August 21, 2012

I came within 200 yards of being born in prison.

My mother gave birth to her fifth child in government housing just across the street from the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville, Kentucky.  We youngsters grew up in the shadows of those brooding gray walls.  The prison was a part of our lives.  I first went to prison as a small boy, acting as a bat boy for a local baseball team.  That’s right.  I was in and out of prison several times as a juvenile.  

The prison shaped our early lives and we got to know many of the prisoners who served time there, especially the trustees who worked outside on the sprawling grounds of the Castle on the Cumberland.  My third cousin, Hodge Cunningham, was the first guard killed there by inmates in October of 1923.

I went there as public defender for the inmates and then as Commonwealth’s Attorney.  As Circuit Judge, I presided over inmate cases in the little courtroom we have there.  Even today, as Supreme Court Justice, I visit frequently.  Some of the wardens and guards have become my good friends.  So have many of the prisoners.

There is a saying, “If you have a thousand friends, you don’t have a one to spare.”  I cherish my friendships with guards and prisoners alike.

Some of my inmate friends are actually people I have prosecuted or sentenced.  I did my duty with respect for them as human beings.  They took their medicine manfully.  I never added one word of scorn or ridicule onto their sentences.  Never humiliate anyone when they are helpless.  Out of those unique encounters, guided with a proper respect, have come friendships.  There are also others down through the years that I did not know prior to their incarceration who I met for the first time at the prison.  I also have friends who have stumbled badly, committed crimes, and are doing time in prison.  I have searched in vain and have not found in our penal code the penalty of loss of friends as a required punishment—nor the banishment of hope.  For Shakespeare wrote, “The miserable have no other medicine but only hope.” 

So, I get mail on a weekly basis from inmates.   Some of the mail comes from people I do not know with whom I have had only a causal passing.  Some may have passed through my court over the years.  Some of the mail is from people that I have never encountered directly, but know who I am.  Their letters are what we call ex parte attempts to reach directly into the Supreme Court of our state.  These correspondents want their sentences reduced, a new trial, parole, or some other relief.  They claim innocence, blame a prosecutor for being unfair, a defense lawyer for being inept, or a judge for being biased.  Many blame girlfriends, wives, mothers, or anyone else but themselves.  A letter lies on my desk, even as I write, asking me to intervene and grant probation.

These letters are easy to handle.  I simply send them on to the appropriate person or agency— Commissioner of Corrections, judge, defense lawyer, prosecutor, clerk, minister or whoever I might decide is appropriate.  Then I send the inmate a polite response, “Sorry son, I can’t help you.  I’m on the state Supreme Court.”  Or words to that effect.

Sometimes the letters are totally out of touch with reality.  A few border on the humorous.  I once received a letter from a female prisoner I had sentenced which read: “Judge, I really would like to serve the two years you gave me, but I really don’t have the time.  I’ve got other things I need to be doing.”

The tough letters, the ones that lie around on my desk for days, sometimes weeks, awaiting a response are the letters I get from friends in prison.  They are not asking for anything.  They are not asking for their sentences to be reduced, for money to be sent to their accounts, or for me to talk to their lawyers or prosecutors.  They are not even asking for my sympathy.  They are asking for nothing except maybe a reply.  Something from the outside world; from another human being; yes, from a friend.  Words from someone outside of bondage who recognizes they still exist.  That they are still relevant to the world in some way.  That they still merit some time and attention, meager as it may be.

I’ve been receiving these types of letters for years.  I always respond, sometimes belatedly.  But I have never fashioned what I consider an adequate reply.  How do you tell a person in prison to “have a nice day”?

Have a nice day wearing the same khaki garb you wore yesterday and will wear tomorrow. 

Have a nice day eating three meals of institutional food on stainless steel trays in a roomful of hundreds of sullen convicted felons.

Have a nice day hearing the continuous sound of metal doors clanging instead of the hum of a passing car or the shrieks of children playing down the street.

Have a nice day seeing your loved ones through Plexiglas only on certain days and times.

Have a nice day sauntering around the same sterile landscape of concrete and asphalt, paradoxically called “the yard.”  

Have a nice day living like this for the next five years, ten years, or the rest of your life.

I’ve never found the right words—ones that do not sound hollow or meaningless.

Neither does it seem humane to mention even the most mundane things in life which we all take for granted.  Things like mowing the grass, shopping at the mall, taking your kids or grandkids to ball practice, eating fresh vegetables, or simply sitting through the dawn of a summer day on your front porch with a porcelain cup of steaming coffee in your hand.  All of these things would surely make the heart of the deprived reader ache at the thought of such blessings needlessly forfeited.

So, these letters lie on my desk for a while as I conjure the will to respond to them.  To tackle the daunting task of writing something which is honest and yet hopeful.  It doesn’t take much.  I have another letter on my desk from a friend in a Louisiana prison.  He is 72 years old.  He said that my last letter to him had motivated him to go out on the yard and do something about his poor physical shape by doing pushups and sit ups.  I think that all I did in my letter was to merely inquire about his health.

We do not have to receive jail mail from friends in prison to be confronted with this somber challenge.  The need to respond and offer hope to people confronts us all, almost on a daily basis.  We are constantly encountering those friends who have fallen upon the thorns of life and are bleeding.  The friend dying from cancer, the friend whose spouse is dying from cancer, the friend who has lost a child, the friend who has suffered a stroke and cannot move or speak.  We all must answer “jail mail” from those dear people who have been imprisoned—perhaps for the rest of their lives—by a terminal disease, unbearable loss, or a life changing tragedy.  It may even be a friend who has been the victim of a crime and who is unalterably scarred by the experience.  An injury inflicted by a person similarly situated with my friends who write me “jail mail” from prison.

We all struggle with the right words to say.  A good friend of mine was asking me for advice about visiting his nephew who was in prison on drug crimes. “What do I say to him, Bill, when I go visit?”  I told him he didn’t have to worry about what he said.  Just being there would be enough.

Life is hard.  Harder for some than for others.  So we continue to meet those friends in prison or at the funeral home, in the hospital, and casually on the street, who are suffering in seemingly hopeless situations.  Muted and witless we stand with that friend who is bereft of hope.  In that awful moment, we share for a short distance their weary road, groping together in the desperate darkness for a hidden light.

That is the best we can do. 

Manhood Crisis

August 11, 2012


State Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham addressed the 40th annual training conference of the Kentucky Association of Chiefs of Police in Bowling Green on the evening of August 8.

In his comments to the group, Justice Cunningham shared experiences of growing up and his 40-year career in law enforcement.  “I served as Commonwealth’s Attorney, Circuit Judge, and even Deputy Sheriff,” he said, “and at the Supreme Court level I still consider myself in law enforcement. The big difference between you and me is that I have months and the benefit of lawyers and fellow justices and the quiet tranquility of the conference room at the capital to decide cases.  In many instances, you only have 15 seconds during the middle of the night to make a decision.  All of us on the state Supreme Court appreciate and understand the tremendous pressure under which you work.”

Justice Cunningham discussed law enforcement yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  He believes current crime and delinquency can be attributed to the dysfunctional homes in which young people grow up.  He cited statistics as to how “fatherless homes” have a particularly negative effect upon young boys, and stated that the growing number of men who are not paying child support sets an example of lack of responsibility.  According to the Pew Research Center, one in three children today live without a father. He also paralleled the lack of wholesome and constructive sexual identification and development in the home, as well as the increase in child pornography, with absent fathers.  And he went on to say that juvenile delinquency is often the result of the lack of an authoritative and disciplining hand of a father.

“Quite frankly, we don’t have as many good men today as we had fifty years ago.”  The decline of manly virtues such as responsibility, work ethic, honesty, loyalty, and respect for women, children and others can be laid at the feet of the growing number of young boys growing up without fathers.  Justice Cunningham attributed this mainly to the decline in the number of people getting married and the rising divorce rate, citing the statistic that married persons have declined 20% since 1960.  He suggested that police chiefs and other law enforcement agencies in the future would have to be involved in “hacking away at the roots of crime instead of the limbs” by mentoring young men.  One course of action would be to get into high school more with law clubs.

Justice Cunningham was elected to the Kentucky Supreme Court in November of 2006. In addition to his judicial career, Justice Cunningham has authored several regional history books, including “On Bended Knees” about the tobacco night riders of far west Kentucky.  He and his wife, Paula, have five sons and eight grandchildren.

The meeting was presided over by Association President Chief Bill Crider of the Dawson Springs Police Department.  The Kentucky Association of Chiefs of Police was formed in 1971 to secure official and personal cooperation among law enforcement executives and the citizens of Kentucky.