Flowers grow in gardens,not in hard places


Ray Jasper wrote this letter a few days before he was executed in Texas on March 31, 2014. Ray was convicted under Texas’ Law of Parties, which allows death sentences to be imposed even if the defendant isn’t accused of killing someone outright. Ray was 19 years old when he was went to death row for participating in the 1998 robbery and murder of David Alejandro.

Below are excerpts from Ray’s letter—the complete version can be viewed at Gawker.com’s “Postcards From the Edge”.

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 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 who 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 uproar last year at Pelican Bay. Some 33,000 inmates across California pro­tested, refusing to work or refusing to eat—on hunger strikes because of those being tortured in isolation in Pelican Bay.

I think prison sentences have gotten way out of hand. People are getting life sentences for aggravated crimes where no violence had occurred. I know a man who was 24 years old and received 160 years in prison for two aggravated robberies where less that $500 was stolen, 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 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 who 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.

I’m on death row, and yet I didn’t commit the act of murder. I was convicted under the Law of Parties. When people read about the case, they assume I killed the victim, but the facts are undisputed that I did not kill the victim. The one who killed him pled guilty to capital murder for a life sentence. He admitted to the murder and has never denied it. Under the Texas Law of Parties, they say it doesn’t matter whether I killed the victim or not, I’m criminally responsible for someone else’s conduct. But I was the only one given the death penalty.

I understand that it’s not popular to talk about race issues these days, but I speak on the subject of race because I hold a burden in my heart for all the young Blacks who are locked up or who see the street life as the only means to make something of themselves. When I walked into prison at 19 years old, I said to myself, “Damn, I have never seen so many Black dudes in my life.” I mean, it looked like I went to Africa. I couldn’t believe it. The lyrics of Tupac echoed in my head, “The penitentiary is packed / and it’s filled with Blacks.”

It’s really an epidemic, the number of Blacks locked up in this country. That’s why I look not only at my own situation, but why all of us young Blacks are in prison.

People point their fingers at young Blacks, call them thugs and say they need to pull up their pants. That’s fine, but you’re not feeding them any knowledge. You’re not giving them a vision. All you’re saying is be a square like me. They’re not going to listen to you because you have guys like Jay-Z and Rick Ross who are millionaires and sag their pants. Changing the way they dress isn’t changing the way they think.

As the Bible says, “Where there’s no vision, the people perish.” Young Blacks need to learn their identity so they can have more respect for the Blacks who suffered for their liberties than they have for someone talking about selling drugs over a rap beat who really isn’t selling drugs.

They have to be exposed to something new. Their minds have to be challenged, not dulled. They know the history of the Crips and Bloods, but they can’t tell you who Garvey or Robeson is. They can quote Drake and Lil Wayne, but they can’t tell you what Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton has done.

I tell those I know the same thing, not to put blue and red before black. They were Black first. It’s senseless, but they are trying to find a purpose to live for, and if a gang gives them a sense of purpose, that’s what they will gravitate to. They aren’t being taught to live and die for something greater. They’re not being challenged to do better. 

Black history shouldn’t be a month, it should be a course, an elective taught year-round. I guarantee Black kids would take that course if it was available to them. How many Black kids would change their outlook if they knew that they were only considered three-fifths of a human being according to the U.S. Constitution? That Black people were considered part animal in this country. They don’t know that. When you learn that, you carry yourself with a different level of dignity for all we’ve overcome.

Before Martin Luther King was killed, he drafted a bill called “The Bill for the Disadvantaged.” It was for Blacks and poor whites. King understood that in order to have a successful life, you have to decrease the odds of failure. You have to change the playing field. I’m not saying there’s no personal responsibility for success—that goes without saying—but there’s also a corporate responsibility. As the saying goes, when you see someone who has failed, you see someone who was failed.

Flowers grow in gardens, not in hard places. Using myself as an example, I was 15 when my first love got shot nine times in Oakland. Do you think I’m going to care about book reports when my girlfriend was shot in the face? I understand Barack Obama saying there is no excuse for Blacks or anyone else because generations past had it harder than us. That’s true. However, success is based on probabilities and the odds. Everyone is not on a level playing field. For some, the odds are really stacked against them. I’m not saying they can’t be overcome, but it’s not likely.

Ask any young Black person their views on the police—I assure you their response will not be positive. Yet if you have something against the police, who represent the government, you cannot sit on a trial jury. A young Black woman was struck from the jury in my case because she said she sees the police as “intimidators.” She never had a good experience with the police, like most young blacks, but even though she’s just being true to her experience, she’s not worthy to take part as a juror in a trial.

In the book Trial and Error: The Texas Death Penalty, Lisa Maxwell paints the picture below to get a point across, and if any white person reading this is honest with themselves, they will clearly understand the point. I cannot quote it word for word, but this is the gist of it:

Imagine you’re a young white guy facing capital murder charges where you can receive the death penalty. The victim in the case is a Black man. When you go to trial and step into the courtroom, the judge is a Black man. The two prosecutors seeking the death penalty against you are also Black men. You couldn’t afford an attorney, so the judge appointed you two defense lawyers, who are also Black men. You look in the jury box—there’s eight more Black people and 4 Hispanics.

The only white person in the courtroom is you. How would you feel facing the death penalty? Do you believe you’ll receive justice?

As outside of the box as that scene is, those were the exact circumstances of my trial. I was the only Black person in the courtroom.

I’m a father. My daughter was six weeks old when I got locked up, and now she’s 15 and in high school. Despite the circumstances, I’ve tried to be the best father in the world. But I knew that her course in life is largely determined by what I teach her. It’s the same with any young person; their course is determined by what we are teaching them. In the words of Aristotle, “All improvement in society begins with the education of the young.”

Sincerely,

Ray L. Jasper