It’s spring, and when I was in high school, that meant taking field trips. When I was a senior in high school, my government teacher, Mr. Eccleston, took us on a trip to Richmond, Virginia. This was something he did every year, although I’m pretty sure our class was the last one to go to the Virginia State Penitentiary. That’s because they closed the “Pen” in 1991, and tore it down. Here’s a repost of my 2013 blog post about my experience visiting Virginia’s old state prison… Meanwhile, I’m still thinking about today’s fresh topic.
Most high school kids go off to some interesting or exotic place when they become seniors. I guess, in my case, the place my senior class went for the “senior trip” was exotic and interesting enough, though it wasn’t an overnight trip. My senior year of high school was actually full of interesting field trips, to include a trip to a local medical school, where my biology classmates and I saw cadavers. We also went caving, and visited the National Zoo in Washington, DC. I skipped at least three other field trips because I didn’t have the money to go. But probably the most interesting of all the trips we took was the one that took us to the State Penitentiary in Virginia.
The Virginia State Pen was a very old structure that had received its first prisoners in 1800. If you click the link, you can see some photos of the place, which was eventually demolished. It sat next to the James River in downtown Richmond, Virginia.
In the spring of 1990, when we had our field trip, the Pen was about to be closed down. There were still inmates there when we came to visit the place. I remember how my classmates and I were each frisked, then shown into this huge cell block that had several tiers of tiny cells. The place was painted light blue and there was a smell of human filth, sweat, and detergent in the air. The building was obviously very antiquated and unpleasant. It definitely needed to be torn down or renovated.
Gazing up, I could see the huge windows allowed birds to come in. They flew near the ceiling and probably mocked the inmates with their ability to come and go at will. On the floor, I spied a dead mouse that looked like it had been there for awhile. A heavily muscled guy with a mullet wore a wide leather belt with a set of handcuffs prominently displayed in a case as he led us through the facility. He didn’t wear a uniform, though he obviously worked at the prison.
The inmates were in a different part of the prison when we visited. I remember looking at the first big cell block, which was apparently vacated as inmates were transferred to other facilities. We also visited death row, which had also been vacated. Some inmates were in a yard nearby as we made our way to the death house. They shouted and jeered at us. I remember the death row cells were a whole lot larger than the ones in the cell block. They had bars all around them and a lone television set was mounted on a pole that would have allowed all of the inmates to watch it.
At the end of the hall was the electric chair, which Virginia used to execute a lot of men until lethal injection became the preferred way to put condemned people to death. Several of my classmates sat on the big oak chair, outfitted with heavy leather straps with big metal buckles. I remember one teacher actually pretended to strap a couple of students in. Back then, it was kind of a joke, but today, it seems kind of inappropriate and not that funny. Virginia is a notorious death penalty state. (ETA: Thanks to former Governor Ralph Northam, the death penalty was abolished in Virginia last year. I never thought I’d see the day.)
I remember after we saw the penitentiary, we went to Virginia Commonwealth University for lunch. Two of my sisters are VCU graduates, so I was somewhat familiar with the place. By then, I knew I was headed to Longwood for college.
It was an eerie day… and probably the day that I first started to have ambivalent feelings about the death penalty.
Edited to add in 2022: In his amazing talk in the above video, Dale Brumfield, talks about the kinds of crimes that would land people in the penitentiary. At one point, he talks about how Black men could be arrested and imprisoned for being caught on someone else’s property. They could get up to ten years for just appearing to LOOK like they were going to commit theft. As he was talking about that, I couldn’t help but think about the Ahmaud Arbery case, and how he was gunned down by three White men who thought he was a thief. It’s so sad that we haven’t evolved much since the early days of the Virginia Penitentiary’s history.
A few weeks ago, I got a wild hair up my ass and decided to buy a few box sets of favorite TV shows from the 70s and 80s. I bought The Bionic Woman, One Day at a Time, and The Facts of Life. I’ve actually only seen a few episodes of The Bionic Woman, since it aired when we lived in England, and I don’t remember it being aired in syndication much. I did used to watch One Day at a Time when I was a kid, but missed the earliest episodes because I was too young when the show started, and then it really jumped the shark. I was a BIG fan of The Facts of Life, which was a spinoff of Diff’rent Strokes.
Most every kid my age loved Diff’rent Strokes, but I guess the powers that be decided that Charlotte Rae should have her own show. So they had her get a job at Eastland School, Kimberly Drummond’s boarding school in Peekskill, New York. Boom… suddenly, we had a successful sitcom revolving around the lives of girls who went to boarding school and wore frumpy uniforms all the time. The Facts of Life started off with a large cast of beautiful young girls with flowing hair… except for Molly Ringwald, of course, and Kim Fields, who played Tootie Ramsey, the token Black cast member. After the first season, the size of the cast was slimmed down, as the girls progressed through puberty and gained weight.
I loved the first few seasons of The Facts of Life. I liked it less when the girls were moved out of the school to work at Edna’s Edibles. Also, as is so common on shows about school, the students didn’t graduate on time. It seemed like they were Eastland students forever. And then Charlotte Rae left the show, and they brought in Mackenzie Astin, George Clooney, and Cloris Leachman. The last couple of seasons were practically unwatchable! I didn’t like it when the plot moved away from the school, though, because the school was so central to the show. Also, I think they made boarding school look like a lot more fun than it probably is in reality.
But there were a few really good years on that show, I’m in the thick of them right now. The writers took on a number of ambitious topics that were very important in the 1980s. Imagine my surprise this week, as I waded through the third and fourth seasons, realizing that subject matter that was timely in 1981 and 1982, is still timely and important today. In seasons 3 and 4, The Facts of Life tackled:
rape and sexual assault
mental retardation (this is what it was called on the show, rather than one of the more politically correct terms of today)
physical handicaps (again, how it was described on the show)
cross cultural issues
The list goes on, as I have only just started season 4, and there were a total of 9 seasons before NBC finally pulled the plug. But as I was wasting the late afternoon hours yesterday, watching the episode about book banning, it occurred to me that, in some ways, we haven’t really gotten anywhere in the last 40 years. The plot was about how a bunch of parents got upset that their daughters were able to check out books like Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, which they felt didn’t promote the right message or values. I was suddenly reminded of the recent controversy surrounding the book, Maus, by Art Spiegelman, which has had the effect of causing a bunch of people to buy and read the book in protest. I read Maus a few weeks ago, passed it to Bill, who finished it last weekend, and just today, he took it to work to lend to one of his co-workers.
If I recall correctly, I believe I decided to read Slaughterhouse Five when I was in high school, in part because it was mentioned on The Facts of Life as a banned book. I knew I liked Vonnegut’s writing, having read his short story, “Harrison Bergeron”, in the 9th grade. Sure enough, I enjoyed Slaughterhouse Five very much. Then later, I decided to read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, because it was a banned book. My love for reading continues today, although it’s not as easy as it used to be, as my eyes aren’t as young as they once were.
Ditto, the episode about abortion, which was about how the character Natalie, played by Mindy Cohn, made up a story about a girl at Eastland who had an abortion. The story had the whole school buzzing, and soon parents were calling, demanding to know who the girl was. Natalie was threatened with expulsion, until a girl told her that she’d had an abortion. Natalie could have told the headmaster the girl’s name and saved her job as editor of the school paper. But she came clean and admitted she’d made up the story, protecting the girl’s identity. As the credits were about to roll, the headmaster said that he was relieved to “know” that abortion wasn’t an issue at Eastland. Of course, the audience knows better. Forty years later, we’re still fighting over abortion.
I even learned something about capital punishment in France, watching The Facts of Life. The character Geri, played by Geri Jewell, is the cousin of snobby rich girl, Blair Warner. She has cerebral palsy, and works as a comedienne. In one episode, she develops a romance with the school’s French teacher. He asks out Geri, and she says something along the lines of, “I don’t want to get my head chopped off.” She was referencing France’s famous guillotine, which was used to execute people. The French teacher says that France did away with the guillotine in favor of hanging.
I was surprised to hear that the guillotine hadn’t been abolished many years ago, so I decided to look up the device’s history, as well as the general history of capital punishment in France. I was very surprised to learn that the last time France used the guillotine was in 1977! I was five years old! The man who was executed was 27 years old and was originally from Tunisia. He was also missing part of a leg, due to a tractor accident in 1971. He was put to death in Marseilles in September 1977 for torturing and murdering a young woman, and forcing a couple of other women into prostitution. Oddly enough, I actually visited Tunisia in 1977. We lived in England at the time, and went to Tunisia to celebrate New Year’s.
In 1981, then French president Francois Mitterrand declared capital punishment illegal in France. It was formally abolished on February 19, 2007. But, up until 1981, the French constitution actually dictated that anyone who was executed in France would be killed by decapitation, or barring that, firing squad. Never having studied French myself, I don’t know much about its history, other than what I’ve seen personally, heard about in the news, or heard from friends. I have had the opportunity and great fortune to visit France many times, which is something I never thought would have happened in 1982. It seems like France was especially popular in America in the 80s! Back in those days, people didn’t travel as much as they do now… or did before COVID-19, anyway.
Even Russia and Ukraine were subjects of The Facts of Life back in the 80s. During the third season, Natalie’s Russian Jewish grandmother, Mona, came to visit her at school. Mona said she was from Ukraine, even though the name of the episode was “From Russia with Love”. In 1982, Ukraine was still part of the former Soviet Union, which, in those days, seemed like it would exist forever. Natalie found Mona overbearing and annoying, but once she and the other girls got to know her, they found out that she was a fascinating woman with many stories to tell. Watching that episode, especially given what is happening in Ukraine right now, and after having read Maus, was surprisingly poignant. Mona references being confronted by a rapey soldier in a corn field in Ukraine, as the Bolsheviks invaded during the Soviet-Ukranian War from 1917-1921.
Seventy years later, Ukraine decided to leave the Soviet Union, and there’s been trouble ever since. I have never been to Ukraine myself, but I have a friend whose wife is from there, and still has a lot of family there. I know that he and his wife and children are terrified for them. It seems that history is repeating itself. At the same time, I have known some fabulous Russian people, thanks to my time in Armenia, which is also a former Soviet Republic. In fact, that’s where I met my friend, who was working there after having served in the Peace Corps in Russia, back when Russia was briefly less menacing.
I remember that The Facts of Life was controversial to some people, especially during its most popular years. My former best friend’s mother would not let her watch the show. I seem to remember her mom was against the show because she happened to see the episode during the first season that referenced marijuana use. The show certainly didn’t promote the use of marijuana, but my ex friend’s mom was very conservative. She didn’t want her kid exposed to anything she was personally against. I seem to remember my ex friend was often doing things behind her mother’s back, and she was a lot more “experienced” in things than I was. My parents, by contrast, pretty much let me raise myself. We used to talk about how different our parents’ styles were, and we agreed that it would have been nice if there could have been a happy medium. My parents didn’t pay enough attention to me. Her parents, especially her mother, were too strict and intrusive. On the other hand, I don’t think her parents used corporal punishment as much as my dad did.
One thing I have noticed about The Facts of Life is that the characters could be very annoying, as well as very funny. My favorite character was probably Natalie, who was quick witted. I used to not like Jo (Nancy McKeon) much, because she alternated between being angry and snide, and being “vulnerable”. Now that I’m older, I appreciate that character more. I used to like Blair (Lisa Whelchel) more, although I still like Whelchel did a good job with her caricature of a spoiled princess. Tootie (Kim Fields) was pretty much always annoying to me, although she was pretty cute in the first season. During the show’s third and fourth seasons, Tootie did a lot of shrieking and whining. Some of the clothes were pretty hideous, too. Especially the knickers and gauchos… they brought back sad memories of childhood fashions.
But mostly, I’ve just noticed that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I really have been surprised by how forty years after The Facts of Life was a hit show, we’re still talking about, and arguing about, the same things. But nowadays, we have many more than than three networks on TV, and audiences are more sophisticated. A show like The Facts of Life probably wouldn’t last today, even though the writers tackled some courageous plots back in the day. Maybe it would be a good thing for today’s youngsters to watch that show. Maybe they’ll learn its lessons better than we did. But really, the best seasons were the earliest ones… as is the case for most long running shows.
Well, I guess it’s time to wrap up this post and get on with my Friday. Last night, Bill made a “stuffed meatloaf”, which is a dish I cooked for him when we were dating. It was one of the many tricks I had up my sleeve that helped me win his heart. It came out of a great cookbook called Virginia Hospitality, which was a gift given to me when I graduated college in 1994. It was put out by the Junior League of Hampton Roads, and since I was born in Hampton, it really is a relic from my hometown.
My husband’s younger daughter is pregnant, and when Bill told her he was making a stuffed meatloaf, she said that sounded so delicious. She had questions about it. So I sent her a copy of the cookbook, which also has a great recipe for cheese souffles. Below is a link for those who are curious about it. It’s definitely my favorite way to make meatloaf. I’m glad Bill learned how to make it, too. I hope she enjoys the book. It’s a gift that is uniquely from her long, lost stepmother. She really doesn’t know me at all, but maybe a cookbook from my origins will be a place to start getting acquainted.
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Yesterday, after I wrote about Lisa Montgomery, I shared a link to the post on Facebook. A pro-life friend of mine was surprised that I’d be anti-death penalty. She commented that it was a very “pro-life” stance. Although she didn’t mention it, I have a feeling she was surprised I’d be against the death penalty because I also support a woman’s right to choose whether or not she wants to continue a pregnancy. But she should not have been surprised. I think there’s a huge difference between someone waiting to be executed by the government and a person deciding to terminate a pregnancy for whatever reason.
I’ve actually written several times about this phenomenon of people conflating a person’s views on abortion with their views on capital punishment. I know most of my friends are smart enough to know that there’s a big difference between killing a person who has already been born and has a concept of life and death, and terminating a pregnancy, especially in the earliest period of gestation.
Only about 1.3% of abortions in the United States are done after the 21st week of gestation; they cost a lot, typically aren’t covered by health insurance, and there is a huge stigma attached to them. Personally, I think people should have a lot more compassion for women who have late term abortions. They are usually losing babies that they wanted, typically due to a catastrophic medical issue that, frankly, is no one else’s business. Most abortions done for less tragic reasons happen much earlier in a pregnancy. And that is how it should be. Abortions are always going to happen. Laws intended to restrict them do nothing more than force women to wait longer or cause them to seek alternative arrangements that may be unsafe.
I have a lot of reasons for not liking capital punishment. The main issue I have with the death penalty is that, in so many cases, there’s a chance (no matter how small) that the person being condemned is actually innocent. If there is even the remotest chance that a person is innocent, I don’t believe the government has any business putting them to death. To this point, I’ve heard many people say that we’ve gotten “very good” at determining guilt thanks to DNA testing and what not. I hear that… however, I’m sure that people in the 70s and 80s were sure they had the most advanced technology, too. And back then, they did– but as years passed, the technology advanced, and there have been recent cases of people who were put on death row being exonerated.
How does one apologize for a mistake like that? If they’re lucky, the innocent might get released from prison or at least put in a much less oppressive prison environment. If they’re not lucky, they’ll be executed. What do we say when that happens? “Oops? My bad!”
Another reason I don’t like the death penalty is because not only is it very expensive to implement, but it tends to give criminals a platform. Aside from that, many of the cases involving capital punishment are politically motivated. Some lawyer, judge, or politician wants to make a name for themselves, so they use a “tough on crime” stance to further their own careers. That’s not fair.
I believe that capital punishment damages more people than the person who is condemned. Most condemned criminals have families who will also suffer. There are also people involved in the actual process of executing prisoners who, no doubt, grapple with what they’re doing. Some of them don’t have a problem with executions, although I would submit that people who are that callous probably shouldn’t be involved with administering justice. I would hope that civilized people would want to see justice tempered with mercy.
And finally… regarding Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row. I wrote about her yesterday. Someone commented that maybe it would be kinder to execute her, given her lifetime of mental illness, anguish, and pain. I was a bit taken aback by that comment. It’s one thing to administer a mercy killing on someone in great pain who asks for help dying. We all have to face eventual death, and sometimes it really is a kindness to help people die with grace and dignity. It’s quite another to observe the life of another person who has already been born and assume it would be kinder to kill them because you’ve judged their lives to be worthless. That’s getting a bit close to Nazi territory for me.
So– regarding abortion– I think it should stay safe and legal. I think women who are considering them should be encouraged to have them as early in a pregnancy as possible. That’s because developing fetuses are a part of their mother until they are born, and it’s her body, her life and health on the line, and her name on all of the medical bills. And I don’t think a person’s religious beliefs gives them the right to force another person to give birth.
Regarding capital punishment– I believe a person who is already born and has a concept of life and death is not the same as a developing fetus, who is unaware of what life and death are. We should never execute anyone unless there is absolutely zero doubt of their guilt and it’s a matter of public safety, rather than advancing someone’s political career or getting revenge.
So that’s how I can be “pro-life” and “anti death penalty”.
Montgomery’s execution date was recently announced. She currently has a date with the federal execution chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana on December 8, 2020. Montgomery’s official death date was announced last month, giving her just a few weeks to prepare. Normally, prisoners on federal death row get about four months notice before they meet the executioner. Montgomery’s two public defender lawyers are currently both bedridden with COVID-19. They seek to delay Ms. Montgomery’s execution on those grounds.
If Montgomery is executed next month, she will be the first woman in 70 years to be executed by the feds. Trump probably sees that as a feather in his cap– or, perhaps it’s Attorney General William P. Barr who is so eager to see Montgomery killed by the government. Since July 2020, Barr has reinstated federal executions, which had been on a 17 year hiatus. Consequently, seven federal inmates have been executed since then. Lisa Montgomery would be the ninth federal inmate to be put to death this year. President-Elect Joe Biden has vowed to end the federal death penalty.
I’m not a fan of the death penalty. I won’t say it’s never appropriate– there are some cases in which executions should be done in the name of public safety. For instance, I fully believe that Timothy McVeigh, mastermind of the Oklahoma City Bombing, would have killed again if given the chance. I also believe that the DC Sniper, John Allen Muhammad would have killed again. In their cases, I think the death penalty was justifiable. However, I don’t think most death penalty cases are like that. I mostly think the death penalty should be abolished in the United States, as it has been in all of the most civilized countries around the world. But I especially think it’s wrong in Lisa Montgomery’s situation.
Lisa Montgomery is 52 years old and the mother of four children she had with her stepbrother, whom she married when she was 18 years old. She suffers from extreme mental illness. She had a mental illness when she attacked Bobbie Jo Stinnett. Montgomery told her husband that she was pregnant, but she’d been faking it. In fact, Montgomery, who was 36 years old at the time of the murder, had undergone surgery that rendered her unable to have more children before she’d ever met her husband. So when it came time to produce a baby, she determined the only thing she could do was resort to murder and kidnapping. Of course she was absolutely wrong to do what she did. She definitely belongs in prison. But there are mitigating circumstances in Lisa Montgomery’s case.
Lisa Montgomery has severe mental illness brought on by many years of childhood sexual abuse. Both of Montgomery’s parents were alcoholics, and her mother drank heavily during her pregnancy. Montgomery’s older half sister, Diane Mattingly, a product of an earlier relationship of their father’s, now works as a state employee in Kentucky. She has testified that Lisa Montgomery’s mother was extremely abusive to both girls and would beat them constantly. Mattingly has claimed that Montgomery’s mother would psychologically terrorize the girls, and they got no help from their father, who was in the military and gone for long periods of time. While their father was gone, Montgomery’s mother would bring men home. Sometimes, they would have violent fights in front of the girls. On occasion, the girls would be left with male babysitters who would sometimes rape Mattingly in front of Montgomery.
When Mattingly was about eight years old, her father and Montgomery’s mother separated. Mattingly was removed from the home by child protective services. For some reason, Montgomery was left behind. While Mattingly ended up being placed with loving foster parents who taught her self-worth and helped her recover her dignity, Montgomery was left in a cesspool of violence and depravity. There was no one there to protect her. Diane Mattingly was able to recover from her horrifying childhood because she had nurturing from kind adults who showed her a different way to live. Her sister, Lisa Montgomery, never had that.
After Mattingly left the home, Lisa Montgomery’s mother remarried and had three more children. Her next husband was a violent man who regularly beat the children and psychologically tortured them. He would force them to strip naked and then whip them. The family also moved a lot; by the time Montgomery was a teenager, she’d moved sixteen times. It was hard for her to form connections to other people who could have helped her escape her nightmarish home. But when she did tell people she was being molested– including her cousin, who was a deputy sheriff– no one did anything to help her. In fact, her stepfather used to allow her to be used as payment for services rendered when plumbers or electricians would fix things in the house. When her mother finally divorced her second husband, she told the court that she’d walked in on her husband raping her daughter. She was admonished by the court for not reporting the crime, but no one did anything about the abuse. Her stepfather was never charged. And according to a therapist who worked with Montgomery briefly during her mother’s divorce, Montgomery was left with the idea that it was her fault she’d been repeatedly raped.
Montgomery is an incest survivor who was also a victim of sex trafficking. She has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic features, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, temporal lobe epilepsy, and cerebellar dysfunction. There’s also evidence that Montgomery is genetically predisposed to mental illness, and the abuse she suffered during her childhood made that predisposition much worse than it might have otherwise been. Mental health experts assigned to her case have concluded that Montgomery was suffering from psychosis when she committed her crime. And finally, once Montgomery was appropriately treated for her mental illness, she became deeply remorseful.
Although Lisa Montgomery is clearly responsible for killing Bobbie Jo Stinnett in a truly horrific manner, it’s also clear that she won’t kill again. I would not put her in the same class as someone like Timothy McVeigh or John Allen Muhammad or Ted Bundy. I don’t believe she killed Bobbie Jo Stinnett because she got off on killing people. I believe she was out of her mind. And based on what I’ve read about her history, I certainly can’t blame her for being out of her mind.
I think Lisa Montgomery’s execution date has been settled so quickly because Trump is about to leave office and it’s clear that a lot of Americans are changing their opinions about capital punishment. Some people will always be in favor of taking an eye for an eye, and want to see Lisa Montgomery put to death. Frankly, I think a lot of people enjoy the spectacle of the death penalty. But the larger portion of Americans are finding capital punishment barbaric and repugnant, and wouldn’t have a problem with seeing it go away for good.
Lisa Montgomery may not even know she’s about to die. Her mental state is so poor that she’s not very lucid. She spends her days doing needlepoint while her lawyers fight to try to save her life. She has exhausted her appeals to stay her execution. She’s had a hellish life so far. No, she should not be excused for her crimes, but the circumstances in her case are so absolutely terrible that I think she should be granted the chance to have her sentence commuted to life in prison. It’s not ethical to execute someone as mentally ill as Montgomery is. But then, I don’t think it’s ethical to execute most people on death row. I truly believe it’s a punishment that should be reserved for the most extreme cases that involve many people’s deaths.
Unfortunately, I think it’s likely that Ms. Montgomery will be put to death next month. She’s the victim of an administration that doesn’t care about anyone, but especially people like her. Lisa Montgomery’s life has been incredibly tragic and there was no one there to protect her when she needed it the most. The system failed her spectacularly, and now it will be responsible for her death.
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