We Executed A Prison Role Model

Photo: Wes Browning/Sema Films.
Early Wednesday morning, Georgia executed the only woman in the state on death row. The decision followed hours of deliberation and desperate pleas from thousands of people, including the Pope, and the prisoner's three children.

Kelly Gissendaner and her family requested clemency from the Georgia State of Pardons and Paroles. With significant support, they claimed she was rehabilitated, and asked that her sentence be commuted to life in prison, as opposed to death.

If Georgia heard their calls, it didn’t listen, and Gissendaner made preparations to die.

Her story is a tragedy and a missed opportunity to demonstrate that, through education and other prison initiatives, our criminal justice system can — and in Gissendaner’s case did — produce results.

“By all accounts she had been rehabilitated. The guards in the prison and her fellow inmates, her family, her supporters, everybody — there didn’t seem to be any argument that she had not been generally rehabilitated. That just wasn’t relevant,” James Clark, an advocacy campaign specialist who focuses on the death penalty for Amnesty International, said. “Putting her to death didn’t accomplish anything. It didn’t make us safer. The only thing it accomplished was inflicting retribution, not justice.”

Gissendaner was arrested in 1997 for the murder of her husband, Douglas Gissendaner.

Though she has admitted to participating in the murder, her boyfriend, Gregory Owen, the man who physically stabbed her husband to death, will be eligible for parole in eight years.

Their destinies diverged drastically because Owen agreed to accept a plea deal — an offer by the prosecution to reduce a sentence if the defendant cooperates in a certain way — while Gissendaner did not. Gissendaner received a death sentence, and began an 18-year prison stint that ended early Wednesday, with a lethal injection of phenobarbital.

The two decades Gissendaner spent behind bars proved pivotal for her.

She enrolled in Emory University’s program for incarcerated women, pursuing a Certificate in Theological Studies (CTS) that would help her gain the confidence to analyze the implications of her decisions — past and future — and assist her fellow inmates to do the same.

This kind of interaction between prisoners — a motivated individual’s ability to influence the ambitions of her peers — is a critical argument for education programs in prisons.

Reports, such as the 2014 RAND study, show that educating prisoners has a significant impact on reducing recidivism, or a former prisoner’s likelihood of breaking the law again. Critics of these statistics say that prisoners who choose to participate in prison education are already more motivated than their fellow inmates, and thus offset the data. But the ripple effect is what’s important, the Marshall Project explained— if you see your peers getting better, likely, you will want to, too.

Earlier this summer, convinced of the benefits of prison education programs, the Obama administration reinstated Pell Grants for prisoners. The initiative is called “Second Chance,” and will allow prisoners who are candidates for release to access free postsecondary degree programs.

"Post-secondary education teaches people critical thinking, builds confidence, and has a positive effect on myriad socio-economic outcomes," Vivian Nixon, the executive director of College and Community Fellowship, an organization for educating incarcerated women, said in an email.

"Many who generally support education in prisons believe that people with life sentences or who are on death row have no need for education. I emphatically defend every person’s right to continue on the path of self-improvement that education provides, in every circumstance, right up until they draw their last breath," Nixon said.

Gissendaner was not a candidate for release, so she would not have been able to apply for a Pell Grant. If Georgia had granted Gissendaner clemency, it would have commuted her death sentence to one of life in prison, without the possibility of parole. Gissendaner knew this. But she asked to stay alive in prison, a place that makes other people want to die, because prison gave her an opportunity to reinvent herself, and to build a community that benefited from her progress.

“For a while now, and because I was on death row, I didn’t have a plan for my life. Now I have a plan,” Gissendaner said in her CTS graduation speech, according to one of her teachers.

“[Kelly] would’ve been able to continue the work that she was doing in prison, serving as a pastoral counselor. A lot of the women that she helped have come forward. In some cases, they said she saved their lives. They were on the verge of suicide,” Clark, the expert from Amnesty International, explained. “Now, many of those women have been released and are valuable, productive people, who are leading the lives they lead because of Kelly.”

The Revered Sarah Hedgis, one of Gissendaner’s CTS teachers, explained that Gissendaner's version of hope was “a deep belief in the promises of God” and “the promises of community.” She added that Gissendaner believed “communities can be healed, can be reconciled, and can know wholeness,” and that “death for death is a compromise,” destructive to that process.

Witnesses reported that in the moments before her execution, Gissendaner sang “Amazing Grace.” She had become a deeply spiritual person, who believed that the world might behave miraculously for those who defied its odds.

Six years ago, Gissendaner saw some of that faith deliver. Her daughter, Kayla Gissendaner, now 25, had decided to go visit her mom in prison, despite the fact that she was responsible for Kayla’s father’s murder. Kayla’s two brothers — Dakota and Brandon — followed suit.
“She has grown and the changes that she has made are incredible,” Kayla said in a tear-filled video published in September to #kellyonmymind, a site advocating clemency for Gissendaner.
Dakota felt the same way. “She took her life experience, and what she’s been through, and what she did, and she’s helped people. She’s saved people’s lives,” he said. For seven years, he’d despised his mom, but he wanted to believe she could change.

Many Americans support the death penalty for convicted murderers. Many Americans — 37% — do not. Some of these individuals inherently believe that the destruction of human life is wrong, whereas others — like Gissendaner's children — believe that rehabilitating the members of our society, who at one point threatened its stability, can only make us stronger.

Speaking to Congress during his visit to the U.S. last week, Pope Francis expressed his support for both camps.

“I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes,” he said.

Gissendaner had already proved him right. More impressively, she had done so of her own volition, while behind bars, and without any tangible incentive. She was an example of a positive feedback loop — a world in which our justice system serves its prisoners, and its prisoners serve their country in return. That is, until we killed her.

In an era characterized by deplorable conditions in our prison system, and by that system’s endemic failures, saving Gissendaner’s life could have been a win for America.

Instead we are one person — one mother, one theologian, one triumph — less. We cannot afford to keep losing.

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