A Tale of Two Families

1. Punishment

It’s been almost a decade since Ashley Smith’s death in prison. Every year, her sister tells me, she hangs a special ornament for Ashley in the centre of the Christmas tree “as we try to get through the holidays.” Many of us know Ashley’s story, and it may seem now for us something that happened quite some time ago. But for families coping with incarceration, there is never an end to the pain, or any closure from the trauma inflicted by incarceration.

I knew Ashley’s sister Dawna online, but I met her in person when I helped to organize a rally to protest the shackling and deportation of Fliss Cramman. At noon the day of the rally, the justice minister announced that the shackles had been removed. We decided that with deportation still looming and with all the stories of pregnant women being shackled and other injustices that had been shared as we advocated for Fliss that it was important to still go ahead and gather. Ashley Smith’s mother agreed to speak at the rally; when I asked, she immediately said that she would be there to support any woman suffering the way her daughter suffered.

I remember standing with Dawna and her mother outside the hospital. I was worried that no one seemed to be showing up. If nobody comes, I said out loud, I’ll be really upset. And Dawna turned to me and said, “but El, there’s three people here, and that’s three more than so many women in prison have.”

Those words have rung in my head ever since.

Dawna told me that Ashley’s mother:

…used to go to Nova [Institution] and sit with the women and bring tape recorders and children’s story books so that those women could record themselves reading stories which would then be mailed to their children at home so the kids could hear their mom’s voices and have bedtime stories read to them by their mom. My mom said that was the most profound work she has ever done in her whole life, just being able to connect with those women and give them an opportunity to connect with their babies. Those are the things that we take for granted, you know? That little stuff that is so mundane and every day to those of us who can do it, that’s really the big stuff…

…You know so many [inside] have not had even a simple hug in many years. Their only human contact is aggression and pain. Never a gentle touch. Unimaginable and heart wrenching. Those people would give their lives just for a kind word and a hand to hold.

For Ashley’s family, her death was not the only tragedy from incarceration. As I spoke with Dawna through Facebook for this story, her son was on the phone. He told her to tell me “Merry Christmas, and please keep telling people’s stories.” Dawna tells me about her son, and I think about how even after Ashley’s death and the headlines and the inquest and the recommendations and the stories written and the documentaries and almost 10 years of time, even in her own family, the same issues with the system that were so terribly revealed in Ashley’s death — the lack of care for mental illness, the escalation of harm to people suffering in the prison system — are still going on:

I have a son with pretty debilitating mental health issues. He’s been incarcerated since he was a youth and he is now 30 years old and we have been battling for years to have him placed in a mental health treatment centre. His offences are all institutional and the abuse he has suffered is just devastating. He is in a seg cell at Canada’s only Supermax prison at this very moment, and our hearts are just broken that yet another Christmas is passing without him here or even with being able to see him and hug him and hold his hand. So I spend a lot of time mourning that and I know all too well that thousands of other moms are doing the same. So we lost our Ashley to that same system and we know with excruciating clarity what really goes on behind those walls. We know the stigma and judgement that these families face every day from society, that is until it happens to one of their own. 

I can honestly say that I would gladly trade the enlightenment that we now live with to just have both of those kids back safe and sound, but since we know better we now try to do better and keep fighting for change. My son’s…baby sister now has a 14-month-old baby of her own, and he is heartbroken that he hasn’t even been able to meet her yet. While we’re having Christmas dinner, he is lying alone and cold in a segregation cell praying that he can get home to his family before his nanny passes away, or before something happens to his mom or his little brother and sister, or his little niece grows up without him ever being able to hear her saying I love you…

In honour of both Ashley and Corey, they each have a special ornament that hangs front and centre on our Christmas tree every year as we try to get through the holidays.

Dawna’s son found out about Ashley’s death while he was in jail. Once a man I knew mentioned that he was in the cell Ashley Smith’s “brother” used to have. That prisoner told me it was all barricaded in “because he was in there when they killed Ashley.” At the time I was told this I remember thinking, imagine being in prison and hearing about someone you love dying in prison, dying in prison while the guards watched. I told Dawna I had heard about her son from other prisoners, and I mentioned the cell. Corey confirms that they welded a mesh grate inside the cell because they thought he was punching out the windows, and I think about the light being cut off in that cell and being in there knowing how Ashley died.

Yes. They call it the Corey Ward cell. And he is the strongest person I know. If you could ever talk to him the horrors that he has lived through are unbelievable, just absolutely unbelievable, and he still wakes up every day and pushes through and makes it through day by day. 

He wasn’t allowed to come to Ashley’s funeral you know, he had to watch all that unfold on the television alone in his cell. We then had to go visit him in the SHU (Special Handling Unit) and we were allowed to see him through bars and we were given a DVD player and a television to watch the video compilation of pictures and songs from Ashley’s funeral. 

Never ever in my life would I have expected to be in that position in that situation. I honestly marvel every day that any of us have survived all of this. It’s really a living hell you know, but what can you do other than get up every day and face the world that hope that things get better? So yes, we get it. Just keep encouraging him and loving him and talking to him as often as we can, and praying that we can get him home.

He was home briefly a few years ago, and he said in all the time he spent inside all he really wanted when he came home was a kitten of his own to baby. He wrapped that kitten in a blanket and dragged it with him everywhere. She now lives at my house waiting for him to come home…

Dawna speaks about her son’s “huge heart” and his generosity. She tells me that Corey wants to send me something for Christmas. People always say, you do the crime, you do the time, but what can that mean if you have a family member die in custody. And then even after that to still have family inside, suffering from that same system for the same reason with nothing changed. And I wonder, who are we punishing?

It’s really hard to put into words the gut wrenching, heartbreaking devastation that families and loved ones feel when their people are incarcerated. The stigma makes it really hard to be really open to people, for fear of judgement on the family or on the prisoner or just on the whole entire situation, and it is really hard for anyone who has never had a loved one incarcerated to understand all of the ramifications of what that truly means to a family. I can only speak from personal experience, which admittedly is a very privileged white experience, nonetheless our family has suffered extreme devastation and continues to and I can honestly say that until you are confronted with a loved one being imprisoned, it isn’t really something that is on most people’s radar…

Most people honestly just don’t care. Most people couldn’t care less about social justice or social programming that could help to lower the number of prison populations. They don’t care about society’s role in creating all these prisoners. They just really don’t care and they certainly don’t care if these people are locked up on their birthdays or at Christmas time or are unable to attend loved one’s sickbeds in hospital or funerals or anything like that. Most people don’t care that prisoners don’t get to do any of that, most people don’t subscribe to the belief that incarceration itself is the punishment and anything over and above that is abuse…

 I would love [to be able to talk] about how we celebrate Christmas as a family without our loved one being able to be here, and how it feels to wake up on Christmas morning and to have all these incredible blessings and a nice warm home and gifts under the tree and turkey dinner to share with family yet have such a heavy heart and feeling of incredible sadness that that loved one isn’t able to be here and participate and experience that with us…Anything to reflect that we miss them and want them home and will celebrate them even if they can’t be here.

Put their special ornament on the tree. Set their place at the table. That’s the stuff we do. Talk about them and make sure their absence is acknowledged and mourned…I need my son to know that while he sits in a seg cell alone and cold and broken we are here loving him and praying for him and keeping that candle lit until he comes home.

2. Forgiveness

The family of Fritz Musser is spending Christmas in Georgia, the former Soviet republic that became an independent nation in 1991. I first heard about the family’s story from Ben Sichel, who showed me an interview in the Georgia press with Musser’s wife Rebekah Friesen. Because Musser was an American citizen, the story hasn’t really been picked up in Nova Scotia, but Musser spent many years here with Friesen.

Fritz Musser was killed in August while hiking in Georgia. A 20-year-old man was arrested and confessed to the crime. Fritz was a man who made a profound impact on so many lives: the memorial pages to him on the internet are filled with heartfelt tributes and an outpouring of love and admiration. Reading about his life, again and again the people who knew and loved him, from old friends to people he met on his travels, spoke about how deeply he believed in the goodness and decency of people. Again and again, people talk about his faith in humanity, and how “deep and wide” his heart was, and how this profound love of humanity changed those around him as well.

After Fritz’s murder, his family travelled to Georgia for the trial. In the interview with Georgia Today, Friesen speaks about honouring his beliefs by advocating for a restorative approach during the trial:

Fritz Musser died on August 12, stabbed to death on a village road as he hiked alone to the Tusheti region as part of his top-to-tail Caucasus Mountain trail. The murderer was a 20 year old Georgian man who’d had a little too much to drink that fateful evening which ultimately ended in Fritz’s death. The young man, brought up by his grandparents in a small village, was quickly picked up by local police and confessed to the murder, aware that he could face the next 15 years in prison.

The trial last week took just one hour and the offender was sentenced to 11 years in a prison system which is young in its experience of rehabilitation. And Fritz’s widow sympathizes.

“I came not knowing what to expect. We’d been told that for a victim’s family to seek some sort of reconciliation with the accused and his family is very exceptional in Georgia, so we’d been told not to get our hopes up. When we arrived in the courtroom, we saw the offender’s grandparents and sibling were there. We exchanged smiles and I sat beside the grandmother the whole trial. There were a lot of tears on both sides. The grandparents had raised the boy and his sibling. They lost a son as I had lost my partner and Fritz’s family a son, brother, and uncle. We were humans sitting beside each other that day.”

The offender, Rebekah says, sat through most of the trial with his head in his hands. “He was emotional, his body language clearly saying: I can’t face the world. But I had the opportunity to speak to him, which they say is unprecedented in Georgia, and he expressed gratitude that we’d come and had been advocating on there not being a harsh prison sentence- rather that he’d have the chance to be out of prison and making positive changes in his life.”

“When Fritz went on these long trips, he often spent a lot of time ruminating on a topic or idea. This time he was thinking about what he could do when he returned to North America to make life better for people in prisons,” she says. “I’ve known Fritz for 9 years and as long as I’ve known him, he has been concerned with the well-being of incarcerated individuals. He believed humans are naturally good and don’t want to hurt others, unless we have been wounded in spirit or not given the opportunities we need to live our lives well. Fritz felt prisons should be humane and respectful. They should reduce the chances that people would commit another crime, and they should give people the opportunity to reform their lives and heal their minds and spirits.”

The interview has many more details about the extraordinary person Fritz Musser was. And reading the article, you see how his family brought incredible compassion to every interaction throughout the process of the trial. When we talk about transformative justice, we talk about how we need to see past the binary of offender and victim and how we need to involve the whole community in healing. Reading about Musser’s family, you see how this compassion extends beyond just the man who committed the crime and touches the whole country:

After the trial, realizing justice had been served in a punitive way, Fritz’s mother quite rightly wondered, “And what about me? I’m one of people most affected by the loss of Fritz; what about me?”

In Canada, for a crime of this level, Rebekah tells me restorative justice is not used, but for lower-grade crimes “Diversion from Prison” programs are in the developmental stage. “It’s about getting the victim, offender, and community together to support both sides. Then the victim and those affected (on an individual level) get a say what restitution is applied to the case. Some may see that as more punitive than having a judge, who is separate from the case, pronounce a judgement, but when you’re face-to-face with someone, it’s much harder not to view them as human.”

What she says next strikes a chord: “We need to realise that it’s out of brokenness that we hurt others. And so having the opportunity to sit with them allows you to work together towards healing some of that brokenness. This thought from Desmond Tutu has really sustained Fritz’s mom during this journey.”

She has high hopes this is a system that will kick off in Georgia — and she and some of Fritz’s family members want to reach out to the offender through the prison social workers to “have really open dialogue with him about what needs to change, what he can change, what assistance he needs in order to change, and where we can help him find that assistance.”

“From what we’ve heard of similar cases, an 11-year sentence was about average, so we were grateful,” Rebekah says of the final verdict.

The young man could have received up to 15 years but it was the family’s express desire that the sentence not be unduly harsh and that the offender not be made an example of for killing an American.

“Fritz felt that all humans, regardless of where they come from and what their situation is, or what they are economically or socially able to contribute to the world, should all be treated as equals,” Rebekah says.

After reading this story, I spoke to Rebekah over email. I told her how touched I was reading the article, and we spoke about prison advocacy work. Rebekah told me more about Fritz:

As long as I’ve known Fritz (nine years) he had an interest in restorative justice and concerns about prisons. In college he’d taken a course on mediation and volunteered as a mediator for a while, dealing with small claims court level grievances. I don’t actually know when or why he developed this interest, but he was always reading articles on these topics.

Fritz and I met while apprenticing in boat building in an intentional community in Maine. The Carpenter’s Boat Shop was founded on the Benedictine principles and seeks to provide a “safe harbour” for those “setting sail on a new course in life”. After leaving the Boat Shop, Fritz and I talked off and on about creating a similar place for people exiting the prison system. Fritz saw the huge lack in our society’s willingness/ability to re-integrate formerly incarcerated individuals. After the Boat Shop he went on to learn draft animal farming, cheese making, coopering, blacksmithing, wheelwrighting, soap making, beekeeping, basket making, broom making, etc., always thinking about someday applying these skills in a program for formerly incarcerated individuals.

Prior to meeting me, Fritz had done a lot of incredible traveling — he’d visited over 60 countries…and he was not the sort of guy to say he’d been somewhere if he’d had a layover there. He had a particular love of and interest in nomadic people and had spent time living with reindeer herders in Siberia and hiking across the Sahara with a salt caravan. He decided a couple of years ago that he wanted to do one last big trip, a focal point of which was a trek he’d been dreaming of for 11 years — hiking across the Caucasus mountain range, from the Caspian Sea to the Black sea, through Azerbaijan and across Georgia.

By the time he left in June, he’d decided to just do this trek, that it was time to devote his time to other things… ‘other things’ being ambiguous when he left, but by mid-July he was talking about working on starting a charter prison in the States…

Rebekah tells me that as he walked, Fritz was thinking and dreaming about ways to intervene in the prison system to create prisons that are “humane, respectful, recidivism reducing, reformative, and rehabilitative.” He often devoted his hikes to thinking about one big idea, and in Georgia, his ideas about prison justice were being clarified.

I asked Rebekah what the response has been in Georgia to the family’s advocacy. I was thinking about how when a tourist dies, particularly an American, countries usually respond with harsh penalties to demonstrate that they are safe. Those penalties are also about power and money: I remember being in Jamaica where people told me that even the gangsters usually stay away from tourists, because the whole country suffers if a tourist dies. I thought about how different the relations Fritz’s family were bringing to the country, how they were choosing to focus the response to his death not on vengeance, but on healing:

Fritz loved the people in Georgia. This time here was his third, and a big part of why he kept on coming back was how much he enjoyed the people. His death really shook the country. He’d made friends here prior to his death who, with remarkable care and love, did their best to make sure we had as much info as possible about what had happened, and what was going on prior to getting Fritz’s body back (I don’t know what we would have done without them). They told us many stories about people who cried when they talked about Fritz’s death…investigators, prosecutors, baggage handlers, random people on the street. Our response has been received with positivity and a lot of surprise by the public, as it is not typical. It is pretty decidedly opposite from what the usual response is.

Yesterday, I, along with two friends, Sopho and Tina (one originally a friend of Fritz’s and the other a woman who I have gotten to know through the work she does with restorative justice), spoke to a group of mediators at Georgia’s Mediation Centre. One of the mediators (also a lawyer) did not say anything during the meeting, but I’d seen her surreptitiously wipe tears away several times. Just as everyone was shifting to get up and leave, she asked if Sopho could do some translating.

She then proceeded to tell us how profoundly this case had affected her. That she has felt being Georgian has implicated her in this crime, that she has been bearing the guilt from it. To her, this meeting had felt like a mediation. Then she patted the uangaro button (Fritz made a button that said ‘free hug’ in Georgian when he entered Georgia, and after his death his friends here recreated the button to hand out) that we’d given her and said she would share our story when she does mediation. That she would use the pin to start conversations about different ways to respond to crimes and loss. This is just one of the stories I have of people who have spoken of feeling like they were involved in this crime because of their nationality, and have felt deeply sad about what happened to Fritz.

Georgia has had provision for the use of restorative justice in its criminal code for the past 6 years. The director of the mediation centre announced yesterday that they are drafting a plan to go beyond their present use of mediation with juveniles (under age 21) for petty crime, to using it within the the prison system. I don’t believe this plan has anything to do with our advocacy, but we all recognize how Fritz’s story and our response to his death could lead this case being material for a case study…

I asked Rebekah if it was difficult to choose to follow the path of restorative justice, and how the whole family made the decision together. Rebekah tells me:

Responding from a place of compassion has felt like the only possible response, in light of who Fritz is and what he stands for. From the first phone calls after Fritz’s death, his family and I have been on the same page. We’ve clearly understood that responding out of anger or hatred would only send negativity into the world, and have chosen a way that can rather, over time, bring light. Fritz was a big fan of nonviolent communication, and I know that one of his sisters, in particular, has been drawing strongly on the principles of NVC for her response to Fritz’s death.

I wanted to know if Rebekah or her family had a chance to speak to the man who killed Fritz. People who have gone through restorative programs in prison have consistently said that walking into the room where you know you’re going to see the people who harmed is the hardest thing they’ll ever do. I wondered how it felt for Fritz’s loved ones. Rebekah responded:

I did have the opportunity to speak with offender, but it was in court, which I firmly believe is most decidedly not the best place to connect with another person’s emotions. Before heading to Georgia, I was able to connect with several people who work in restorative justice here. One of them is the man who introduced the concept here 10 years ago…These contacts informed me that RJ is presently only used for youth (up to age 21) for crimes that are not serious. They said that I could ask for the opportunity to speak in court, which I did. It wasn’t until the day of the trial that I understood how exceptional this was — it had never happened before.

Due to a translator who was not skilled in English, I am not sure how much of what I said was understood by the young man. A Georgian friend has translated our message, and we’ve given it to the offender’s lawyer, who has promised to pass it on to him. He did respond emotionally when I spoke to him and thanked me for coming to the trial, and for the way we’ve advocated on his behalf.

As far as motive, I only know what was in the statement he gave when the police picked him up, and, frankly, I don’t believe it to be the truth. He was drunk, Fritz is dead, and there are no witnesses. No one has the full story, so Fritz’s family and I have understood that there will always be ambiguity around what happened and what his motive was. We do know the offender is poor and from a poor family, but I don’t want to believe that automatically makes him a likely thief…the motive is hazy. One of the beauties of restorative justice is the opportunity to sit down and really listen and talk. I hope we someday get a chance to do that.

What struck me throughout my conversations with Rebekah is how Fritz’s family find strength and conviction in his beliefs. To them, living out his beliefs and his faith in the goodness of people has meant approaching this terrible situation with compassion and forgiveness. Rebekah shared that she has hopes that through Fritz’s death and the conversations that have happened because of his death, Georgia could become a leader in restorative justice. She also speaks of returning to Nova Scotia and learning more about the prison system in Canada.

I tell her I am also writing about Ashley Smith’s family, and she responds she will be thinking about them. I am struck by how her caring seems limitless, selfless, never-ending.

3. Love

I think about how both families have been devastated by the loss of a family member. And how in both families, despite these terrible tragedies, they live out that love for the family member. Ashley Smith’s mother cried at the rally for Fliss, not for herself, but because she was so touched that people cared enough to come out for an imprisoned woman. And even though that family is still coping with incarceration, their compassion never wavers. Fritz’s family is grieving too this Christmas, but in the most terrible circumstances, they have moved forward with a faith in humanity that seems beyond imagining.

I don’t want to make some easy conclusion. Nothing about these stories is easy, not spending Christmas in prison, or Christmas without a family member, or Christmas in the place your husband died. But as I spoke with these women and they shared the hardest things in their lives with me with such courage, such generosity, such caring, I knew, I could see, we can be better. It is possible. It does happen. There is such goodness in the world, and such resilience, and so much love. There is hope.

El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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  1. Thank you El, for sharing these amazing stories of love and hope. It’s difficult to comprehend the grace and compassion these victims have shown in recounting their stories, but it’s easy to appreciate what extraordinary examples of true humanity they are for the rest of us.

    And thank you as always for everything you write and all that you do. May you continue to find the strength and courage to continue your important work. And may you find some well deserved joy during this holiday season.