News Anchor 1 0:02
Freedom tonight for a local man who spent nearly a dozen years in prison for crimes he did not commit. Tonight Ruben Martinez is talking about the key evidence that finally cleared him…
News Anchor 2 0:13
He was already a free man, but now the full extent of his miscarriage of justice is public information.
I knew someday I proved my innocence. I just didn’t know when.
News Anchor 2 0:23
Assoun was wrongfully convicted nearly 20 years ago for the murder of…
News Anchor 3 0:27
Take the case of Jarrett Adams who was 17 years old when charged with a crime he insisted he didn’t commit. Without money to afford a lawyer, he took his chances to trial and was sentenced to over 25 years in prison. He maintained his innocence though. He ended up spending about nine years behind bars before getting some outside help from the Wisconsin Innocence Project with a longshot appeal that actually ultimately overturned his conviction in 2007. Adams put himself through law school and ultimately won a prestigious clerkship on the very appeals court that gave him his freedom. A remarkable turnaround, but one that remains rare in this American justice system hobbled by race and class. Adams now practices law…
News Anchor 4 0:36
Today, 76 year old Jack McCullough walked out of an Illinois courtroom of freemen. He was serving life for a murder nearly six decades ago, but it turns out, he didn’t do it…
News Anchor 5 1:22
… a man who has been fighting to clear his name. James Harris was sentenced to 25 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit. Now the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals has finally cleared his case and exonerated him…
News Anchor 6 1:36
… by a man who spent decades behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit…
News Anchor 7 1:40
Robert DuBoise was set free a year ago, after DNA evidence…
Welcome to You’re Up Next. In this episode, we’re talking about prisons, and I’ll be speaking with Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle, who have both been on death row for crimes they didn’t commit. A prison is a nexus of both connection and disconnection – disconnection from the outside world, but inescapable interconnections within. Prisons are meant to be solutions to a problem – the problem of regulating society so that we have rules, and those rules are followed. You don’t follow the rules, you go to prison, which is supposed to be a deterrent to breaking the rules to begin with, as well as either a punishment or a way of rehabilitating those who do break the rules. But it depends on who you talk to. I spoke to Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle, who both have first hand experience of just how absurd prison can be.
I was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in the state of Florida in the US for the killing of two policemen. I went in when I was in my mid 20s. And I came out when I was in my mid 40s. And as we know nobody hires women in their mid 40s anyway, so I had used yoga meditation and prayer to get me through that part of my life. And as it turned out, those were the same tools I needed to get through the transition of coming from prison into the world again. So I became a yoga teacher, and employed myself. And eventually I was able to get back with my now grown children and granddaughter that I’d never really had any chance to spend any time with him until then.
Well, I’m Peter Pringle, I was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer in Ireland back in 1980 – a crime I didn’t commit. I was tried and convicted by the Special Criminal Court, which is the non jury court in Dublin, and I was sentenced to death. And I had an application for leave to appeal which was refused. And then the sentence was commuted to 40 years imprisonment without parole. And so I had to work to prove my own innocence, because I had no money and no lawyers, and that’s what I did when I was in prison. And in order to do that, I had to learn how to relax because I was so angry I wasn’t able to study. So I got a friend to leave me in a little book on yoga, and I started to teach myself yoga as a process of relaxation. And I started to try to teach myself how to meditate. And over time, I succeeded in those two practices. And my anger abated to such an extent that I was able to do the work. And that’s what I did. And eventually I took my case on my own behalf to the High Court in Dublin under the Constitution. And it ran for nearly three- it ran for three years. And my conviction was overturned and eventually I was released. And so that’s my story basically. Now about three years after I come out of prison, I got a phone call from an American lady who told me her name is Sunny Jacobs, and that she was going to be speaking in Galway the following Friday, and invited me to come along and hear her talk, and I asked what she was going to talk about, and she said the death penalty, and I said “yes, I’m interested in that”. And so I went along and brought two friends. And when I went in to – the meeting was, was organized by a local chapter of Amnesty International in the college, and it was held at 1pm on Friday, in the Kings- above the King’s Head in Galway, in a room. And when we went up, there was nobody there. And after a little while, the door opened, and his little lady walked in, and I went over to her, and I said, you must be Sunny Jacobs, and, she turned to me, and she said
You must be Peter Pringle.
And that’s how we met.
It’s like such an amazing story, like it’s out of a film or something. But I think what what’s really striking to me and hearing both of you talk about that is that like, you know, obviously, it must take such fortitude to get through such an unjust thing happening to each of you. And you both mentioned, you know, the kind of like physical and mental practices of like yoga, meditation, prayer, that really helped you both kind of persist to the point where justice finally corrected itself. Like, do you want to talk a little bit more about the the kind of coping with that, because I think that’s such a, you know – people won’t have experienced things as unjust as you have, possibly. But you know, we all, we all have to face all these difficult things in life.
When I was sentenced to death, it was surreal. And when I was brought into the death cell in Portlaoise prison, that was surreal. And then I remember the week before Christmas of 1980. In my presence, I overheard three jailers discussing what role they might have to play in my execution. They had been told by the authorities that two jailers would have to be at the – at my hanging, and they would be underneath the gallows. And so when my body will go down through the gallows, each one would have to pull on one of my legs to make sure my neck was broken. Now at the time, I was already angry over what had been done to me, but this behavior enraged me rather. And- because they spoke as if it didn’t exist, I wasn’t there, Iwasn’t a human being. And it actually illustrates the inhumanity of the death penalty, because not only does it affect the person sentenced to death, and their family, and their community – it even affects the jailers who hold them because they’re instructed not to become friends, not to talk to them. Because if they begin to respect or like the person that they’re going to have to help kill, it would be very difficult for them to do that. Now what that did to me was, it focused me into the reality that I was actually facing the possibility of death, of being hanged. And I was surprised to discover that I wasn’t afraid to die, but that I was deeply afraid to lose my dignity in dying. I was deeply afraid that they might manage to take away my dignity. And I determined I wouldn’t allow that, and I determined that I would- well okay to had me in prison, physically, they couldn’t imprison my mind, or my heart, or my spirit. And so it was within those realms of myself that I would exist. And that’s what I did, and that carried me through. And that also allowed me to look at things in a lighter way. Because, okay, they were either going to kill me or they weren’t, and that was a reality. But as long as I could maintain my dignity, and as long as I could, in a sense, distance myself from where they were at, I didn’t have to be part of their world, except in the sense that I was imprisoned. And so that’s what I did, and that’s how I existed. And that’s how life went on. And then I was put out in the general prison population, and I had to learn how to study law. And like I said, there was no law library, and we weren’t allowed to have hardcover books in, and most law books are hard covered. So how to figured out a system whereby I could make up my own law library, and that’s what I did. And gradually, as yoga and meditation improved for me, I began to learn how to study and work on my case. But you know, when faced with difficulties like that, these sort of challenges, to have to overcome them, help in a bizarre kind of way, because life becomes much more interesting, than if you just get up in the morning and go to bed at night. And so I devised a system whereby I could establish my own law library. And by doing yoga – mind you, learning how to do yoga with a little book with pictures of the postures, in a cell on my own was quite a challenge, and sometimes very frustrating, and sometimes highly amusing. And at times, I just, I just collapsed on the floor in laughter because of the whole thing because it was so- it was so weird, you know. And especially sometimes you know, when the jailer would look in through the little spy hole in the door, which in the prison is known as the Judas hole, and he would look into see what you’re doing, and he’d see you roll around the floor laughing. You know, like what’s this guy got to laugh for, he’s sentenced to death, you know. So that was part of it – or he’s sentenced to 40 years. But, but I got through. I got through. I got through being light hearted, and making sure that I did plenty of exercise. I walked every day, regardless of whether it rained or it didn’t rain, and and I did my study, I did my work. And I also found that I got a kind of a reputation as a jailhouse lawyer. So other people who were in there, inmates who were in there, prisoners who had cases coming up would ask me to look at our case papers, and I would, and I studied them. And because- for two reasons. One anyway, when somebody asks you for help, you tend to give them help. The second reason was that it helped me to begin to get a grasp and an understanding of the law and the way it worked.
Well, I was completely isolated in in doing my time, sentence to death. There were no other women sentenced to death at that time. And the guards were under orders not to speak to me, so not only did I have no other contact with any other human being, except when the guards came to check on me. But they were under instructions not to speak to me. So it was really- you know, they talk about isolation, this was like the extreme. They did come every single hour, 24 hours a day to check on me and write down what I was doing. So I decided that, well, that was like, TV time, like, “oh, here comes the program about the guard coming to look at me, okay”. And so I would just- I realized that I could make them write whatever I wanted. So I use it for my amusement, as like, “okay, what will I make them write now, next time they come? I think I’ll make them right that I was spinning around in circles in the middle of my cell”. Okay, so they’d come and – you could hear them coming, you know, I mean, you knew they were- they weren’t surprising you. So I’d prepared, and I’d get in the middle of the cell, and I’d spin around, and they’d have to write that I was spinning around. Or I might lay down on the floor, and kick back and be reading a book as if I was sunbathing somewhere or- So again, it was a matter of perspective. Again, I wasn’t in denial. I just thought, well, you know, it’s, I’m paying the price anyway, so I may as well turn it into something positive or focus on the positive aspects, and there always are positive aspects, sometimes they’re really hard to find. So that’s what I did. So I turned my cell into a sanctuary. And I began to do my spiritual work. I was more fortunate in that I did have legal representation, although it was at first an appointed attorney and they didn’t do such a great job, they were kind of overloaded. But I left that to the attorneys for the most part, and I just worked on myself and making myself the best person that I could be so that when they realize that they made a mistake and let me out, I would have something left inside to give to my children. And if it was to go the other way, for some strange karmic reason that I didn’t understand, then I would- it would still be the best thing I can do for myself to present myself wherever we go as the best person I could be. So that’s what I set out to do. I realized also that there’s a basic need to be creative, to express yourself, what’s inside – after food and water and clothing and shelter, and companionship I guess. Then that’s a basic need. So one day a nice guard gave me and a newspaper, because I only had a Bible and a law book in my cell – that’s all I was allowed to have. And I only got out of my cell twice a week for a brief shower, and maybe 15 minutes outside with a guard who didn’t speak to me, and then back to my cell for another three or four days, before I’d get out again. So it was really nice that I was given this newspaper, and I thought now what more can I do with the newspaper now that I’ve read it? You know, it’s- and so I decided oh, I would, I would tear it in strips and weave it into a mat, and with the mat I covered my toilet, which was just the big open toilet hole and that made me feel like I had some control over my circumstances again. It was small but very meaningful and symbolic, and symbolism is huge in our lives always. And so I made another one, so I could sit on it when they brought my food so I didn’t have to sit on my bed to eat and do everything on my bed, because it made me feel like I was sick, you know, like when you’re sick and you have to stay in bed. Another time. I got some seeds of a tomato, because by the time I get my tray, whatever was there was cold and, and like the salad was only like some bits of lettuce. I’d never get any tomato. You know, but I did occasionally find the seeds, so I knew there had been tomatoes on the tray. And so I saved the seeds, because I realized that a seed could be a whole garden. Hmm. So I saved my seeds, and then I got one of the nice guards – by this time, I had again through that same lawsuit, I was allowed four hours a week out of my cell with a guard to walk me around. But during those times I was allowed to speak to anyone I encountered. So they took me out during work time, so I wouldn’t see very many people. But anyway, so I, I took one of these little medicine cups that they give you like, if you asked for an aspirin, they give you it in a little paper cup. And I saved the paper cup. And then I asked the guard, if we could just bring in a little Earth in my paper cup, what harm can it do? So she let me, and then I planted my seeds, and then I put them on the barred window, and they grew into seedlings. And then when they were big enough, I asked if I could just take them outside and at least they could be free, if I couldn’t. And so I planted them where I could see them from my window, behind one of the buildings, and it grew. And every time I went out, you know, I could look at it. And I had a friend who would water it for me all the time. And it grew, and it grew, and it got tomatoes. And she let me pick one of my tomatoes and bring it in. And then I had more seeds, and oh this became great. And so I planted more, and I actually ended up with a little tomato garden. It was fantastic. And then other prisoners decided, gee, maybe we could plant two, which wouldn’t that have been great? No, of course they wouldn’t let them. So one day, one of the other women came and pulled up all my tomatoes. That was really awful. That was a hard one to deal because they were my babies, and then my grandbabies. This was my family she was destroying. So that was a really hard one. But nothing is forever. But- so it really, if you can be creative enough to find ways to make something positive out of your situation, you know, you really do have – if you can apply, find ways to apply humor and creativity to your situation, it really can change everything. Everything.
Do you think that like arts or humor based outreach programs in prison could help more people learn to do that, as you both did?
Humor based- humor is always good. And things that are based on humor. It can be difficult to bring people who are down, to see things in a humorous way. What we find, because we work with exonerees, we help other people who have been wrongfully convicted. And we find that when we listen to their story, we don’t give advice, and we don’t, we don’t try to direct them. But when we listen to their story, and then we tell them how we dealt with our situation, we find that they open up and we’re able to help them. And they’ll begin to see a little bit of humor. It’s an interesting thing you know about prisons – I noticed when I went in there, prisoners generally when they go out to the yard to walk around the yard, they walk with their heads down. They tend to look at the ground rather than look at the sky. And maybe because I was a fisherman, but when I used to go out, I would look at the sky. And I used to play a little mind game with myself when I went out there. And I would look and see what way the wind was blowing. And I knew the points of the compass, you know, so I knew from which direction the wind was blowing. And I would try to calculate from the way the clouds were going what the power of the wind was, and then when I would go in and listen to the weather forecast, I’d see how close I was to that. It was mind games you play with yourself in order to lighten things.
Talking another thing that I used to do is I – because I was completely isolated, and we do talk to ourselves, you know, so I had this conversation with me, myself, and I – and it went something like “I don’t know, me, what do you think? I don’t know, I, how about you? Well, myself, you must…”. There was kind of like a banter between the three of us that were me. And it was kind of a way again of lightening things and being humorous even to myself. You know, you can be humorous with yourself.
It’s amazing to think about finding ways to laugh on death row. But even more amazing than that, has been the advocacy work that Sunny and Peter have done since then for people coming out of prison, to help them process their experiences and reconnect to the broader community. 98% of prisoners will eventually be released, to be our neighbors, colleagues, and friends. So having those supports is crucial. There are actually lots of theater and comedy programs that operate in prisons, like the rehabilitation through the arts program in New York City. A study of participants in that theater program show that they had fewer infractions and less recidivism than a control group. The program helped people to express their emotions and own their own stories. One participant said, “it helped me to get my humanity back, to let me know that I wasn’t as bad as the decision that I had made”. In the UK, the National Cminal Justice Arts Alliance has hundreds of member organizations who bring these kinds of creative programs to prisons. So it isn’t just about laughing at an absurd situation. It’s about connecting to others and to ourselves, using comedy and theatre. Art can provide hope when there’s very little, and help remind us that we are still human beings.
This episode was made possible by support from the community knowledge initiative, the CÚRAM Medical Device Research Center, the research office at NUI Galway, and Science Foundation Ireland. We’re grateful to our guests, our host, which is me, Jessamyn Fairfield, our producers Maurice and Shaun, and to you our listeners and our Bright Club Ireland community. A transcript of this episode is available at brightclub.ie where you can also find more information about what we do at Bright Club Ireland.