Welcome to “Voice for the Voiceless,” a blog I plan to use to give incarcerated individuals the opportunity to speak to the world vicariously through me.
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.
I was not the actual shooter in this crime, but I was judged to be as guilty as the one who was, due to a provision of the law that treats “aiders and abettors” as equally criminally liable. Was I guilty? Yes. I was a voluntary passenger in the car. No one forced me to be there. Did I have the same malicious intent as my codefendant, the shooter? The answer to that question is more ambiguous. I am not attempting to diminish my role in the crime, and I regret the decision to ride along on a daily basis. But I was still a child, and very confused about where and how I fit into a world that had already abused me.
Much scientific evidence shows that the human brain goes through disruptive growth during the late teens and early 20s; it’s no coincidence that mental illness and violent behavior most often erupts then. I was no exception. One of the themes of this blog will be to look at what “fair sentencing” means — especially when crimes are committed by minors.
I grew up in a tough SE DC neighborhood in a single-parent household. My mom loved me and showed it in so many ways, but my father — who rotated through prison himself and abandoned us early on — exposed me at the age of 10 to the world of drugs and hustling. (Imagine this: When my mother sent me to my father after a childish incident of shoplifting for a “man-to-man talk,” he drove me to the strip where he hustled, parading me around like his mascot. For the rest of the short time we were together that day, he sold drugs out of his car while I watched.) I became involved myself, using and selling drugs, in the sixth grade.
My mother tried to save me. She sent me to a military academy for my eighth-grade year and I excelled in this structured environment. In fact, I did so well that I graduated as “historian” (third place) of my class and was asked to speak at graduation. This was the first time in my childhood, that I was felt able to know and be my authentic self. But when I returned to my neighborhood, none of my peers celebrated Rob the Historian. What mattered in the “’hood” was how I dressed how tough I acted. I struggled to fit back in. My mom tried to help by stretching her resources to send me to St. John’s College High School. But the pull of my homies was strong — stronger than any single parent could be. I still have vivid memories of being ridiculed for wearing a school uniform. I began to pack my uniform in my book bag, wearing my regular clothes to and from school. I so wanted to feel like I belonged and fit in. And the rest is history.
Many DC residents don’t know that the district doesn’t operate its own prison. Instead, we are farmed out to federal prisons all over the country, far from our family and friends. For the last 24 years, I have been shuffled from penitentiary to penitentiary (over 14 to be exact), warehoused in some of the worst prisons in America. Not knowing when, if ever, I would be free again, I adapted to my environment. Just like on the streets, you have to show the other inmates you’re not someone who can be messed with and take care of yourself. I did what I had to do to hold my own — which meant doing some things I am not so proud of, looking back.
Nevertheless, despite being excluded from the few programs the institutions offered (due to my status as a lifer), I managed to enroll in an online associate degree program in business management (paid for by my family) and successfully graduated. I taught myself how to invest in financial securities and real estate, tutored inmates working to obtain their GED and became a voracious reader. My cellmates and I would often ruminate about all of the positive things we would do for our communities if released. A few of us even wrote business plans for the ideas we came up with, brainstorming ways we could use our stories to deter other youths from following in our footsteps. But, at this time in our lives, none of these dreams seemed “real” to us because life sentences hung over our heads and penitentiary walls blocked our view in more ways than one.
One of the miracles I have witnessed, however, is several of these same cellmates leave prison and become productive citizens, actually executing a lot of the things we discussed in our conversations. In April of 2017, the District of Columbia passed the IRAA (Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act), which allows juvenile lifers to petition for a sentence reduction after serving at least 20 years of their sentences (lowered to 15 years in 2019) and showing that they are rehabilitated.
What about me? I made the same petition and returned to the DC jail to await my hearing more than a year ago. I prepared for release by taking advantage of every opportunity to enrich myself and others by applying for and being accepted into the Georgetown Prison Scholars program offered by the jail, as well as becoming a mentor for the Young Men Emerging program (for 18- to 25-year-olds in the criminal justice system). My mother, who has stuck by me all of these years, and other family members and friends, planned to welcome me home.
But it was not to be. My freedom, so tantalizingly close, was snatched away when my IRAA petition was denied because of a disciplinary infraction three years ago, when I was unable to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
Writing in The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf highlights an insight from David Schmidtz. In his book, The Elements of Justice, he discusses a common mistake among judges: “It is conventional,” Schmidtz writes, “[to consider] that what we deserve depends on what we do, and that we deserve no credit for what we do until we do it.” But as he sees it, “We sometimes deserve X on the basis of what we do afterreceiving X.” I relate to that. It was wrong to sentence me, as a juvenile, to a life sentence in the first place. I was sent to hell (the worst penitentiaries in the country) and then they expect me (and others) to come out unburnt. That’s not how it works.
Having my FREEDOM SNATCHED AWAY has served as an impetus for me to use my story and the stories of other incarcerated individuals to humanize the face of the incarcerated. I urge you to journey with me as I use my words to shed light on the injustice we face daily, as well as to highlight some of the reforms and programs that could change all that.
As for what happens next to me, I am working hard with my lawyer and supporters to stay in the DC jail until my petition can be heard again so that I can continue the education and mentoring work that has proven so beneficial to me and others. Stay tuned.
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A note about how this blog is possible: Incarcerated people have no access to the internet. Thus, I am partnering with journalist/storyteller Pam Bailey, who acts as my editor when needed and posts all of my updates. You may contact her at email@example.com.