Thursday, October 30, 2014

In the summer of 1999, America's Most Wanted broadcast the hunt for two teenagers fleeing a double homicide near my hometown in northeast Pennsylvania. When police finally apprehended them it astonished me that one of the suspects was just fifteen years old, the same age as my oldest son. Like everyone else in my town, I celebrated when he was captured and sentenced to life in prison. But if I'd known the truth, that one day our family would actually care about this boy, I would have recoiled in horror. 

No one in their right mind looks for an opportunity to write to a convicted murderer. I didn't either. Our story began eleven years later when some remarkable leaf paintings were brought into an art store I managed. 
The man trying to sell the leaf paintings informed us the artist was an inmate at a state prison. Everyone was stunned by the delicate beauty of the prisoner's art. At the time, we had no idea he was one of the boys convicted of the crime that shocked our community over a decade ago.                                                     
Because the inmate's leaf art was so lovely and unusual, I wrote to him and requested he send us more paintings for our store. 

 But I was wary writing to a prisoner. 
We were not a family that had any sympathy for people in prison. My grandfather was a New York City police officer once shot in the line of duty.  

My husband is a retired wildlife conservation officer. 

We proudly considered ourselves "tough on crime. I thought people like this prisoner artist were beyond redemption. 
But through this young man, God increased my faith, and taught me the extent of His mercy and love.  

Letters to a Lifer is a story of a young man's determination to live a life of purpose despite his conviction of a terrible crime and life sentence as a minor. The book includes excerpts of Ken's original letters and journal. 

All of the author's royalties from Letters to a Lifer will be donated to MIMIC, a Philadelphia based charity mentoring at-risk children. Mimic was founded by ex-offenders. 

            Letters to a Lifer on Youtube                                            

Children are not irredeemable 
Xavier's Story

Xavier McElrath-Bey was arrested for a gang-related murder when he was 13. After he was convicted, he was sentenced to serve 25 years in prison.  

Dolphy Jordan is a graduate and Volunteer Coordinator of the Post-Prison Education Program in Washington State. Dolphy was sentenced to 21 years in prison for murder at age 16. He was released last year and is working on his bachelor’s degree.

                       A Incredible Story of Forgiveness
                            A Prosecutor Changes Heart

                                   ARE CHILDREN BORN BAD?
Do childhood trauma and abuse contribute to delinquency?
                                     Orphaned Elephants

  • 90% of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes – 32 times the average.
  • 85% of all children who show behavior disorders come from fatherless homes – 20 times the average.  (Center for Disease Control)
       *85% of all youths in prison come from fatherless homes       – 20 times the average.  

Article about juvenile life without parole highlighting the Sanfords' relationship with Ken    


Letters to a Lifer is available on Kindle for $9.99

      To order an autographed copy for $20.00 send request to:

by Jeanne Bishop

Visit a murderer in prison?

Cindy Sanford never thought she would do such a thing. I didn’t either.

When my younger sister Nancy Bishop Langert, her husband Richard  and their unborn baby were murdered in their home in 1990, I wanted their killer brought to justice. When he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, I was glad—even though he was only 17 years old at the time of his arrest.

God changed my heart.  It’s not just that I no longer support life sentences for juveniles; I have forgiven the young man who killed my family members, and I am visiting him in prison.

God changed Sanford’s heart, too.

Cindy Sanford started out as an unlikely person to be visiting a prisoner, especially the one who crossed her path.  At the age of 15, the prisoner, Ken, had a role in a double homicide near Sanford’s  home in Pennsylvania. Like thousands of other juveniles across the United States who have committed similar crimes, Ken was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Nothing in her background prepared her to feel compassion for a killer. The granddaughter of a police officer, Sanford grew up in a home of ‘”cold, hard justice,” she writes.   Her husband is a retired officer for the Pennsylvania Game Commission; her sons all grew to adulthood without so much as a speeding ticket. She saw the world as black and white, right and wrong.

Her first contact with Ken comes by chance, through the gift shop Sanford owned. Ken had done unique artwork while in prison and had sold some of his pieces through her shop. When he writes to her, though, she all but ignores him.

When she finally writes back, after an exchange of letters, she eventually learns of his terrible childhood of neglect and abuse and his attempts, through his artwork and touchingly-rendered care for birds in the prison, to show he has changed. What strikes her, though, is that he asks nothing from her, neither money nor help of any kind. What he seems to want is the chance to explain who he is, to be known, to have a human connection.

The exchanges she would have with him, sometimes through letters reprinted faithfully here, gradually lead to a melting of what she calls the “ice around my heart,”

Sanford’s deepening relationship with the young man she is visiting in prison is not a smooth, straight path. Rather, she is bracingly honest about the bumps she stumbles over on the way: anguish over the crime and confusion about how Ken could have committed it.

Though Sanford’s book is primarily about visiting a prisoner, she does not overlook his victims. When she finally reads the facts of the crime for which Ken had been convicted, she confronts him with them and demands answers. When he gives those answers, the truth takes its toll. “Ken’s stories drained me,” she confesses.

Sanford recounts her struggles with guilt along the way: Did looking beyond the crime and giving Ken a chance mean that she was forgetting about the victims?

On this, Sanford raises more questions than she answers—but they are good and important questions

While Sanford concedes there must be punishment for what Ken has done, she questions whether making a humble and remorseful young man spend another 50 or 60 years in prison accomplishes anything beyond turning one tragedy into two.

Her initial doubts about the sincerity of Ken’s transformation melt away in the face of his demonstrated humility and remorse. “Who was I to doubt the power of God to heal and redeem him?”

Some of the book’s most moving passages come from Ken himself, from journals he kept in which he recounts his thoughts. “I hate the fact that I can never make amends for my mistakes,” he wrote in one such entry. “I’ve spent almost half my life in here….I will not have the opportunity to change the reputation I earned on the outside, make better memories or convince people that I am sorry and have changed. That might be the toughest part about being behind bars.”
More than anything else, he expresses this hope: “to be known for something besides what I came in here for.”

Sanford is clear-eyed, writing that even Ken admits there are some juvenile lifers he knows who should never get out of prison. But she forcefully stakes out her position: there should be mercy at some point for those who prove they have changed.

She knows this, too: God is love. “No matter what Ken had done as a child, God loved him. I felt honored to be the mortal reflection of that love,” she writes.

Sanford closes with a steely-eyed charge, that juvenile life sentences, particularly when given to young people who themselves have been victims of violence and abuse, demean us as a nation. Recognizing that those sentences are a topic of prolonged debate and great uncertainty, Sanford proclaims: “However the issue is decided, we leave our testimony that Ken is proof young people can be rehabilitated.”

Read here her powerful testimony of one such human life, capable of redemption and precious to God.

Jeanne Bishop
October 1, 2014
Winnetka, Illinois

                      Ken's Leaf Art

   Before his incarceration, Ken was never aware he had any artistic abilities. Abused and abandoned by his parents, shuffled around from foster home to foster home, he never even completed seventh grade. It wasn't until he was sent to prison that he discovered a God-given talent: his art. 
    Each painting Ken created was handpainted on a leaf he found in the prison yard and brought back to his cell. It is his way of bringing a small bit of the natural beauty and wildlife he so loves into the unforgiving world of concrete and razor wire,.