A Tragedy, an Irony, and a Hope for a Better Tomorrow

By Michael Tenneson

As a 53 year old man who has been locked up in prison for over thirty years, I have seen the best and worst that man has to offer. Little shocks me after so many years seeing and experiencing the effects of prison in my peers and myself. On March 20, 2013, as I came down the stairs at 5:45a.m. to get ready for breakfast I wondered where the crowd of guys was that was usually waking up, getting ready, etc. and I was told something that shocked me to the depths of my soul: The night before, a recently released inmate knocked on the door of Tom Clements, the new Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, and murdered him in cold blood as he answered his door. I just stood there with my mouth open in shock. All Colorado prisons were locked down immediately.

I was doing a special mural project at another prison just over a year ago and I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Clements as he and a group of officials were touring one of the new Incentive Units that just opened. He was very gracious, genuinely sincere and came across as a very warm and compassionate human being. We only spoke for probably 90 seconds but he made a lasting impression on me. I knew he was a good man who was trying to make some positive changes in the Colorado Department of Corrections. Our Governor hired him to help make these changes in our prison system in Colorado, badly needed changes, and the man really put his heart into it. Over the next week I was shocked even more as we found out details about the unfolding details about this horrific crime. The perpetrator was an angry young "White Supremacist" who had spent most of his recent incarceration in Administrative Segregation because he couldn't stay out of trouble. A young man filled with hate, bitterness, prejudice and ignorance - a young man who chose NOT to change and become a better man.

There was another shock several days later as I was watching the televised funeral memorial for Mr. Clements. There were thousands of people there as one speaker after another got up and spoke of Mr. Clements, his life, his wonderful family, and of the tremendous love he had for humanity, and his work. He viewed prisoners as human beings and treated us as such. Several songs were played in loving memorial to Mr. Clements by the musical group of the church where the services were held.

The second shock for me was when I recognized the bass player as the chaplain who was from the prison I am currently at, and the pianist/Vocalist/leader of the musical group was Chuck Limbrick, aka Mystro, who had just gotten a Governor's pardon in 2011. Chuck had served many years for murder and had chosen, early on, to become a better man. After the music, the crowd of mourning friends, relatives, and associates of Mr. Clements must have felt some incredibly powerful mixed emotions. I know I did!

I was standing there watching this unfold crying openly as the emotions stirred inside my heart. Part of me wanted to embrace his family too. I also wanted to say something comforting to them. I wanted to tell that crowd of people that that man DID make changes. He changed people's hearts, their ways of seeing each other, their ways of assessing certain situations, and, hopefully, their way of dealing with problems (both prisoners, and staff). He was a true leader with the courage to follow his heart! He will be sadly missed.

The next day, after the service, I watched reruns of it in my cell and someone knocked on my door. It was Chaplain Dan! We went down in the pod and talked for a while about the whole tragedy, as well as the irony of having a man pardoned for murder, leading this very emotional memorial service for this Director of the State's prison system - but this was a very special Director, a very special human being, who saw that every other human being is also very special and deserves the best that we can give each other - The man at the piano, Chuck Limbrick was the new musical director at this particular church, the same church that Mr. Clements went to. As we spoke about this whole ironic turn of events I was deeply moved. l too have changed over the last few decades. In April of 1991 I decided to turn my life around and never look back again. In 1987 I was convicted of two homicides in Aurora, Colorado; and three more in my hometown of LaCrosse, Wisconsin - I was an angry young man, filled with hate, bitterness, prejudice, and ignorance - I hated myself, and the rest of the world. I narrowly missed the death penalty because one juror felt I might be worth saving.

I would give anything to take back the hurt that I've caused so many people, to be able to bring my victims’ lives back and to heal everybody I've harmed. We have become so vindictive and cynical over the last few decades and I am hoping that I can help turn our society back around to being a more forgiving, understanding, loving society. Our greatest power as a Nation is neither our nuclear arsenal nor our technological breakthroughs. Our most potent possession is our innate capacity to love each other! We need more empathy and compassion and less judgment and cruelty. We need to know that people can and do have tremendous capacity to change - change in profound ways! Yes, it takes a sincere desire to change, but it also requires a prison system that provides the necessary tools to nurture these changes in the hearts of individual inmates. Tom Clements was creating very fertile ground for such growth in the Colorado Department of Corrections.

There are several ironies here. First, Mr. Clements was the most progressive minded Director we have had during the 26 straight years I've been a Colorado prisoner.  Yet, he was killed by one of the very men that his new policies would have helped the most.  The suspected gunman, Evan Ebel, spent nearly his entire eight years of incarceration in segregation completely isolated from other human beings. Whereas the man playing the piano at Mr. Clements memorial service had spent almost his entire incarceration in the music programs surrounded by positive, loving, supportive mentors.

These two men had extremely different prison experiences.

I know, unquestionably in my heart, mind and soul that America's prisons are filled with men and women who are capable of either extreme. I know firsthand that one can be completely transformed from one extreme to the other given the right desire to change, the opportunity to change, and the nurturing, mentoring environment that is necessary to foster such levels of transformation in human beings. What is obvious to me is that hate, bitterness, prejudice and ignorance are not the answer to making a better world to live in.

I do have hope for a better tomorrow. I have supreme hope that the collective heart of our society will come together and that we will heal this gaping social wound that we have all allowed to fester far too long. I know we can do better than we have. I was once a cold-blooded killer. Today I cannot even contemplate the use of violence as a solution to any problem. We have so many goof options. Our prison systems could be so much more humane, productive and efficient. It is a time of mourning the loss of a very special visionary, Tom Clements, a man who had recognized that all human beings are worth reaching, saving, redeeming and healing.

 

IF WE CHOOSE TO DROP OUR GUARD AND

·         JUST BE HONEST!

·         BE COMPASSIONATE!

·         BE SINCERE!

·         BE FORGIVING!

 
    Something that has become keenly obvious to me over the many years that I have been in prison is that we can find many things to judge each other about: Race, religion, sexual orientation, color of one's clothes etc. Such prejudices are usually at the heart of most of our society's problems. I have been blessed with an insight that has made my human interactions take on a whole new meaning. Today I embrace each person I meet on the one level we all have in common - our shared humanity! That assures me that this person feels the same love, fear, pride, joy, regret and hope that I do. I can also know that it is a common language we can freely communicate with - IF WE CHOOSE TO DROP OUR GUARDS AND JUST BE HONEST! BE COMPASSIONATE! BE SINCERE! BE FORGIVING! People are capable of terrible acts of ignorance and cruelty as well as our capacity of love and compassion. It really boils down to choice. What do we truly want for our future? The capacity of the human heart to change is limitless. The worst can change. I know it is true every time I look in the mirror. I knew it when I looked into the eyes of Chuck Limbrick a couple years ago at the Sterling Correctional Facility and I know it every time I have been blessed with meeting a person like Tom Clements. Hopefully this tragic event will inspire changes that carryon the compassionate legacy that Mr. Clements had begun. Indeed, a hope for a better tomorrow.
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