'Changed man should get a chance at parole,' religion prof writes

Religion Professor Charles "Buz" Myers authored an opinion piece that appeared in Sunday's Harrisburg Patriot News on June 27.

Myers wrote about his experience volunteering at the State Correctional Institution in Camp Hill, where for the last two years he has taught Bible study to inmates. He shares Harry's story, and why he thinks rehabilitated inmates deserve a chance to re-enter society.

The full piece appears below and online.

Harry is my spiritual brother. He is a devout follower of the Christian faith, and his life radiates the love of God. He is a kind and gentle man who loves to sing and harbors malice toward no one.

Harry also is one of my best students. But he is not enrolled at Gettysburg College, where I do most of my teaching. Instead Harry attends the weekly Bible study that I have taught for the last two years at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill. Harry, whose last name is withheld, is a convicted felon who has served 38 years of a life sentence for first-degree murder.

Harry and I are the same age. He was born on April 1, 1950, just a few weeks after me. But that is where the similarities end, for Harry and I have lived parallel lives in different universes.

Harry is 6-foot-2, so he has a physical advantage over my 5-foot-9 frame. But that is perhaps his only advantage. I am white, grew up in an upper-middle class suburb of Pittsburgh, graduated from high school and attended a prestigious university with the goal of becoming a minister.

Harry is black, grew up in abject poverty on the streets of Philadelphia and dropped out of high school. His singular goal was to get high, so he resorted to selling drugs and stealing to get money to buy more drugs.

On Jan. 1, 1972, when Harry was just 21, his life took a fateful turn when he was involved in a life-and-death struggle that resulted in Harry's assailant dead.

His victim was a Philadelphia heroin dealer who had vowed to kill Harry and a friend because they had stolen the dealer's drugs on Christmas Eve. Two days after the robbery, Harry's accomplice was dead, so Harry feared that he was next. As Harry stepped off the bus that he was taking to his aunt's house on New Year's Day of 1972, the drug dealer stuck a gun in Harry's stomach. Harry defended himself by wrestling the gun away from his assailant and ultimately shooting and killing the man who had vowed to kill him.

Before trial, Harry was offered a sentence of 6 to 12 years if he would plead guilty to second-degree murder. Harry refused, because he felt that he was not guilty of voluntary manslaughter. His first trial ended in a hung jury.

The jury at Harry's second trial convicted him of first-degree murder and sentenced him to life in prison April 18, 1973. So Harry went off to the State Correctional Institution at Graterford to begin serving his life sentence just about the time that I headed off to seminary to begin my ministerial preparation.

During my graduate studies, I married the love of my life, Anne, who became a Presbyterian minister. Shortly after I was ordained in the Presbyterian Church and hired to teach at Gettysburg College, Harry was transferred to SCI-Huntingdon, where his life changed dramatically when he became a Christian. After Anne was called to minister at a Harrisburg church, we moved to Camp Hill. Not long after our move, Harry was moved to SCI-Camp Hill.

When Anne left parish ministry in 2008 to become the head of chaplaincy services at the Camp Hill prison, I began volunteering there. That is when I met Harry, who has been one of the most faithful and engaged students in my weekly class of 50 to 60 inmates.

When I look at Harry, I am reminded about how different our lives have been. I have had all the advantages and opportunities in life. I have raised a loving family and pursued a meaningful career, while Harry, who just turned 60, has spent his entire adult life in prison.

People change during a lifetime, and Harry is no exception. When you look at this mellow, peaceful gentleman with the deep, sonorous voice, it is hard to imagine that he was once an angry youth. The addictions that once fueled his life have been under control for many years. In fact, he has been a respected inmate leader of the Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous programs at the prison. Harry is truly remorseful for his senseless act of many years ago.

Harry is no longer a threat to society, but he remains behind bars, because Pennsylvania is one of six states where all life sentences are without parole. A lifer can be released from prison in Pennsylvania only by a commutation, which must be recommended by the board of pardons and then accepted by the governor.

I do not understand the intricacies of the law, and I am not privy to all of the details of Harry's case. But I know the Bible, and in the biblical tradition 40 is a number of completion or fullness, and 40 years in the Bible represents a generation, a lifetime. In the not-too-distant future, Harry will mark the 40th anniversary of his incarceration, so he will have paid with his life for the life he took in 1972.

Harry has been an active participant in my Bible study class for the last two years. But during that time, Harry has been my teacher. What he has taught me, through his words and his actions, is that God does indeed change lives dramatically and profoundly.

I believe that Harry, and certain lifers like him who also have been rehabilitated during their long incarcerations, deserve a chance to re-enter society. I long for the day when I will host my brother, Harry, at my dinner table in my home.

Charles "Buz" Myers, chairman of the religion department at Gettysburg College, was recently named Volunteer of the Year at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill.

Contact: Kendra Martin, director of media relations

Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Posted: Mon, 28 Jun 2010

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