The state of Missouri — both its authorities and its citizens — badly failed Jon Marc Taylor. And now it’s too late to fix it. Taylor, a prisoner since age 19, most recently in the South Central Correction Center in Licking, Mo., died last week at age 54 while still incarcerated. His attorney told me he probably had a heart attack — coming a year-plus after he suffered a debilitating stroke.
To be sure, there’s no question that Taylor, as a teen-ager, also failed himself, as well as his victims and society generally by participating in crimes with his father (who died in 2010), who taught him how to do it. Those crimes are what got Jon Marc sent to prison first in Indiana and then in Missouri on convictions for robbery, armed criminal action and rape -- crimes he first denied then later admitted.
But unlike the largely broken Missouri correctional system, Taylor got fixed — and that was largely of his own doing, with some help from friends and family. I counted myself among his friends the last decade or so of his life, though that happened mostly by mail and started when I still was a columnist at The Kansas City Star. I began some years ago to get notes from Jon Marc about my Star work when he was an inmate at the Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, Mo., an hour north of Kansas City.
Because I try to answer all my mail (except anonymous hate mail), I responded to Jon Marc's notes to me.
Through this correspondence, coupled with a few in-person visits, I learned that while he spent well over three decades in prison, he obtained an associate of arts degree, a bachelor of science degree, a master of arts degree (all from Ball State University) and a Ph.D. (from the former Kennedy-Western University, a private, for-profit college). He had begun work toward a second doctorate through an accredited university in Louisiana) and told me in a note last year that he hoped to walk out of prison one day as “Dr. Dr. Taylor.”
Taylor’s original sentence in Indiana was for 71 years, though after he filed a motion for reduction of the sentence in 1993, it was reduced to 30 years and he was paroled to start serving his Missouri sentence in a Platte County case. Here’s what the trial judge in Indiana said of him at the time: “In all my years on the bench I have not seen such a case of self-rehabilitation as this.”
Indeed, what Jon Marc accomplished in prison was simply remarkable. For starters, he completed a sex offender treatment class, then did countless volunteer jobs in prison and once was recognized by the Red Cross for helping to save the lives of two of his fellow inmates when they suffered medical emergencies.
He was a white man but he helped to start two in-prison chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and even arranged for one session of the 2010 national NAACP meeting in Kansas City to be held at his prison in Cameron. He worked with the Toastmasters organization to start gavel clubs behind bars to help prisoners be comfortable with public speaking. He published a book designed to help other prisoners rehabilitate themselves through education. He logged more than 200 hours in the Missouri Department of Corrections’ Restorative Justice program, and through that helped to secure a grant for the Kansas City Urban Rangers Corps begun by Fr. John Wandless, who just died a few days before Jon Marc died.
There’s more. Much more, including his being an organizer of the Kairos prison ministry program at the facility in Cameron, which I wrote about here, to say nothing of his completing the Victim Advocacy Certificate course through Adams State College of Colorado and receiving the President’s Volunteer Service Award from Barack Obama.
None of that -- and so much more -- ever made any difference to the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole. Time and again the board refused to release him so he could be free to contribute more directly to society and stop costing the state money. (It costs taxpayers than $60 for every day Missouri houses a prisoner.)
Jon Marc entered the Missouri Department of Corrections system in 1993 with six months credit for time he spent incarcerated in Indiana. Twenty years later, in 2003, the parole board considered his case, but instead of paroling him it added four years to the time he was to spend behind bars. In 2007, the board again considered paroling him but added two more years. And in 2009, it added five more years. Why? The board said this: "Release at this time would depreciate the seriousness of the offense committed or promote disrespect for the law."
Jon Marc's attorney argued that the law in effect when the crime occurred in 1980 -- a law that always governed Taylor's case -- required an inmate to serve 25 percent of his sentence for the "deterrent and retributive portion of the sentence to be satisfied." That condition was met in 2003. At one point Jon Marc requested an advanced hearing, before his next scheduled parole hearing in 2014, telling me, "If denied an advanced hearing, we'll file suit seeking to compel a full and open hearing. After thirty-two years, the last decade or more served simply for vindictive or political reasons, it's my philosophy that if the state is going to continue to hold me, they are going to feel me."
Jon Marc had asked me to speak as his "parole advocate" at his scheduled July 2014 parole hearing. But not long before that could take place, he had a stroke and was severely affected, barely able to say "yes" or "no" and not very ambulatory. So his attorney advised me not to go. The parole board again denied parole and Jon was never physically able to respond to any mail from me after that.
I don't want to make this all about his awful crimes, his lengthy incarceration and his failure to gain release after serving more than three decades. Rather, I want you to know at least a bit about the Jon Marc Taylor I came to know so you can see why I felt he was a good candidate for spending the rest of his life as a free and productive man -- a theory that now cannot be tested -- and, thus, why I think the state failed him.
Jon Marc became a devout Christian while in prison, and when I asked him once about his ideas of forgiveness, he wrote this:
"Because of its personal nature, I cannot speak for anyone else but myself. For me, guilt of my sins was denied for years as I blamed everyone else for my demise but myself. It was only when I realized and accepted that my own actions plunged me over into the abyss that healing, leading to self-forgiveness, began. This process of self-revelation for me took years, probably a decade."
Jon Marc and I both were changed by the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- me because the only son of one of my sisters was a passenger on the first plane to smash into the World Trade Center; Jon Marc because on that day "I never felt the shame of my incarceration more deeply. If I had made different life choices, I would have likely been in position to defend our nation (he once started to do military service but his father talked him out of it and into a life of crime, instead), instead of being a parasite who had preyed upon her."
Jon Marc had both a sense of humor and a thirst for knowledge. In a 2011 letter to me he wrote: "Don't know if you regularly peruse the Wall Street Journal, but it's become one of my favorite papers, and ironically not for the business news but, rather, the other issue coverage." In nearly all his letters to me he'd enclose various clips of things he'd read and usually make note at the top of the letter the name of the book he was reading then. In that 2011 letter it was Dien Bien Phu: The Epic Battle America Forgot, by Howard R. Simpson. In a letter several months later, the book he was reading was For the Cause of Liberty: A Thousand Years of Ireland's Heroes, by Terry Golway.
He was regularly upbeat in tone and nearly always called himself "blessed," often wondering why he had so much going for him when so many of his fellow inmates seemed not have such blessings. As he wrote once:
"I know I have been incredibly blessed with an abundance of love and support. I don't know how I could have survived, much less prospered as I have, without all the love and support from friends and faithful family that I have had."
His list of supporters included some highly accomplished people, among them the Rev. Arthur Simon, founder of Bread for the World and brother of the late Sen. Paul Simon (D.-Ill.). In fact, when I learned of Jon Marc's death a few days ago I called Art at his home in Maryland and he told me he had just sent Jon Marc a note. All his supporters saw what I saw -- a changed man ready for freedom.
From time to time Jon Marc would express frustration about prison life, such as this paragraph in a 2011 letter:
"Life here has been stressful. The camp's average age is the youngest among the five maximum-security prisons. A lot of confused, scared young men struggling to survive and express something in their lives. Add to that my three months of involuntary servitude in the kitchen (and it) makes this summer one I wish to forget."
Occasionally at the prison in Cameron, he would run afoul of the system and be sent into solitary confinement. As an outsider, I had only Jon Marc's story of what happened and no access to official explanations. So you may be skeptical when I tell you that it always seemed to be some preventable misunderstanding or some alleged infraction that frankly seemed designed to keep this active leader from thinking too much of himself -- a trait even he acknowledged was one of his temptations. Jon Marc called his punishments "blow back I've been receiving for my community activism. . .Ironically, it is my socially positive activism in the best traditions of citizenship that makes me a lightning rod for repressive, negative attention." No doubt prison authorities would differ from that interpretation, but his explanations seemed at least feasible to me.
Jon Marc processed all this through the lens of Christianity: "While I consider myself an ecumenical Christian, I freely credit a frail old Catholic nun for gently leading me back to freely accepting God once again in my life." Now and then I'd send him one of my National Catholic Reporter columns and he'd respond with interesting comments, such as: "I wholly agree that the healthiest place to locate oneself on the theological spectrum is one of questioning the meaning of what is ultimately provisional theology. . .I learned long ago that the more and more I do learn, the more I realize how ignorant I and all humans truly are of the infinite mystery of what we call God." There is deep, hard-won wisdom in those words.
A few years ago, after I visited him at the prison in Cameron, Jon Marc sent me a copy of a psychological evaluation of him done by a licensed psychologist in 2004. He was sending it, he said, "for your deeper understanding and perhaps peace of mind."
The document, done in connection with a parole hearing, notes that he had a difficult family life as a child. He did well in school and earned a college scholarship but then decided instead of going to college to enlist in the U.S. Army. While still in early military training, however, Jon Marc's father visited him and talked him into leaving the military. The psychological evaluation concluded this: "It appears that Mr. Taylor made a fundamental choice of allegiance and life-style at that time, deciding to travel with his father and engage in criminal behavior. He described this time spent with his father as a 'crime finishing school.'"
While in prison, the psychologist noted, Jon Marc finally rejected the influence of his father and began to create a meaningful life. He also concluded that Jon Marc did not suffer from any sexual disorder or any other personality disorder "and that he does not present an elevated risk for engaging in criminal or assaultive behavior, sexual or otherwise. He is not in need of psychological or psychiatric treatment." In other words he was a failed human being who had reversed course and now was making the best of his situation while preparing for freedom.
All the evidence I have shows that Jon Marc Taylor, in other words, had productively spent his life in prison and would have contributed to society in some way had he been freed, despite crimes that caused his victims severe trauma.
"For years now," he wrote me once, "I have perceived I am being prepared for a mission. What that mission shall be, I have vague to little comprehension. But I have so much education, so many useful skills and am adept at making things happen even from within the metaphorical Belly of the Beast. And within these past few years I have come to understand, to see how God is moving daily in my life, marveling at Her limitless beneficence in my life. I am a blessed man. . . .I no longer fret, no longer manifest near-physical pain from my continuing incarceration. I am at peace. I know that someday my freedom will come."
That freedom now has come, but in a way that will help no one else, save perhaps by telling his story. His freedom should have come in a different way years ago. I understand that there is always a risk in paroling someone who has committed a violent crime. There are no guarantees and sometimes the parole systems get it wrong.
But in this age of unjust and unjustifiable mass incarceration, the Jon Marc Taylor case was a system failure, the kind that our corrections apparatus is fully capable of producing and sometimes does -- with precious little complaint from those of us on the outside of the prison walls. It's time to demand something better, something that values human life and its possibilities, something that offers hope over despair.
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WISCONSIN TAXPAYERS FOOT THE BILL FOR EVANGELIZING
A state lawmaker in Wisconsin recently used public money to record and distribute a Christmas greeting video in which he urged viewers to become Christian, too. How do people like him get so far in public life without understanding the Constitution and the constitutionally rooted concept of the separation of church and state? Pretty stunning.