Thursday, September 17, 2015

Death on Hold by Burton and Anita Folson

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware I would relish the chance to give a bad review in exchange for a free book. If I've failed to do so, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

I chose this book because addressing the way we talk about life and killing is very important to me. The death penalty is one aspect of this issue that I've been involved with recently. Death on Hold, the story of a death row inmate, intrigued me. I was interested in what it would say, especially since so many of the books on the BookLook review list tend to skew pretty conservative. I figured, even if it's the story of a couple do-gooding white people trying to save the poor black guy, it would be focused on a topic I'm interested in.

I found a lot to like in this book and some real head-scratching questions.

Death on Hold is the story of Mitch Rutledge, a young boy growing up in poverty in Georgia in the 60's and 70's. His father left early in life and his single mom died when he was 15, leaving Mitch alone and illiterate. Not willing to admit he couldn't read, his only choice for survival was a life of crime and drugs, using his natural intelligence and abilities to scrape together some food and place to live. Eventually this lead to an attempted robbery wherein he killed a man - certainly intentional, but not pre-meditated.

The murder occurred just over the border in Alabama and Mitch soon found himself in Death Row. Shortly thereafter, Time Magazine did a story on death row and visited his prison. When the story was published, it discussed Mitch by name, calling him "defective" and concluding, he was "not worth killing," a crushing condemnation of his humanity.

This story spurred Mitch to learn to read, which he did, on his own, slowly, using a bible and the TV which was on constantly during the 23 hours he spent in his cell each day. It also drove him to take faith seriously. He prayed for someone in the world to care about him. Other people saw the Time article, a nun in California, a married, college professor couple in Kentucky, and a housewife in Virginia, who all began to write and visit Mitch, encouraging him in his education and eventually working with the Southern Poverty Law Center to get him re-sentenced to life without parole.

As Mitch entered the general prison population, he earned a GED and then most of an associate's degree, began mentoring other prisoners and was soon a leader, teaching coping classes and speaking to at-risk youth, eventually filming a video that became part of the regular curriculum in Alabama schools. Mitch went to prison in January 1981 - a few months before I was born - he is still there.

It's a pretty inspiring story and it's well told in short chapters, written by Mitch himself, interspersed with some sections from the perspective of one of his adopted family members from around the country. It talks of life transformation and the power of love. Perhaps those who wrote to him were just do-gooders at first, but it becomes apparent by the end of the story that they really had adopted Mitch as part of the family, sometimes closer than actual blood relations. It's a great example of what Christian community should be.

There's not a lot of direct address in terms of the death penalty and policy. The authors, the college professor couple, are politically conservative and even say they support the death penalty for some people, so it's not at all an "issue" book. The tale of Mitch's life, though, gives a harrowing depiction of life in prison, the tragedies and injustices that are so often hidden from the outside world. He doesn't comment on them much (since he has no real frame of reference outside prison to draw on), but it should provide enough impetus for any moral human being to hope for change.

I really wonder why Mitch's name is not on the book. He wrote 95% of it, but Burt and Anita Folsom have the copyright and author credit. I hope this is simply a legal issue (perhaps prisoners in Alabama aren't allowed to collect royalties or something), but it would really help if there was some note in the book explaining this - otherwise it would be pretty easy to draw the conclusion that this couple is profiting off Mitch's life. (If they are the way they're portrayed in the book, this isn't likely, but then again, they got to control how they're portrayed in the book).

Overall, Death on Hold is engaging and I think it would be a really great introduction into issues of prison reform and capital punishment, especially for conservatives who may be turned off by the rhetoric of liberal crusaders. It's well written and I hope Mitch Rutledge both finds a way to get out of prison and is able to write more books in the future. I think he's got a unique voice that deserves to be heard, and a lot of positive things to contribute to the larger world.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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