Incarcerated for 24 years and out to bring humanity to an inhumane “justice” system.

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Indian activist Arundhati Roy once said:

“There is really no such thing as the voiceless… only the deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard.”

She’s right. People behind bars do have voices. But they are forcibly shut up and told no one wants to hear them. With their names replaced by numbers and stigmatized as criminals, it feels like being relegated to the dregs of humanity for eternity.

I know, because for the last 24 years, six months and 24 days of my life, I have lived among them.

My name is Robert Barton and at the age of 16, I was charged as an adult with first-degree murder and sentenced to 30 years to life. …

Think a COVID-19 Thanksgiving will be tough? Imagine being incarcerated

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The essence of “self-psychology” is the idea that we exist only in relation to others.

This post was planned to be a two-way conversation between Rob and I (Pam Bailey, his editor and collaborator) about the increasing importance of our communication to each of us personally — and to our fledgling project — as well as the rapidly escalating financial cost of that “privilege.” Then, without any advance warning, Rob was transferred out of Virginia’s Northern Neck Regional Jail on the next leg of his journey to U.S. Penitentiary Coleman in the tiny community of Wildwood, Florida.

(Trivia: USP Coleman also is “home” to Leonard Peltier, a prominent activist in the American Indian Movement, and Larry Nassar, former USA Gymnastics team physician.) I don’t expect to hear anything from Rob for the next 10 days to 2 weeks, as he quarantines in Oklahoma mid-way. But because we believe our work together is so vital, I proceeded with this post in his honor, as I know he would desire.

Kamala Harris’ career as a prosecutor poses fundamental questions

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This post was co-written with More Than Our Crimes collaborator Pam Bailey.

I recently read a first-person perspective in the New York Times Magazine by Reginald Dwayne Betts, who was incarcerated for nine years and then became a lawyer to win freedom for his friends still behind bars. Titled “Kamala Harris, Mass Incarceration and Me,” it opens with this observation: “Many progressives mistrust [Harris] for her past as a prosecutor. As an ex-convict — and also the son of a crime victim — I can tell you it’s not that simple.”

I am one of those people who has deep reservations about Harris due to the bias in favor of incarceration that is built into the role of prosecutor in this country. However, Betts’ reflections on his instinctual desire for revenge for his mother’s rape also provoked some deep self-reflection. He is quite correct: Even people like us, who believe in second chances and understand so personally the inherent injustice and corrosive impact of the American carceral system, have an opposing, almost primal response when a crime is committed against a loved one. …

Kamala Harris’ career as a prosecutor poses fundamental questions

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This post was co-written with More Than Our Crimes collaborator Pam Bailey.

I recently read a first-person perspective in the New York Times Magazine by Reginald Dwayne Betts, who was incarcerated for nine years and then became a lawyer to win freedom for his friends still behind bars. Titled “Kamala Harris, Mass Incarceration and Me,” it opens with this observation: “Many progressives mistrust [Harris] for her past as a prosecutor. As an ex-convict — and also the son of a crime victim — I can tell you it’s not that simple.”

I am one of those people who has deep reservations about Harris due to the bias in favor of incarceration that is built into the role of prosecutor in this country. However, Betts’ reflections on his instinctual desire for revenge for his mother’s rape also provoked some deep self-reflection. …

Now is the time to dream big

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The hallmark of a democracy is the ability to vote for the people charged with representing you in government. Millions of us choose not to participate — although this month’s election seems poised to break records in terms of turnout (94% of registered voters say they have already voted or plan to, vs. 83% in 2016).

But there are two groups of Americans who long have been denied that basic right of citizenship and suddenly have that opportunity this year: One is incarcerated D.C. residents, thanks to a bill passed by the district council in July. And then there are the “juvenile lifers” who began to be released starting in 2018, thanks to D.C.’s …

This is the question that determines so much of how we are treated

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The other day, I chatted with Peter, one of my former classmates in the Georgetown Prison Scholars program. He has just obtained a new job as a teacher for a diverse group of third graders. A lesson about ancient Rome included a discussion of that society’s reliance on slaves. (That was a surprise to me! But yes, the Romans often enslaved individuals captured during their frequent military adventures.) …

When we face injustice, do we protest or play it safe?

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You can build walls all the way to the sky and I will find a way to fly above them. You can try to pin me down with a hundred thousand arms, but I will find a way to resist. And there are many of us out there, more than you think. People who refuse to stop believing. People who refuse to come to earth. Author Lauren Oliver

Without active resistance by the oppressed and their allies, none of the major shifts we have seen in society over the past centuries would have occurred, from the end of slavery to the right of women to vote. At any one moment, many struggles large and small rage on, with the number of defeats outnumbering victories. (Think Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter). Each of those struggles result in some brave, selfless individuals being imprisoned, wounded, even losing their lives. Is the sacrifice worth it? It’s a question that is difficult, if not impossible, to answer in the moment. And for the individual, it is almost always “no.” But when seen in terms of the bending toward justice of Martin Luther King Jr.’s …

Plato’s allegory is life for me

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I learned in one of my Georgetown Prison Scholars classes about the allegory of the cave in Plato’s “Republic.” Socrates is the narrator, and he describes a group of people who have been chained, facing the blank wall of a cave, for all of their lives. Their entire understanding of reality is based on the shadows they see flickering on the wall from objects and people passing in front of a fire behind them.

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One of the prisoners, who Socrates uses to represent philosophers, escapes from the cave and realizes that the shadows on the wall are not reality at all. So much in shadows is hidden or distorted. Yet when he returns (let’s say he is captured) and tells the others what life was really like, they don’t believe or understand him; they think he is crazy. …

Why this 1970 memoir is required reading

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Charlie Hunnam in the 2017 remake of Papillon (the original starred Steve McQueen)

One of my best friends in prison introduced me to Papillon, the 1970 memoir by Henri Charriere about his 14 years in a French penal colony until finally, after numerous attempts to escape, he succeeded and made it to Venezuela. He recommends the book to everyone — to the extent that when I meet another friend of Donnie’s, I can pretty much bet he’s read it too. And I understand why. Amidst the drama of prison brutality and high-stakes attempts to escape, Charriere shares observations that are as profound today as they were then — and very relevant to the life people like me live every day:

During his first escape attempt, Charriere ends up in Trinidad and is taken in by a “Mr. Bowen,” his wife and daughter. One day, Mr. …

1 in 7 incarcerated people are sentenced to life

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Roy Middleton, Kareem McCraney, Halim Flowers, Michael Plumber, Channing Battle, Anthony (Pete) Petty, James Dunne….and me, of course. We all were convicted of murder when we were still developing as human beings. In my case, I was just a couple of months past my 16th birthday. Yet we were classified as “super predators” — already irredeemable, unfit to join society — and given the equivalent of life sentences.

Today — decades later — we’ve all matured into responsible adults who are making positive contributions to society. Pete and I are waiting for our second chance on the outside, but we’re already youth mentors, bloggers, authors and educators. The others lost no time in joining government departments, working as “violence interrupters,” contributing to nonprofits and becoming creative entrepreneurs. …

About

Robert Barton

I have been incarcerated for 25 years, but that doesn’t define me. With Pam Bailey, my collaborator/editor, I have established MoreThanOurCrimes.org

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