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March 18, 2014

Letter From Death Row: The Ray Jasper Controversy | Part 1

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Written by: David Smallwood
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ray jasper

A Letter Before Dying

Texas death row inmate Ray Jasper, who is scheduled to be put to this week, has written a letter before his execution that is causing quite a firestorm on the web. In it, he likens the penal system to nationally sanctioned slavery and offers his thoughts about young Black men being fed into the system.

It is a letter that Jasper writes “could be my final statement on earth,” and N’DIGO is printing edited portions of it to see if his words offer any merit or cautionary advice to young Black men who might use them to avoid Jasper’s outcome.

Following Jasper’s letter, we are printing an edited version of a letter from the brother of the victim at the center of Jasper’s murder case, who doesn’t want the man convicted of killing his brother to become some type of overnight hero shortly before his March 19 execution thanks to Internet sensationalism.

Whatever your reaction as a reader, the letter and the situation are certainly thought provoking and well worth the time to consider.

By way of background, Ray Jasper was convicted of participating in the robbery and slaying of recording studio owner David Alejandro in San Antonio, Texas in 1998. An 18-year-old teenager at the time of the crime, Jasper was sentenced to death and has been on death row for 15 years.

In January, the online news site gawker.com sent letters with a series of questions to all the death row inmates in the United States who have executions scheduled for this year.

Jasper was the first to reply.

“As part of our Letters from Death Row series, (Jasper’s) letter was remarkable for its calmness, clarity, and insight into life as a prisoner who will never see freedom,” says reporter Hamilton Nolan, who initiated the project.

In that original letter, Jasper wrote, “My life is a testament of what it is to be young and Black in America. Black (people) are incarcerated at a higher rate than any other race because we are ignorant to the laws that govern society. As Nelson Mandela said, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.’ I gave up in school after a friend died when I was 11. I didn’t officially drop out until 16. By 18, I was facing the death penalty.

“When you’re young it’s hard to see the road up ahead and many teens lack a long term vision for their life. They must be taught in the school of life by adults who cross their path.

“I grew up like most young Blacks at a disadvantage, susceptible to the street life due to the environment and a lack of education. For most young Blacks, we rebel out of subtle racism and being targeted by the police. For young Blacks, cops are the enemies. I’ve been falsely arrested and beat by the police before the age of 18.

“It’s like how can society expect young Blacks to be (compliant) with the same law that poses a threat to their life. You never hear of Black cops beating or killing young Whites, but it’s so common to hear about White cops beating and killing young Blacks.

“I’ve done my best to live above the circumstances by studying self-help and spiritual books. Over the last 15 years, I’ve written several books and screenplays. I’ve turned a negative into a positive, while others around (me) have lost their mind, dropped their appeals or committed suicide. I think who you are matters more than where you are.”

Nolan wrote back and invited Jasper to share any other thoughts he might have and recently received the letter that is going viral on the Internet. It reads in part:

The Controversial Letter

Mr. Nolan,

When I first responded to you, I learned that some of the responses on your website were positive and some negative. I can only appreciate the conversation. (The Indian spiritual teacher) Osho once said that one person considered him an angel and another person considered him a devil. He didn’t attempt to refute either perspective because he said that man does not judge based on the truth of who you are, but on the truth of who they are.

Your words struck a chord with me. You said that my perspective is different and therefore my words have a sort of value. Yet you’re talking to a young man that’s been judged unworthy to breathe the same air you breathe. That’s like a hobo on the street walking up to you and you ask him for spare change.

Without any questions, you’ve given me a blank canvas. I’ll only address what’s on my heart. Next month, the State of Texas has resolved to kill me like some kind of rabid dog, so indirectly, I guess my intention is to use this as some type of platform because this could be my final statement on earth. It’s only my perspective.

The justice system is truly broken beyond repair and the sad part is there is no way to start over. Improvements can be made. If honest people stand up, I think they will be made over time. I know the average person isn’t paying attention to all the laws constantly being passed by state and federal legislation. People are more focused on their jobs, raising kids, and trying to find entertainment in between time. The thing is, laws are being changed right and left.

A man once said that revolution comes when you inform people of their rights. Martin Luther King said a revolution comes by social action and legal action working hand in hand. I’m not presenting any radical revolutionary view; the word revolution just means change. America changes as the law changes.

Under the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, all prisoners in America are considered slaves. We look at slavery like its a thing of the past, but you can go to any penitentiary in this nation and you will see slavery. That was the reason for the protests by prisoners in Georgia in 2010. They said they were tired of being treated like slaves.

People need to know that when they sit on trial juries and sentence people to prison time, that they are sentencing them to slavery. If a prisoner refuses to work and be a slave, they will do their time in isolation as a punishment. You have thousands of people with a lot of prison time that have no choice but to make money for the government or live in isolation. The effects of prison isolation literally drive people crazy. Who can be isolated from human contact and not lose their mind? That was the reason California had an uproar last year when 33,000 inmates across California protested, refusing to work or eat because of those being tortured in isolation in Pelican Bay (prison).

I think prison sentences have gotten way out of hand. People are getting life sentences for aggravated crimes where no violence occurred. I know a man who was 24 years old and received 160 years in prison for two aggravated robberies where less than $500 was stole and no violence took place. There are guys walking around with 200-year sentences and they’re not even 30 years old. It’s outrageous.

Giving a first time felon a sentence beyond their life span is pure oppression. Multitudes of young people have been thrown away in this generation.

The Business Of Prison

The other side of the coin is there are those in the corporate world making money off prisoners, so the longer they’re in prison, the more money is being made. It’s not about crime and punishment; it’s about crime and profit. Prison is a billion dollar industry. In 1996, there were 122 prisons opened across America. Companies were holding expos in small towns showing how more prisons would boost the economy by providing more jobs.

How can those that invest in prisons make money if people have sentences that will allow them to return to free society? If people were being rehabilitated and sent back into the cities, who would work for these corporations? That would be a bad investment. In order for them to make money, people have to stay in prison and keep working. So the political move is to tell the people they’re tough on crime and give people longer sentences.

Chuck Colson, former advisor to President Nixon, once said that they were passing laws to be tough on crime, but they didn’t even know who the laws were affecting. It wasn’t until the Watergate scandal and Colson himself going to prison, that he learned who the laws were affecting. Colson ended up forming the largest prison ministry in America.

Colson also said in his book The God of Stones and Spiders that America was forming a new society within its prisons. Basically, that prison would become a nation inside this nation. He predicted that over a million people would be locked up by the year 2000. The book was written in 1990. Now, it’s 2014 and almost two million people are locked up.

It’s not that crime is the issue. Crime still goes on daily. It’s that the politics surrounding crime have changed and it has become a numbers game. Dollars and cents. You have people who invest millions of dollars in the prison system. Any shrewd businessman would if you have no empathy for people locked up and you just want to make some
money.

I don’t agree with the death penalty. It’s a very Southern practice from that old lynching mentality. Almost all executions take place in the South, with a few exceptions here and there. Texas is the leading state by far. I’m not from Texas. I was raised in Oakland, California. Coming from the West Coast to the South was like going back in time. I didn’t even think real cowboys existed. Texas is a very “country” state, aside from a few major cities. There are still small towns where a Black person would not be welcomed.

The death penalty needs to be abolished. Life without parole is still a death sentence. The only difference is time. To say you need to kill a person in a shorter amount of time is just seeking revenge on that person.

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Part 2 | Speaking Of/To Black Youth …



About the Author

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David Smallwood





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