Last Thursday, The New York Times ran another story about the torture of my client, Abu Zubaydah. The occasion was the recent release of once-secret CIA cables that described his torture at a black site in Thailand in bloodless, bureaucratic detail. You might’ve missed it, preoccupied by other events set to occur the following day. I read it, of course, because it concerned my client, who was brutalized because the Bush Administration believed, mistakenly, that he was part of al Qaeda.
There have been many such articles over the years, and they all seem to elicit one of two responses. The first runs something like this: “Who gives a shit about this raghead motherfucker? Let him rot in hell. I got a bullet with his name on it.” If my name appears in the article, similar comments are often directed at me—sometimes in the comment section, sometimes in an email. For good measure, I am regularly accused of being a bad Jew. The second response sounds about like this: “How come George Bush and Dick Cheney aren’t in prison? They should rot in hell. We elected war criminals and Obama should be ashamed of himself for letting them off the hook.” Which of these two responses predominates depends on where the article appears.
I have always been mystified by these reactions and have decided they demonstrate—if demonstration were needed—just how out of touch I am with the real world. My reaction to the particulars of my client’s torture almost never finds its way into the comments. My question is always the same: How is it that so many people are so quick to demonize a fellow human being, and wish for him a life of unfathomable torment and suffering? Why is it that so many yearn so desperately to see a man debased, humiliated, and savaged? It is a display of fury that I have never understood.
I’m sure there’s an explanation, and I suspect that many a behavioral scientist has been awarded tenure after designing an experiment that illustrated yet again the limits of empathy. The upshot of this literature likely amounts to the conclusion that some got it and some don’t. But that’s no answer. Or rather, it answers the wrong question. The question is not simply why some lack empathy for others. The question is why so many people, lacking that empathy, seem to take pleasure in ritualized cruelty? I don’t get it, and have given up trying to figure it out.
And so, as a visitor from another planet, I have decided I will spend my time trying to show only one thing: There are no monsters. There is only humanity, in its infinite complexity. I have no hope that I will persuade those who are disinclined to believe me. But perhaps I will give modest comfort to other visitors.
* * *
When Dante Owens was 18, he took part in a triple homicide in a suburb of Denver. A fourth victim was raped, shot repeatedly, and left for dead. She survived and testified against Owens and his co-defendants. The prosecution said it was a drug deal that went awry. The state wanted a death sentence but the jury voted for life. Owens is serving three consecutive life terms. He is 36 and has been in prison or jail half his life. Today, he is an inmate at the Fremont Correctional Facility in Canyon City, Colorado.
Born and raised in Compton, Owens spent his childhood in thrall to the Corner Pocket Crips. His mother was a Crip, as were his uncles, brothers, and cousins. His father was in prison. “By the time I was 10, 11, that was my life,” he told me. “By the time I was 12, I was holding a gun, selling drugs.” By his fifteenth birthday, Owens estimates he had been to one funeral for every year of his life. I once asked Owens to describe a typical day growing up. “Just smokin’ weed all day and lookin’ for violence,” he answered. At the table set for criminal justice reform, with its nearly single-minded attention to the low level, non-violent drug offender, there is no place reserved for Dante Owens.
With his small frame, youthful features, and quiet voice, Owens looks and sounds much younger than he is. But a visitor’s confusion on this score is dispelled as soon as the conversation begins. His eyes do not wander, his hands do not gesture. He does not move his gaze as he listens or shift in his seat as he speaks. Speaking with Owens is an act of pure communication, free of extraneous movement or wasted words. He has no interest in casual banter.
“Now, lookin’ back on it,” he said, reflecting on his life in the gang, “to know you were part of so much destruction, it’s insane. It’s embarrassing. And to think it’s ok. You kind of know it’s wrong—that’s why you suppress it with weed and alcohol. But it’s the only life you know.”
The Dante Owens that arrived in the Colorado Department of Corrections nearly two decades ago no longer exists. The change did not come easily—change never does—and for Owens, it was the hardest thing he’s ever done. “Being who I was was easy,” he told me. “It was bein’ someone else that was hard.” “What’s that old saying?” another man at Fremont asked me. “Everybody wants to go to Heaven, but nobody wants to do what it takes to get there.”
* * *
The tipping point for Dante came with empathy. “When you start to care about others,” he told me, “you can’t do nothing but change.” It’s automatic, and irreversible. But how did he come to care for those outside his narrow and deadly world? It was a process that unfolded over time, and began when he was in solitary confinement. For all its cruelty, the fact is that isolation gives some men a chance for sober reflection, and when he was in solitary, Owens recalled the dreams he had as a young boy, before the gang became his life. At some point, he said he had “a moment of clarity.” When we met, he replayed both parts of the conversation he had with himself again and again. “‘As a kid, before you got into the life, when you was 5 or 6 or 7, what did you want to do?’ ‘I wanted to be a decent person.’ ‘Be there for your kid. Not be like your dad.’”
But Owens still wasn’t ready to make a change. When he got out of solitary, he reverted to his old associations. Abandoning the identity that had defined him for so long was a step into the unknown. Yet a voice inside had been awakened, and needed only encouragement. For that, he credits the prison staff around him. “It happened when staff, case managers, COs, captains, lieutenants, saw potential in me. They started to believe in me.” Over time, their faith had a transformative effect. “When I got in trouble, it felt like I let them down. They would push me to better my life but I took advantage of it.” It was a pain he didn’t want to experience twice. “I didn’t want to let them down.”
Owens now lives in the incentive unit at Fremont. Men in the incentive unit run the orientation when new men arrive, talk down volatile situations before they get out of control, break up fights, mediate conflicts between gangs, and lend an ear if a man is having a tough time. They demonstrate, by word and deed, what it means to be law-abiding, contributing members of society. They may never get out, but they can still give back, so Warden Lou Archuleta provides them a roving mandate to be a good example, wherever that takes them.
Owens has carved out a special role in the unit. He counsels younger men who are struggling to give up the gang life. “They don’t have the courage to be who they truly want to be,” he told me. Owens knows better than most that change is hard, so he tries to give them that courage, and that in turn has given his life a purpose. “Just as strong as I went in the gang, that’s how strong I go in being out of the gang. My motivation is to be better, to help people. It makes me feel good in the way I’m giving back.” The man who participated in a gruesome triple homicide at the age of 18, who grew up “smokin’ weed and lookin’ for violence,” and who in many states would not only have been sentenced to die but likely would have already been executed, is free to go almost anywhere on the prison grounds, unescorted and unrestrained.
Not all men have made the change that Dante Owens has made, and Archuleta is quick to remind me, “At the end of the day, it’s still a prison.” It’s a line he uses again and again, as if to make sure I understand he would never do anything to jeopardize security. But security is not the challenge at Fremont. “I got all the security I need,” he told me. “I got enough firepower to take over a small country!” Being the prison they’ve always been is easy; being different is the challenge.
Archuleta told me Owens is one of his stars. So much so, in fact, that Archuleta hopes to enlist Owens in a special project. Colorado has a prison for juveniles who were certified to stand trial as adults and convicted of violent crimes. They can have their sentences suspended if they successfully complete an intensive program at a facility reserved for youthful offenders. Predictably, some of these young men are hard to reach. They are angry and resentful, and openly skeptical of authority. Archuleta wants Owens to speak with them. “He’d be perfect.”
* * *
Prisons in the United States are stunningly cruel places and are perfect sites for the ritualized cruelty that so many people seem to favor. But they don’t have to be. Give every man an opportunity to change and succeed. Encourage his progress, praise him, and gradually give him more responsibility. And as the change takes hold, give him the freedom to chart his own trajectory, until finally it becomes his purpose, his meaning in life. And in so doing, reaffirm his dignity and worth every day, in every interaction, in word and deed. And then do it again for the next man. In time, you will learn what this visitor discovered a long time ago. There are no monsters.