'Doing Life'... and Coping

Sep 5, 2017

A recent report by The Sentencing Project says that nearly one in every seven people in prison is serving what effectively amounts to a life sentence. Twenty years ago, a book of photos and interviews of nearly 60 lifers in Pennsylvania prisons, where a life sentence really means a life sentence, gave rare insight into their lives and thoughts.

This year, the author of that book, who now lives in Rockingham County, is re-connecting with some of those same people. WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.

It’s been a quarter of a century since Broadway resident Howard Zehr interviewed and photographed the subjects for what became his 1996 book Doing Life: Reflections of Men and Women Serving Life Sentences. He’s been revisiting about two dozen of those men and women in preparation for a follow-up, which he’s calling “Coping with Life.” They’ve been joyous reunions, he said, but they’ve also made him very sad when he tries to imagine what it must be like. Zehr recorded his interviews.

HOWARD ZEHR: How do you describe a life sentence today? Remember, I asked you how you would describe it 25 years ago. How would you describe it today?

MARILYN DOBROLENSKI: Whew.

ZEHR: Everybody I’ve ever asked says “whew” first.

DOBROLENSKI: I don't even know if I have any reference to compare it to, because I've been here so long. McDonald's wasn't even open for breakfast when I came to jail.

Marilyn Dobrolenski has been in prison since 1972, and has kept herself occupied painting with watercolors, welding, training dogs. She’s in the process of filing for commutation.

DOBROLENSKI: I’m trying not to get my hopes up to have them let down again, cause I don’t know, at this age, that would go over very well.

ZEHR: How old are you?

DOBROLENSKI:  I'll be 65 this year.

ZEHR: Okay, I thought maybe.

Zehr is known as the “grandfather of restorative justice,” which considers the needs of victims in the justice process and “focuses on repairing the harms of crime.” He wanted his book Doing Life “to offer an opportunity to see offenders as individuals with their own fears and dreams, rather than stereotypes.” Zehr hopes that this sequel collection, “Coping with Life,” will show how people endure, find meaning in, and even transcend being in prison for life.

ZEHR: They're trying to “restory” their lives. They’re trying to incorporate what happened into their lives. I’ve often talked about that with crime victims, but it’s also true with people who commit crimes, and I saw that clearly in Harry Twiggs, for instance, trying to reconcile the terrible guy that he was, as he readily admits, with who he is now today. You can’t just say these are two different, absolutely different people, and the way it’s often done, is by saying, “That prepared me and gave me the insights that I can now use, that made me who I am and that I can now use to help others.”

Here’s Harry Twiggs, a lifer that Zehr said is using his past to help others:

HARRY TWIGGS: One of the counselors told me, she said, Your problem is not drugs and alcohol or crime. She said, “Your problem is you! You have a Harry Twiggs problem.” I’m trying to make up for all the years and the pain and the suffering and stuff that I caused people. When I was out there, I was in the way. Now I’m able to show people that’s tryin’ to find their way, I can show them.

Kimerly Joynes is another person who tries to support others in facing adversity. She works as a Certified Peer Specialist, with younger women in prison.

ZEHR: What would say today if you were describing a life sentence? How would you describe it?

JOYNES: Oh boy. I’ve been thinking about this for a long, long time. The good thing about it is the joy I receive from helping myself and others. The bad part about it is the negativity. You have to fight with every fiber of your being to be constructive. It’s just heart wrenching to see so many people that really had to live pillar to post. I extend my compassion and my comfort in the best way I can to help them realize there is so much — let me see a better way to phrase it — is so much more joy than there is hardship. You just have to come to a point in your life where you believe goodness feels better than the pain you have endured.

Zehr doesn’t know yet whether this collection — “Coping with Life” — will end up as an exhibit or a book. But he is sure that if he were to be photographed in a prison setting, he’d look like a prisoner, too. That’s why in his photography he uses a plain backdrop.

ZEHR: I want you to confront the person, what they look like, what their eyes are saying, what they're saying with their voice, and not have other things to make judgements with.

However it takes shape, Zehr’s result will be a glimpse inside, into the people who are living — likely for the rest of their lives — behind fences and locked gates, and, for those of us on the outside, maybe even into our own expectations of the criminal justice system.