Wednesday, July 30, 2014

T.J. Spytma is out of prison

and we should all be happy about that.

Brendan and I drove 500+ miles northwest last Wednesday (and back on Friday). It was a great trip--lots of music along the way, things to talk about, fuel-stop food, wool to gather--but the point of the journey was Thursday, when we got to spend a few hours with friends T.J. Spytma and Penny Ryder.

T.J. will be 55 years old in November and when that birthday comes, it will be the occasion for his first party outside of prison since he was 15. Penny picked T.J. up at the Cotton Correctional Facility on Tuesday and, after a joyful moment of being together without supervision for the first time ever, they loaded a couple of boxes of personal items into Penny's car, the sum total of T.J.'s material accumulations these last 40 years. They headed first to the parole office an hour away, where T.J. would be expected to show up probably twice a month for the next four years to be urine-tested and to look his parole officer in the eye.

In his pocket, T.J. had a check for $176, his savings from decades of paid work at a Braille production facility inside the prison. But T.J. had no complaints about the job, which he considered a good one compared to the other options. T.J. and Penny had plenty to talk about on the way to the parole office, but there were lots of distractions, too, like how green the world is, how tall the trees were, how fast the cars go, and how a free and quiet moment felt.

Of course, there was lots of strategizing to do; the two of them have few illusions about how difficult the adjustment would be for T.J. individually, and for both of them together. Before T.J. had even gotten out, they had already decided they would begin couple's counseling right away. They knew they would need plenty of structure. There was so much to learn, including, as it happened, that he would be billed $2,000 by the state for the four years worth of drug-testing and parole officer eyeballing that lay ahead.

In a week, T.J. would begin a part-time job with the American Friends Service Committee's Criminal Justice program, the same program that had brought the two of them together in the first place, and that Penny had run for more than 25 years before she retired. T.J.'s job would be to staff the program's Parole Workshop project, which helps lifers and other long-term inmates prepare themselves for parole and, in particular, for the routine, but grueling, hearing before their parole board.

The parole hearing is usually so stressful for long-time inmates that many end up dreading it more than the prospect of doing additional time. For years, lifers in Michigan prisons had difficulty even getting to the hearing stage. But one attorney in Michigan, Paul Reingold, spent a good deal of his own time lobbying for regulatory changes that would at least allow long-time inmates to get a hearing. To his dismay, he discovered that most of them, frightened and unprepared, would mess up the hearing, unable to cope with aggressive questioning from staffers whose job amounted to making sure that if the inmate harbored any doubts about himself, could not manage his own anger, or had an untreated mental illness, the breakdown would happen at the hearing, and not after parole was granted.

Already familiar with AFSC's Criminal Justice program in Michigan, Reingold went to Penny to express his concern about the alarming rate at which lifers blew their parole hearings. After considerable strategizing with allies, Penny and AFSC developed the Parole Workshop, which included readings, reflections and discussions aimed at getting participants to think more deeply about the factors that drove them to commit their crimes, the consequences for their victims and the communities they came from, and how they had changed in their understanding of their own life, how their capacity for empathy had grown, and how they would use freedom, if it came to them.

For T.J., who has spent the last 30 years in prison thinking about his own crime and the crimes of others with whom he has served time, working in therapeutic groups and individuals sessions to understand who he was developmentally at the time he committed his crime, the changes he had to make, and how to cope with his own victimization as a child, the job is a perfect fit. He won't be able to go into the prisons to lead the workshops himself (at least not right away), but he will be able to coach the coaches, and communicate with inmates taking the workshops, encouraging and guiding them by mail and telephone.

A horrifying crime
[Note: Even though the names of the victim and her family members are part of the public record, T.J. has asked me, as a sign of respect, to not to use their names, and I have honored his request.]

In 1974, T.J. (then 15) and another boy broke into a neighbor's home with larceny on their minds. The two teenagers, already regular abusers of barbiturates, were high. Before they were done ransacking the house, the neighbor, a local school employee, wife and mother, returned home.

During the crime, T.J.'s accomplice raped the victim and perhaps struck the blow that killed her. But T.J., himself, struck the first blow, and also slit the victim's wrists before he left, with the intention of sparing the dying victim from further suffering.

In the many years that I have known T.J., and the even longer initial period in which I knew of him, he has never denied any of the details of the crime and has acknowledged the gravity of what he did, not only to the victim, but to her family and to the social fabric of his community.

Though some of his statements have been qualified by observations about his drug use and juvenile status, T.J. has been clear:

"I, along with my co-defendant, did the unthinkable... It was my idea to do the breaking and entering. My judgement was not that of a mature adult and my decision making was further influenced by my use of barbiturates prior to [the victim's] death. When my co-defendant and I were discovered by [the victim], in the home, I was the first to strike her from behind."
--from T.J.'s letter to me, October 23, 2010

It doesn't take much imagination to guess at the degree of community outrage and grief that accompanied the news of the killing in Muskegon County, Michigan. Even 40 years later an on-line Michigan news service headlined the story of T.J.'s parole this way: "Notorious murderer Timothy Spytma paroled from life sentence." The article itself is a reasonably measured description of what T.J. did, how the murder/rape affected the community, how the case proceeded through to sentence, and, using a judge's letter regarding a possible parole, how both Spytma and the laws regarding juvenile prosecutions and sentences have changed. But the headline very likely speaks louder than the story.

"In one way or another, we articulate what has happened to us through the person we have become."

On the way back to DC, while Brendan, using his ear buds, communed with his music, I listened to Azar Nafisi, on audio disc, reading her own book, Things I Have Been Silent About. It was the second time around for me with Nafisi reciting her own words. I love the book. Nafisi (also the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran) is a luminous writer inspecting her own life, so modern and so old-school, so gothic and so exotically Persian. But I stopped the disc and roused Brendan to quickly take down a quote from Nafisi that put me in mind of T.J.:

"In one way or another, we articulate what has happened to us through the person we have become."

Maybe, I thought, but looking at the person T.J. has become, how could anyone begin to grasp what has happened to him, what he did, who he was, who he has become? How could anyone meet T.J., feel his warmth, watch him with Penny, watch his absolute focus on Brendan when they were in conversation, and also guess what a terrible thing he did when he was 15 years old?

Certainly, there are people, including [the victim's] children, who were (and remain) entirely opposed to setting T.J. free. At 17, the victim's son, discovered her maimed and tortured body on his return home that day. He opposed T.J.'s release on the very reasonable grounds that he doesn't believe that T.J. could possibly be rehabilitated because the U.S. prison system does not effectively rehabilitate and that T.J. would be a danger to the community upon his release.

It's difficult to argue that prisons do little to rehabilitate, do little to address mental illness, do little to treat drug addiction, do little to teach literacy, and do inflict, nearly every day, an unusual level of indignity and deprivation that goes far beyond the fact of imprisonment. But there is now quite a lot of evidence that T.J. is not only rehabilitated, but that he has achieved that rehabilitation largely through his own efforts, through his personal will, through the diligent application of his considerable intelligence, and through the remarkable expansion of his capacity for compassion and empathy.

Doing time, lots of it

There's no question that T.J.'s rehabilitation in prison was a lengthy process. He didn't even begin any kind of psychotherapy until 1986, eleven years after he was first sentenced to prison. Michigan prison practice at the time was actually to deny therapy for inmates with life sentences until they had served at least ten years of their sentence. For T.J., this only compounded the difficulties he faced--a 16-year old felon with a history of substance abuse and emotional trauma--in adjusting to a life sentence in an adult prison. That he survived long enough to make it out is a tribute to human resilience. The prison system, itself, deserves little credit for T.J.'s personal triumph, powered as it was by T.J., assisted as it was by Penny Ryder and a handful of other believers who worked hard on his behalf.

In early 1986, as part of a court hearing on an appeal of his sentence, he had a psychiatric evaluation conducted by the same psychiatrist who conducted his evaluation before his 1975 sentence. At the conclusion to his 1986 report to the court, Dr. Denis Walsh wrote this:

"He wishes to see his crime over and done with and yet, I do not see it that way. I feel his crime is significant and indicates weakness in ego functioning which enables primitive aggressive impulses to erupt into overt behavior. I think Mr. Spytma is unaware of what conflicts are defended against by these hostile acts. I must, therefore, take the position that he needs psychiatric treatment before he can be considered for release... He has worked very hard, using whatever tools he has been given to do his best to ready himself for release, but no psychiatric treatment has been given... Up to this point, what has happened is that a mentally ill individual has been warehoused and struggles against despair."

This report, when it got back to T.J., could have compounded his despair. But by that point, already well along the path toward eventual rehabilitation, he was motivated to do more. Finally eligible for psychotherapy, T.J. kept moving. In a report filed with the Department of Corrections in 1987, clinical psychologist Stephen Purcell praised him:

"...from his very inception into the group, Mr. Spytma showed high interest and motivation in wanting to explore the underlying psychological precipitants to his crimes... The subject has been very cooperative in terms of group participation and support of other members of the group... this clinician views Mr. Spytma as being a very intelligent and affable individual who is willing to work on the problems that have precipitated his [original] offense. It appears that the subject will make impressive movement in therapy providing he continues to attend on a regular basis."

But it was years after that before T.J. actually told anyone about having been sexually molested at 10 by an older step-sister and, subsequently, at 12 years old, abused multiple times by an adult sister-in-law. Up to that point only T.J., himself, and the two women who victimized him knew what had happened.

For a 2004 psychiatric examination, T.J. wrote a 20-page account of his relationship with his mother and his feelings about his father's death when he was nine. In writing the report, he described his feelings about what he had done to [the victim] and to her family:

"I came to realize much, much more how my actions affected the [husband and children of the victim]. My God, I caused them all such needless pain and suffering. [Prison psychologist] Dr. Purcell helped bring the feelings home. He would ask, 'What if that were your mother? What if you came home to find your mother in the same condition as [the victim's son] found his mother?' Contemplating those personalized questions was emotionally draining for me. I felt I had come to know the sadness, the loss, the suffering they each experienced. What if [the victim's children] had children of their own? They would never have their grandmother. My actions that sad day were so far reaching. Birthdays, holidays, they must be particularly difficult for each of them.

"When my own mother passed away on April 16, 1992, I knew, with a much greater degree of certainty, what all of them must have felt that day in 1974. [But] while I have a fairly good understanding of the moments leading up to my mother's last breath, they didn't have [even] that. I can't imagine them having total resolution with unanswered questions about their mother's death. I feel for them. I carry the guilt of having deprived them of so much potential happiness."

Through it all, or most of it, from the mid-'80s on, Penny was there for T.J. In another 2004 report to the psychiatrist conducting a pre-parole exam, T.J. wrote about Penny:

"Aside from my immediate family, my most significant and cherished relationship is with Penny. I was especially fortunate to have Penny in my life when I was going through group therapy and at the time of my mother's death. Admittedly, because all of my relationships prior to Penny were short ones, I was hesitant to be entirely trusting, but the longer our relationship continued, the more trusting I seemingly became. Like my group experience, I can be vulnerable with Penny. I can admit when I experience fear. I can cry. I need not ever worry about her thinking less of me... She saw and helped me understand that it wasn't until my mother passed away that I could finally mourn the deaths of both my parents."

Penny also wrote the psychiatrist. He quotes from her letter in his report:

"I have helped him to own his emotions and to realize that emotions were appropriate for people and prisoners to have. Yes, in prison there are times when exposing your emotions is dangerous, but that he needed to express them to people he could trust... The friends that he has picked to share with over the years have for the most part been ones that actually helped him to grow. The ones that he has been hurt by he understands that it is very much a normal part of life."

Few people are ever more deeply and systematically exposed than a prisoner who wants to heal, to move on, to seek parole. But to get where he is today, T.J., had to learn to let his defenses down more than the rest of us routinely do.

Growing up in prison

And could learning to do so be any more difficult than it must have been for a 15 year old with a history of drug abuse entering an adult prison, an inmate who kept secret the facts about two separate experiences of continuing sexual abuse for some 30 years while serving a 40 year sentence in prison? But he did it, and in the process became a paralegal and a member of the Mass Incarceration Committee of the National Lawyers' Guild, and is only a few credits short of a bachelor's degree.

Even prison guards who know T.J. laud him. Psychologist Alison Jones summarizes the remarks of one prison official for a pre-parole report on T.J. in 2008: "She knew him both at Coldwater and at J.C.F. She asserts that he is definitely a model prisoner, is very respectful towards prisoners and staff, and never has to be checked about anything. He was a geriatric aide for elderly prisoners when she knew him at Coldwater. He went way above and beyond his job duties and went out of his way to be helpful to others. She sees him as a very caring and compassionate person. Given the age when the crime occurred and the growth that has occurred over time, she feels that he could function well within society and that there is little more that the prison system has to offer him in terms of rehabilitation. She notes her perception that he has rehabilitated himself and grown up in prison. He has succeeded where many prisoners have failed. She notes that he did hard time and was able to overcome his circumstances and turn a negative into something positive."

But even after this report, it would be another six years before T.J. got out of prison. And the first day out he discovered that he wasn't done paying the state. The next day, T.J. and Penny were off getting a state ID for him, and getting him registered for Medicaid. Of course, the bureaucrats he encountered needed to know why he didn't already have ID, why he wasn't already registered for health care. Because this is my first full day out of prison in forty years, he told them.

People were cordial, he said. "Some of them just smiled and said 'welcome.'" But either way, both T.J. and Penny are going to take everything in stride. They know that he will keep paying in small ways for the crime he committed in 1974. But they also know that a new life is beginning for T.J., and that he has work to do; helping others understand what they have done and preparing themselves for freedom.

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