Imagine that as a young child, your mother tells you and your sister to get in the car and buckle up. “We’re going to heaven,” she says as she starts the engine but doesn’t open the garage door. As the exhaust fills up the car, you slip into unconsciousness. Your mother wants to die and she’s taking you and your sister with her.
This was just one of many traumatic events in Paula Cooper’s childhood. The three managed to survive, but this was only the beginning of Cooper’s painful life that ended with her suicide at age 45 earlier this year.
Three of those 45 years would be spent on death row. Another 25 would be served in the Indiana prison system after her victim’s grandson forgave Cooper and launched an international campaign to save her from the electric chair.
In Sunday’s New York Times, writer Amy Linn explores the many ways Cooper worked to reform her life after she committed a terrible crime when she was only 15 years old. But Cooper always suffered from depression, triggered in her childhood by her abusive parents and only further intensified by the neglect of the prison system where she spent so many years.
When you read about Cooper you quickly realize that she was the model prisoner, doing all that she could to help her fellow inmates and to prepare herself for a life after prison. You want her to succeed. You forgive her for her past mistakes. On the surface, she was a perfect example of what the penal system wanted to achieve, but as her premature death demonstrated, the system failed her when it didn’t provide the mental health services she needed.
When you read her story, it almost doesn’t make sense. How can our society be okay with this? Cooper was exactly what we wanted. The two million people who signed petitions begging for her life to be spared did not misplace their faith. Cooper upheld her end of the bargain and more, but the outside world was too much for her and she did not have all of the necessary tools to succeed.
Sadness is the first emotion evoked by the story of Cooper’s tumultuous life, but a second quickly emerges – frustration. And this frustration will continue until we address the root of these problems with the solutions we know can work. Providing adequate mental health services for prisoners is the start of a long uphill battle.
And don’t forget to check out the New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/23/opinion/sunday/freedom-finally-after-a-life-in-prison.html?_r=0
The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty has created the 90 Million Strong Campaign to unite the voices of those who believe the death penalty is wrong. We need to demonstrate that the broad public support to end this practice is already here in America, and 90 million people speaking up can make a difference.
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Photo credit: Sarah Tompkins/The Times via AP