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.
Despite being what society labels “violent offenders,” we are so much more than our crimes. We have matured out of our lack of impulse control and high vulnerability to peer influence. We have, despite an environment so harsh it seems designed to arrest any positive development, become our better selves. But we will remain labelled by our crimes until people can somehow get to know us.
This is mission of the project I’m co-founding with my editor/collaborator Pam Bailey. “More Than Our Crimes” will collect and share the holistic stories of the people behind the labels — from the “why” of our youthful wrong direction, through our hard-won evolution in prison, to our identities and aspirations today. At the same time, we will identify reforms that could bring about a more just system of “criminal justice” both in D.C. and nationally and suggest how readers can help advance them.
Why have I chosen this as my life’s work, when I could be forgiven for wanting to put all of this pain and injustice behind me upon release? Because there are so many men like us, wasting their vast potential behind bars — some with no hope at all of being given a second chance.
Consider the story of Donzell McCauley. He’s another D.C. resident and our paths crossed several times during our decades in prison. But we first met in 2002 in the Atwater, California, penitentiary. We quickly bonded over our voracious love for reading, learning and sports, and our zest for finding a way to combine entrepreneurship with doing good. He soon became a combined big brother and mentor to me.
What I found most inspiring about him was his upbeat attitude and determination to be a positive influence in people’s lives. What’s so amazing about that? Donnie was arrested at19 years old for killing a police officer. (I won’t tell you the details of the case; there are mitigating factors, but that is not the point I want to make.) He had to agree to a plea deal to avoid the death penalty; instead, he got life without parole — a kind of living death. Today, he is 50 years old.
Yet, he never seemed down. He always had a ready smile on this face. He always found time to listen to me and others. He teaches workshops for fellow inmates and is widely regarded as a role model. And he goes to great extents to be a real father to his children — including coaching them as they start their own businesses.
Note from Pam, who has become close to Donny as well: His favorite way of ending a letter is “hug yourself for me.” He wrote this to me in one of his earliest letters: “When the judge sentenced me to life in prison, I recognized I had two choices, and which one I chose would shape who I would become: To sink into a pool of despair and drown in a tidal wave of negative thoughts, or search out the positive things I could still do with what remained to me of life. My family’s unflagging support helped me re-discover gratitude for that and, over time, I became more and more sensitive to the needs of the men around me and began reaching out to them with a caring spirit. As Mahatma Ghandi once said, ‘Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values and your values become your destiny.’”
I am in awe of how he can remain so engaged and positive with his kind of sentence. Could you?
There are too many Donnies wasting away in prison, when they could or should be in society making positive contributions. People do age out of the tendency to commit crimes. Our worst mistake does not define us. We all deserve second chances. To be released (as I hope I will be following my upcoming parole hearing) and focus only on a normal life for myself would betray all of the incarcerated people I have met along the way.
So, our goal with More Than Our Crimes is to introduce you and others to all those Donnies and to work to make sure we are included in reform efforts. (Ultimately, I believe that anyone who has been incarcerated for 20, 25 years, no matter what the original crime, can file some type of petition allowing them to be evaluated by a judge to ascertain whether they have been rehabilitated and can safely be released — rather like D.C.’s Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act.) Right now, we too often are excluded, with politicians rushing to assure their constituents that they’d never release “violent offenders.” But that is not who we are. We are humans who once committed violent crimes and now are different people. Yes, it’s a huge challenge. But we have to start somewhere and it might as well be now.
Want to get engaged? Visit our website. It’s still very much under development, but you can read our first two “Donnie stories” (his will come soon), learn more about some of our target issues, and sign up to receive email updates. You can join the conversation by following us on Twitter and Instagram. And most importantly, just start talking to people about the need for second chances for all: to your family, your friends, your hairdresser. And on our website, we’ll alert you when there is a bill you can support by calling and writing to your city council member or Congressperson. This is how opinions are eventually changed.