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Teaching peace from prison.

Before they died off to all points in the hemisphere, and a few summer sites beyond, students at American University in Washington honored Joseph Giarratano.

The students, enrolled in the university's School of International Service and its several peace studies programs, gave a "Peacemaker Award" to a man who has not been seen in public since 1978. That year, the state of Virginia sent Mr. Giarratano to death row on a double murder conviction.

The story would end there except that Mr. Giarratano, supported by Amnesty International, Bishop Walter Sullivan of Richmond, Va., a dozen members of Congress and a team of post-conviction lawyers, won a last-minute release from death row in 1991 by then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who had strong doubts about the prisoner's guilt. Unable to win a new trial--by Virginia law, claims of innocence must be brought to court within 21 days of conviction--Mr. Giarratano was sent to another prison. He is currently in 23-hours-a-day lockdown in Red Onion state prison, a supermax facility in Pound, Va.

Why the peacemaker award? Letters. Since 1988 when I began taking my high school, college and law classes to visit Mr. Giarratano, he has written hundreds and hundreds of letters to my students. From his prison cell, he has been my teaching assistant--a genuine educator who has experiential knowledge on how the Eighth Amendment that forbids cruel and unusual punishment is violated every day in America's prisons. Just as important, he encourages the students to use their gifts to create a peaceable society.

Write to Joe, I have told my students, and get his views on surviving sensory deprivation. Ask him about the pervasive mental illness he has seen in Virginia's prisons. Ask how he himself has managed to stay sane all these years when engulfed by the madness of punitive, not restorative, justice. Ask how he controls his emotions when state officials say they have either lost or destroyed crime scene evidence that could exonerate him.

Ask how he goes on year after year in a state with the nation's toughest deadline for prisoners to present new evidence of innocence. Ask for the details on how he saved the life of a condemned man by finding a lawyer at the 11th hour who eventually won the prisoner's freedom. Ask how he became the only inmate on death row ever to write a brief argued before the Supreme Court, and not even on his own case.

Surprisingly, Joe's letters that come back to students, and the many he writes to me, rarely mention his own case. He tells stories of the men he has met in prison, of the books he is reading, of his self-taught knowledge of Buddhism, nonviolence and philosophy. In the mid-1990s, a humane warden, aware that Joe had written articles for The Yale Law Review and the Los Angeles Times, allowed him to teach courses on nonviolence to fellow inmates. "NBC Nightly News" reported the story, including graduation ceremonies in which prisoners rose to say that if they had been taught nonviolence when they were children they probably wouldn't have ended up in cages.

Despite the warden's backing--he said the courses had greatly reduced inmate violence--officials in the state's department of corrections ordered the program closed. Cons are studying Gandhi, Tolstoy and Dorothy Day? Stop the coddling. Prisons are for punishment, not education.

Since then, Joe's been teaching by mail--educating the supposedly educated class on how it's possible to live peacefully within the hellish violence of prison. I know of several students who have gone into public interest law because of Joe's influence. I know of hundreds who have shifted from pro to anti-death penalty. And hundreds more who are better people because of this rare man of letters.

[Colman McCarthy, a former columnist for The Washington Post, teaches peace studies at a number of colleges and universities in Washington.]
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Title Annotation:COLUMNS
Author:McCarthy, Colman
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 29, 2005
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