Changing Minds, Changing Hearts

 

Changing Minds, Changing Hearts

YouTube: Shaka Senghor

Recently I had the great privilege of hearing Shaka Senghor speak. He has written Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison. Shaka Senghor committed murder. His story of pain, struggle and transformation moved me profoundly. I was particularly interested in his accounts of being in solitary confinement and discovering books—from ancient classics to modern stories of black men. He writes this about one if his first experiences:

“When I got back to my cell, it was nearing time for count, so I sat down and opened up the dog-eared pages of Eldorado Red. From the first page, I was hooked. Goines’s vivid tale of inner-city life and the underground lottery had me in its spell, and his ability to articulate the pain of the streets validated the anger, frustration and disappointment I felt toward life in the ‘hood. Goines placed me back on the streets of Detroit; he made me feel alive again. I read the whole thing that night.” 1

All of us need our experiences to be validated. What do most of us living outside the fence in nice neighborhoods know about the traumas young black people experience in the streets and neighborhoods?

Senghor goes on about reading The Autobiography of Malcom X, “Without question, it was one of the best and most important decisions I have ever made.”2 This made me remember a statement from more than one of my students, “If I’d learned this stuff about my people in school, I don’t think I would have dropped out.”

Senghor echoes the power of black people learning black history when he writes, “My reading of Black history gave me a sense of pride and dignity that I didn’t have prior to coming to prison.”3

Books were an important part of his changing identity, as was learning to write and journal. When he figured out that writing in a journal was a method for learning about himself and a way to manage his anger, it all became a powerful tool for transformation. He writes:

“It’s hard to express how much this process of examination began to change me. Within the lined pages of my notepads, I got in touch with a part of me that didn’t feel fear whenever something didn’t go my way—a part of me that was capable of feeling compassion for the men around me.

For the first time I could remember, I began to recognize my true self.”4

There it is: the recognition of one’s true self. People are not born criminals. People with severe damage or psychological illnesses are in a separate category. I did not want to know about or discuss my students’ crimes. I learned that crucial lesson early on when I looked at a difficult student’s file and discovered what he’d done. It did not help the already tenuous relationship between us, and it was not my job. I did have the privilege of watching people being transformed by education as they learned to read and write, as they learned and articulated what was important to them as they thoughtfully figured out what their futures might look like outside the fence. As they worked and learned, as they figured out how smart and capable they were, they were discovering their own compassion and goodness, their true selves.

When I heard Shaka Senghor speak, he read the letter he wrote to his victim and talked about the letter from the victim’s godmother, who forgave him. He talked about the long road to forgiving himself. When asked about forgiving his mother who had abused him as a child, he said the lesson he learned was that forgiveness did not mean that the other person automatically changes their behavior.

It was an amazing evening. When he finished his speech, the audience gave him a standing ovation. All the proceeds from that evening’s book sales went to the Children’s Literacy Network, which sponsors Staying in Touch in the county’s prisons. Inmates choose books for their children and read the books into a recorder. Their children then receive the books, recordings and cards from their parents. Senghor praised the program, noting just how important those connections are for both parents and children.

I taught many remarkable men in my prison classroom. Early in my twenty-five year career, I had two men in a history class. (To protect them, I’ve changed their names.) Mr. Hamden was supremely organized in whatever he did, including his school work. A dream student, every assignment was done perfectly. He never missed a class and came in early every day. At a time when the Jaycees, an organization for leadership training and civic organization for people 18-40, had a chapter in the prison, Mr. Hamden found a program that would take store coupons and turn them into a charitable project. Under his leadership, other inmates and both federal and contract staff collected coupons and turned them in.

Mr. Engling was in the same class and another excellent student. He and his classmates wrote a play about a man experiencing events in the 20th Century. I don’t remember a single hitch in the whole process. Mr. Engling was warm and fun as he crafted the script to include everyone in the class. They then loved rehearsing—and the performance turned into a huge hit.

Years later I had Mr. Walls. He was at the end of a long sentence, delighted to be able to earn his high school diploma. He was a joy in class as he sat in the front row asking good questions and keeping discussions lively, interesting and focused. His assignments were typed (no easy task with very few typewriters available in the library), and he earned straight A’s. One of his papers was the story of his teenage years, including what he described as the terrible decision to drop out of school. He went on to write about his re-awakening when he discovered books and school. After he was released, he wrote letters back to our program’s Pre-Release class, encouraging people who were ready to go home and warning them about pitfalls outside the fence.

All three of these men were self-reflective, centered and focused on successful futures. They were kind, compassionate, helpful and courteous. All three helped me enormously by being perfect role models for newer students who were struggling. I found them charming and lovely to be around.

All three had committed murder.

Much of the discussion around prison reform centers around non-violent offenders. If those people are released, that would be progress, but it leaves many more people locked away who have, at an earlier time in their lives—often as teenagers—committed violent crimes like murder. People DO outgrow bad behavior and take responsibility for the crimes they commit. Those people who do not need to be kept behind bars. One of the missing pieces in our broken criminal justice system is any attention on the victims and survivors of violent crimes. When asked, people have amazing capacities to forgive.

I think about the people, especially those in power in the criminal justice system, who cannot look beyond a single, awful event—and see whole people. This article from the New York Times tells of someone who committed a murder and spent over forty years behind bars: False Hope and a Needless Death Behind BarsHe became one of the most respected inmates in the state’s system, took total responsibility for his crime, earned degrees and started a program in which victims and offenders could communicate. He had support from prison guards, judges, clergy and prosecutors. After he was denied parole ten times, he committed suicide at age 70.

Another compelling reason to release people who’ve served long sentences, may have committed violent crimes and are doing good work behind bars, is that the world needs them! Formerly-incarcerated people are organizing across the country to work for prison reform and to work with vulnerable young people. No one can do it like they do. They know. They have the answers, the solutions and the commitment. Many of the men I knew expressed their needs to “give back” to their communities.

“Our worst deeds to not define us,” says Senghor. Prison is tough. In America we don’t simply lock people up and take away their freedom—we add further punishment like the use of solitary confinement. Our current system allows life inside to be miserable and dangerous. It is not easy to admit and atone for crimes committed. But, if people serve their sentences for many years and become valuable citizens behind bars, we should at least consider releasing them. If they can change their hearts and minds, we should be able to do the same. We need to start imagining a world where we matter to one another. Part of the blaming and shaming has to do with how cut off we all are to the people who live in prisons. Media images of “those animals,” as one person described them, abound.

Mr. Walls wrote this, “I have thought a lot about this in the quarter of a century I’ve been locked up. When it is their loved one who is charged with a crime and convicted, people always want leniency, mercy and humane treatment for the person they love. But, when it happens to people you feel no connection with, it is common to hear cries of “3 Strikes and you’re out!” and “Execute him!” He also wrote, “I wish citizens would demand that prisoners be treated as they would want their beloved sons and daughters to be treated, because that is who we are. We are your brothers and sisters who have made mistakes and lost our way from the right path. Only through education will we find our way back.”

Mr. Walls wrote this, “I have thought a lot about this in the quarter of a century I’ve been locked up. When it is their loved one who is charged with a crime and convicted, people always want leniency, mercy and humane treatment for the person they love. But, when it happens to people you feel no connection with, it is common to hear cries of “3 Strikes and you’re out!” and “Execute him!” He also wrote, “I wish citizens would demand that prisoners be treated as they would want their beloved sons and daughters to be treated, because that is who we are. We are your brothers and sisters who have made mistakes and lost our way from the right path. Only through education will we find our way back.”

  1. Shaka Senghor, Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison, (New York, Convergent Books, 2013, 2106), p. 99.
  2. Ibid., p. 101
  3. Ibid. p. 101
  4. Ibid. p. 192

Stories about Island Prisons

Stories about Island Prisons

Abuse continues on Rikers Island, the notorious prison sitting in the East River of New York City. Reading about the sordid record at Rikers prompts me to investigate other island prisons. Turns out, island prisons dot the waters all over the world in places like Venezuela, Italy, France and Panama. Alcatraz, America’s other infamous island, stands with its high imposing fortress rising up from San Fransisco Bay. Alcatraz was a maximum security federal prison from 1934-1963, It now functions as a tourist attraction as part of the U.S. National Park Service. Island prisons create a fitting metaphor for the way we regard and treat people who are incarcerated. Islands not only make it difficult to escape, but they create a natural barrier for the rest of us so that we are completely cut off and immune from the realties of lives inside. A prison on an island creates a more powerful sense of exile. more “Stories about Island Prisons”

A Father’s Restorative Justice

When I first read my friend Ron Simpson-Bey’s article, My Son’s 14-year-old Killer Deserved a Second Chance, it took my breath away. It is one thing to work for and advocate restorative justice for strangers, but it is quite another to want to give your son’s killer another chance. I was moved by several ideas put forth in his  article: the power of forgiveness and the good that comes when “victims,” are brought into the justice process; where he says we don’t make out communities safer by artificial lines between “victims” and “offenders;” and his emphasis on teenagers as children, not adults. The article makes me think about how white privilege makes many of us unaware of how so many families and communities of color are unheard and unconsidered every day. I am privileged to share Ron’s thoughts—as yet another Father’s Day approaches. I have included the full text of the article as it was published in The Root, below.


My Son’s 14-Year Old Killer Deserved a Second Chance

We don’t make our communities safer by creating artificial lines between “victims” and “offenders.” That’s why I advocated for fair treatment for the teen who killed my son, and why we must insist on it for all children of color in the criminal-justice system.

By: Ronald D. Simpson-Bey | Published June 11, 2014

My only son, Ronald D. Simpson III, was murdered on Father’s Day 13 years ago. Ronald was 21. His killer was a 14-year old boy.

We were devastated, as any parents would have been. Despite this, my son’s mother and I did not want our son’s killer to spend the rest of his life in prison. We don’t believe in the concept of an eye for an eye. We also did not want to compound an already bad situation by taking another child away from his family and community forever.

We recognize that even though he committed a horrible crime, the boy who killed our son was still a child. We wanted him to be processed in the juvenile system, which was set up specifically for children. We wanted him tried there and held there after his conviction to prepare him for release. The judge granted our wishes. The young teen was sentenced in juvenile court and told that he would be released at age 21 if he met the requirements of the court and demonstrated his rehabilitation. He succeeded and was released.

We were fortunate that we dealt with a prosecutor and judge who were willing to consider our wishes. As evidenced by the growing national support for restorative-justice programs, my family’s perspective is certainly not unique. The residents of the communities that are most impacted by both violence committed by young people and extreme sentences often recognize that we don’t make our communities safe by creating artificial lines between “victims” and “offenders.” We know that many of the children accused of crime have themselves been victims of violence, neglect, poverty, inadequate schools and failing social services. In addition, many of our families are suffering after having lost some members to violent crime and others to jail.

But too often, the voices of poor people and people of color are silenced on these issues. Prosecutors and others in the criminal and criminal-justice systems are far more likely to prioritize the perspectives of individuals from wealthier, whiter communities. The only victims who are considered legitimate are those who are in lockstep with prosecutors looking to implement the harshest penalties possible. Victim services, financial resources and other types of support are often meted out accordingly.

Research had proved what parents already know: Children are still developing and possess tremendous capacity for change. We also know that they do not have the same capacity as adults to resist pressure from peers and adults, think through the long-term consequences of their actions or remove themselves from dangerous situations.

As we approach Father’s Day, I call on parents and other interested people from these communities to insist on having our voices heard. We must insist that police engage our communities fairly and stop targeting children of color. We must insist on accountability from juries who determine the fate of our young people.

And as states throughout the country reconsider their juvenile sentencing policies, we must insist not only that they eliminate life without parole but also that they replace it with reasonable alternatives that provide young people with a chance to pay for their mistakes and then later have fruitful, fulfilling lives.

Everyone makes mistakes, and all of us—especially children—possess the capacity to change. We are all deserving of forgiveness and a chance to begin anew. This is a basic tenet of virtually every faith tradition, and one of the founding principles of our great democracy.

The child who killed my son is now a young man. I am not in direct contact with him, but we are forever bonded. My son and his sister had a child together, so my grandson is his nephew.

He has grown into a productive man because he had a second chance, which is all that any of us could want. Together, we can be sure that more young people get the chance they need and deserve.


Ronald D. Simpson-Bey is a program associate for the American Friends Service Committee in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is a co-founder and board member of the organization Chance for Life.

This article was first published in the The Root, which aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by editorial staff.

Restorative Justice

Restorative justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused or revealed by criminal behavior. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders.
Practices and programs reflecting restorative purposes will respond to crime by:
  1. identifying and taking steps to repair harm,
  2. involving all  stakeholders, and
  3. transforming the traditional relationship between communities and their governments in responding to crime.

Russian writer and philosopher Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” If he could examine our prisons today, I think we would be judged very harshly. If he could see the millions of people in them and see how we are criminalizing poverty and childhood damage, we would be judged inhumane. If he could learn of the draconian sentences for non-violent crimes, we would be judged unjust. If he could see what damage mass incarceration is doing to families and communities and how difficult we make it for people getting out to put their lives back together, we would be judged foolish and shortsighted. If he could see the number of children we condemn to adult, violent environments and lifelong sentences, contemplate the tens of thousands of people in solitary confinement and understand the way most incarcerated people are treated, we would be judged ruthless and brutal. If he could understand its racist elements, I think he might point out our core value of equality and label us hypocritical.

Criminal behavior is complex, and some of its root problems like poverty, mental health issues and poor—or no—educational opportunities seem intractable, but there are better ways of dealing with criminal justice if we care enough about our identity as a people. We need a sharp 180 degree turn toward restorative justice. The ways is which we carry out “justice” is tragically broken and sick, and the damage being done is affecting us all. It—and we–need to be healed.

Across the Line

Making big changes and seeing the world very differently require courage. Maya Angelou said, “Courage is the most important of all virtues, because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” Individual people can so easily put blinders on about big, painful problems, but we are also capable of moving from a place of safety and security over into an unknown space where we feel insecure and often frightened. Making courageous decisions needs moral muscle and a desire to feel honor and self-respect. It is how we grow. Instead of focusing on these national faults lines in our criminal justice system, we could focus on our strengths, our capability for great compassion and our deep concern for the common good. If individuals are capable, then so are we as a nation capable. I’ve found people’s courage and capabilities amazing—especially among my students in prison.

Dropping out of school has serious consequences, especially to people’s self-respect. People who drop out often feel like failures and losers. None of my prison students had graduated from high school before I knew them. I think about the first days back in school for these men—how vulnerable they looked with their wooden faces and wary, anxious eyes. But, they had already crossed the first difficult line, the doorway into the office to sign up. They had to swallow their pride about their grave mistakes. I found it so interesting when asked about the decision they most regretted, that they said it was not the crime they committed, but dropping out of school. “If I hadn’t dropped out, I wouldn’t be here,” they answered.

They had to look in the mirror and face themselves as people with very rusty basic skills in reading, writing and math and as adults who knew very little about what was in their textbooks. In the macho world of prison, it took great courage to be doing the right thing for their lives, to face the unknown world of being back in school. They had to face their fears about failing again, open their books and begin. They had to decide that their lives were worth something, that they just might be capable of succeeding after all. One young man wrote me a note about three weeks into the semester, saying that he wasn’t sure he could do the work, but he wanted me to know how hard he was trying. He said it took him a whole year to “not be too scared” and sign up for school. I watched and was awed by his courage. I watched their courage every day.

I see a connection between being courageous—and the development of personal dignity. I wrote about South Africa in my last post, and how its people still give us shining examples of what it means when we put ourselves in vulnerable positions and do amazing, out-of-the-ordinary things.

Nelson Mandela gave the world so many shining examples of both courage and humility. There were many ways he could have reacted to his twenty-seven years of political imprisonment. If he had meted out punishment, many people would have understood a sense of anger and revenge. He could have punished the people who took away so many precious years. He could have called for the same kind of humiliating damage he himself had experienced. Instead, he invited one of his white jailors to his inauguration and gave him an honored place, showing his country and the world a new level of human stature, a new humanizing dignity and a new kind of courage.

The United States has our own shining examples of astonishing courage and dignity in the face of tragedy. The Christian Science Monitor Weekly magazine on April 13, 2015 has a cover photograph of Ricky Jackson, who served 39 years in prison, making him the person serving the longest sentence in America’s history for a crime he did not commit. The article called Innocence Found: The Ricky Jackson Story follows the intricacies of Jackson’s case and his efforts to free himself. It follows the Ohio Innocence Project, whose members started working on the case in 2006.

Eddie Vernon, a witness in the case, was only thirteen-years-old when the police and prosecutors coerced him into lying about what happened. His testimony sealed Jackson’s conviction—and that of two other young men, who were also innocent and spent decades in prison. After trial, Jackson was sentenced to die in the electric chair, and he spent two years on Death Row until the federal Supreme Court ruled Ohio’s capital punishment unconstitutional. The next thirty-seven years found him in a succession of prisons. When he went before five parole boards, they looked for a change in him and some kind of remorse. When he couldn’t demonstrate that because he was innocent, they extended his sentence each time. Eddie Vernon, after decades of his own remorse and guilt, finally came forward—terrified of being convicted of perjury. He too demonstrated great courage. Finally, the state withdrew and Ricky Jackson was freed.

What makes this story so compelling to me is that Jackson isn’t angry or bitter. He managed to live in prison with grace and humility, and he exhibits those same qualities as he struggles to put his life back together while dealing with the challenges of being out in the world. He has met with Vernon, and doesn’t harbor any resentment or anger toward him, knowing how much Vernon has also suffered.

Innocence Projects and organizations like Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative are finding innocent people on death row and serving years and years all over the country, creating tragedy for victims and their families and dishonor for us as a nation. I wonder how Ricky Jackson’s fate would have changed if restorative practices had been in place. As most programs involve the community, it might have been far harder, if not impossible, to coerce and believe the testimony of a thirteen-year-old boy. We have to drastically change course if we want to be move toward being more civilized, to use Dostoyevsky’s language.

When my students ventured across the scary line to sign up for school, they were being accountable to themselves, signing up to be their best, not their worst. They were moving beyond the labels of drop-out and felon and becoming students, then graduates. When graduation day came and they could finally wear the red cap and gown, they all walked and stood taller, their dignity and self-respect in place. Education is a part of restorative justice as it helps students discover their competence–and their goodness as human beings.

Maya Angelou also says, “I think the courage to confront evil and turn it by dint of will into something applicable to the development of our evolution, individually and collectively, is exciting, honorable.” All of the parts of restorative justice try to enhance the best in us: our ability to be responsible, our talent for creativity, our capacity to make moral choices, our power to be compassionate and our courage to be forgiving. With courage, we can all move across the line and begin to see our system and all of its victims differently. We need a change for the rest of us, because it would give us a much-needed new identity. It would honor us. We need to look no further for exemplary role models than those people who’ve spent years and years behind bars.