Whether it is politicians on the campaign trail advocating for criminal justice reform or policy makers deciding who to release from prison to control damage from the COVID-19 pandemic, people convicted of violent crimes are almost always excluded. (Actually, the reference is typically to “violent offenders,” as if it’s safe to assume the people themselves are violent — no matter how much time has passed since they were sentenced.) The problem with this myopic position is so many of these unfortunates (that includes me) have matured and evolved and could be making positive contributions to society, not to mention their families. Instead, they continue to rot away in prison, “thrown away” by society as incorrigible.
As soon as a person is convicted of a violent crime (which, it should be noted, doesn’t always mean physical harm occurred), the defendant becomes not just someone who committed a violent act; he or she is perceived as embodying the act. You become a murderer, robber, carjacker — a violent person. There is something gravely immoral about that.
To say that someone is intrinsically evil and incapable of changing flies in the face of every religious teaching, no matter what faith you practice.
It is also simply not true. There are statistics to back me up. But I will use my story and the stories of some of my recently released friends to make this case in human terms.
Twenty-four years and 13 days ago, I was a 16-year-old child in the passenger seat of a car from which a bullet was fired that killed someone. I was not the shooter, but because I was a willing accomplice, I was found guilty of first-degree murder along with the shooter. I don’t contest that I am guilty. I wrestle daily with the fact that I played a part in the taking of another human being’s life. I am ashamed and remorseful. I deserved to be punished, but I am not irredeemable and I do not deserve to be thrown away. I changed!
Michael Flournoy (a returning citizen who served 27 years for a violent crime) told Prison Legal News that, “prison can be an incubator or a casket.” I definitely used my incarceration as the former. Today, I no longer exhibit any of the characteristics of my 16-year-old self. I no longer suffer poor impulse control or look to my peers to define me. I have matured and gained significant conflict-resolution and people skills. I’ve earned an associate’s degree in business management, I’m currently a Georgetown University Prisons Scholar, I’m an avid blogger, I’ve helped several residents gain their GEDs through my work as a tutor, and I am now serving as a mentor in the Young Men Emerging community, where I use my life experience to help my mentees see the futility of a criminal lifestyle and evolve into productive adults.
A 2011 study by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center followed 860 Californians who were released after being convicted of murder and serving sentences of life with possibility for parole. The researchers found that only five of the individuals — fewer than 1 percent –went on to commit another felony. None committed another murder. This can be explained partly by age, since it has been statistically proven that most people age out of criminal tendencies. However, I can attest to another factor responsible for the lifers’ success, something the punitive American criminal justice system (and much of the public) apparently doesn’t believe is possible: genuine change.
Over the past year and a half, I have witnessed several of my friends (juvenile lifers convicted of murder) go home and do extraordinary things: Kareem McCraney is a program analyst for the D.C. Corrections Information Council, where he is tasked with compiling data and composing reports on the conditions of confinement and programming provided to district youth in Bureau of Prisons and Department of Corrections custody. He also volunteers his time as a violence interrupter in the city’s toughest neighborhoods. Halim Flowers started his own publishing company, through which he published 11 books. He also co-founded a media production company called Unchained Media Collective. Michael Plummer was released just over two months ago and has already secured two jobs while working with at-risk youth. Roy Middleton has been chosen for a fellowship with the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings, which works to improve education in juvenile-justice facilities. And there are many more; over 20 other “juvenile lifers” have been released under the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act passed by the D.C. Council in 2016, and none have reoffended.
I read an article by John Pfaff, professor of law at Fordham University, in the April 10 issue of The Washington Post, in which he takes on this issue. He references an exercise conducted among students by Heather Ann Thompson, author of “Blood in the Water” (a history of the Attica prison uprising). She asked them to think about someone they loved dearly, and to imagine that person was horribly murdered. Thompson then asked the students what sort of punishment the attacker deserved, and the responses were predictably harsh. Next, she asked them to imagine if that same loved one was the attacker instead of the victim. Although the students didn’t let their loved ones off of the hook, they were far less willing to throw their lives away. This change in feelings was due to the familiarity the students had with their loved ones: Because they knew them fully, not just in terms of their crime, they are less likely to look at them as irredeemable.
This is the change experienced by Kim Kardashian, which she described in her Oxygen documentary, “The Justice Project.” She stated that she, “didn’t really understand the plight of the incarcerated until I started learned their stories and heard a completely different side.” The first case to draw her in (which she said she came across on Twitter) was that of a woman who had played a minor role in a crime due to desperate circumstances, but was handed a harsh, lengthy sentence. Kim told herself, however, “that I’d never want to get involved with someone who had committed violence.”
Then Kim was introduced to another incarcerated women who had committed murder — but only after being severely abused. When she learned the young woman’s story up close, Kim changed her mind and embraced her as worthy of mercy. The final case featured on the documentary completed her evolution: Kim was introduced to Momolu Stewart who also had committed murder, but with less extenuating circumstances. She got to know him in person and saw his humanity. Kim now fully embraced the concept of second chances.
I chose to highlight these stories to make the point made by Bryan Stevenson in his book “Just Mercy”: We are “more than our worst mistakes.” But I know that for most of my readers, I am preaching to the choir. The challenge is how to get these stories in front of people who oppose inclusive criminal justice reform, or who just doesn’t have this issue on their radar. It is these people whose perceptions we need to change if we truly wish to end mass incarceration.
As a small start, I’d like to issue a challenge to each of you: Share this blog post with three to five family members, coworkers or friends who are not already in the “choir.” Ask them to read the post, as a favor to you, then ask questions and discuss it. It just might change some minds.