“Even in sorrow, we are given a choice: A choice between hopelessness of despair and the everlasting promise of faith. Faith that there is a plan and that in times of doubt, God will speak to you in a voice that is clear and true.” —The Book of Job

One of the many landscape portraits Ken has painted on leaves he finds in the prison courtyard. He has never had one art lesson.

Last year a heartbreaking story where the juvenile justice system and Mormonism intersect crossed my path. Through a connection I met a bishop’s wife in Pennsylvania who wrote her story of befriending a young man on life without parole (LWOP). Cindy Sanford is a conservative Mormon whose art shop included some works of Ken Crawford, a local prisoner who painted wildlife portraits on fallen leaves he’d found out in the prison yard. When her shop closed she wrote Ken to let him know she could no longer sell his works. Through persistence on his behalf, a pen pal relationship was formed. Cindy was overcome by anxiety and distrust every step of the relationship – is this young man trying to get money out of her? trying to waste her time and emotional effort? was he going to turn out to be some psychopathic serial killer?

It turns out that Ken had been imprisoned as a teenager to life without parole for a double murder that occurred near Cindy’s home over a decade prior. Growing up Ken had been unloved and abused, he eventually ran away from his abusive foster homes until he found a crowd that took him in. He was with one of his new “friends” – drunk and high – when they hitchhiked with local campers. During the night Ken’s friend shot and killed the couple who had picked them up. Ken claims he was asleep until the murderer woke him up and got him to drive the getaway car. According to Pennsylvania sentencing laws, both the murderer and the accomplice are given equal sentences.

As Cindy learned Ken’s horrific story, her heart was softened. The young man she eventually went to meet in maximum security prison was nothing like the monster described in the news media she remembered. Could a murderer/accomplice actually have come to God and changed his heart? In prison Ken nurtured the prisoners around him, even from solitary confinement row. He protected the weak and mentally disabled prisoners, captured and rehabilitated injured birds from the yard, and produced such breathtaking art without ever having one art lesson. The stories she heard about life behind bars broke her heart. Could beauty grow in the ugliest of gardens?

Kieth & Cindy Sanford with Ken and his Grandmother

God put Ken Crawford in Cindy’s life for a purpose. She has been changed. Her family has been changed. They now consider Ken a son and brother. Cindy has found purpose in life through prison ministry. They have watched a child of God who was treated horrifically bring hope and happiness to a place foreign to those concepts. Despite knowing he’ll never be married, have children, walk in the forest, or be free for the rest of his life – he dedicates his energy to lifting others any way he can.

Ken’s story begs the question: how do we apply the gospel principles of justice and mercy and love to our justice system? Are adolescents capable of rehabilitation? If so, should they be granted the opportunity? It is less money in the long term to rehabilitate a prisoner than to jail them for life. Are we shortchanging the atonement by advocating for capital punishment? How does this strengthen families?

As I’ve pondered these questions over the last year, I think of Paul the Christian-killer called to be the Christian-zealot. The apostles were called to support someone who helped stone their brother in Christ, Stephen; someone who killed and persecuted their family and friends. I believe it’s entirely possible that God calls the least of us to have great roles in changing others’ lives for good. The question is if we will let them.

For behold, justice exerciseth all his demands, and also mercy claimeth all which is her own; and thus, none but the truly penitent are saved. Alma 42:24

I wish I could say that Ken’s story has a happy ending. The United States is the only country in the world to sentence children to die in prison. In 2012 the Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama found that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles was unconstitutional. Each state takes their time to overturn their JLWOP policies and to decide if Miller v. Alabama should be applied retroactively. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania ruled to not to do so, which means unless CFSY can find a case to take to the Supreme Court for retroactive application, Ken will never be released. Cindy’s story was recently published as Letters to a Lifer: The Boy Never to Be Released and the royalties are being donated to MIMIC, a Philadelphia based charity for at risk kids–run by ex-offenders. If you are interested in her book click on the link above (as a library foundation member I’ll put a plug in for requesting a purchase from your local library).  Cindy hopes her story will spark a conversation about the tragedy and consequences of sentencing children to die in prison. See Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth for more information about the juveniles sentenced to LWOP in the US. And for more information on Cindy, her project, or to see more of Ken’s art, click here.

The author has agreed to answer any questions you have. She’s done a lot of advocacy work and talked to victim’s families, so she can handle tough questions; but please be respectful.