks” and “redemptions”, prisoners are often excluded, even though they are perhaps the segment of the population that should be most involved in the conversation. This particularly applies to prisoners who were sentenced at a young age and have spent a significant portion of their lives languishing in a cell. Most devolve into their worst selves, further transformed by an environment that demands the worst from a person. But a few evolve, becoming better people, pursuing higher education and working to transform others. And yet, to those people we almost always say “no, that is not enough.”

Van Houten has earned two degrees in prison (bachelor’s and master’s) and counsels women. By any metric she is “rehabilitated,” yet she remains incarcerated. Her story is far from unique. Curtis Carroll, also known as “Wall Street,” is an inmate in the San Quentin State Prison in Northern California, where he’s been in prison for two decades, serving a sentence of 54 years to life for participating in a robbery attempt that ended in a murder. He was 17 when he was charged. Carroll taught himself to read in prison, is an informal financial adviser to fellow inmates and correctional officers, and has even given a TED talk. He remains behind bars.

Although I mentioned just two, I’m sure there are hundreds of other prisoners across the country that were sentenced at a young age and have rehabilitated themselves, but are condemned to carry out the full length of their sentences, possibly for decades to come. A critic might note that in my second paragraph I said, “when someone shows you who they are, believe them,” and extend it to Van Houten. A rebuttal to that would be the fact that she is clearly not the same person she was at 19 as evidenced by her recommendation for parole and her status as a model prisoner. If, despite all she has done to redeem herself, an inmate like Van Houten isn’t released, then the question shouldn’t be “what is the road to redemption,” but rather “is there any road to redemption?”

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