There once was a boy named Johnny, who lived in a home that, let's just say, wasn't in the best of conditions for raising a child. Before that, he was convicted in the womb of his mother, and his life of struggles began with his first breath. You see, little Johnny was born prematurely, a crack-baby, sickly and weak, a breath away from death, but he escaped a one-way trip to heaven and was instead rewarded with a new life of hell in the ghetto.
With secret sniffles and torrential tears, gift-less birthdays and petty-present Christmases came and went like the red-blue sirens and helicopters he became immune to seeing on his troubled, survive-or-die street. At school, little Johnny was frequently teased and taunted for being poor, biracial, and small. Over time, the hole in his heart grew bigger than the hole in his generic-brand shoe. Johnny's government aid was devoured by his uncle's and aunt's crack addictions, who, a few times during their intoxicated states, took separate turns, and on separate occasions, molesting little Johnny.
As any other ordinary boy, little Johnny craved love, acceptance, understanding, instruction, and guidance, all the while unknowingly building walls around his empty and confused heart. When his natural emotional needs weren't being fulfilled at home, Johnny curiously embarked on a quest in his gang-infested neighborhood.
As little Johnny ventured out into his violent neighborhood each day, he met people who were traveling similar destructive paths, attempting to fulfill the same emotional needs. Johnny's new gang-peers and homeboys artificially filled his parental void by introducing him to new, exciting, and illegal activities, which felt good and temporarily fulfilled his needs.
Significant changes for the worse were manifesting in Johnny's speech, manner of dress, and overall actions. His uncle and aunts, who had by now cleaned up their own acts, put forth a serious effort to provide the love and attention he needed, but it was too little, too late. The streets became Johnny's unofficial home, and his homeboys became his official family.
Johnny's now involved and concerned guardians, along with other distant relatives who also cared for him, watched helplessly with hurting hearts, as Johnny slipped slowly through the cracks with each juvenile detention.
Then when Johnny turned 17, because Texas considered him an adult who qualified for adult punishment (but not adult privileges), the inevitable happened. Johnny was sentenced to an adult prison sentence of 20 years, for being a passenger (not the shooter) in a stolen car that was used in a drive-by shooting of a rival gang.
As Johnny lay hopelessly in his prison bunk the first night, with thoughts racing recklessly through his mind, reality and the error of his ways hit him. His inner void felt bigger than ever, and with no one supporting him from the outside, he had no clue what he would do with his time in prison.
What will Johnny do with his time in prison? Will he become worse or better? You tell me, since you - yes YOU reading this blog - could be the determining factor by giving an inmate a second chance, by adopting and properly guiding one of the many Johnnies (different names with similar stories) who are seeking adoption and a new path in life through Adopt an Inmate.
Inmates are Still People
You know those compassionate commercials, the ones where they ask the viewer to adopt a dog or cat? Well, before they ask you, they soften up your resistance and tug on your heartstrings by showing a montage of sad-eyed disfigured dogs and cats confined inside cages. Some of the strategic camera shots look so inhumane and heartwarming, that by the end of the commercial even people who are not animal lovers feel the tug to call toll-free and send a donation to the organization, because even they have enough compassion to know there is something fundamentally wrong with a helpless pet without a home or someone to care for them.
There are now millions of, not dogs or cats, but people, caged inside cells in thousands of prisons across our nation that were built during the late 1980s and early 1990s tough-on-crime era to accommodate the booming prison population, now known as Mass Incarceration. Granted, the inmates filled up our nation's prisons by breaking the law; however, there is now a general consensus that mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug and other nonviolent crimes are unfair, and that low level crimes should be treated as misdemeanors.
The Prison Industrial Complex is comprised of both public and private prisons that swap and transfer inmates between each other like a hot commodity. States are being urged into contracts with private prisons, guaranteeing to keep the prison anywhere from 70% to 97% full, at all times. Empty beds do not make money. If the population falls under pledged quota levels, the state pay the difference, whether someone is in that bed or not. This system ensures that both the prisons, and the coffers, are continually full.
Named people become numbered inmates, who are unforgiven and forgotten in the labyrinth of endless tiers and cells of the Prison Industrial Complex. Compared to the helpless pets, little sympathy is shown to citizens who have committed a crime (many are not caught, by the way, you might even be one who got away [smile]), because the collective thinking is a person should "pay" for breaking the law by being locked up. There are few alternatives, such as probation (which is continually denied), treatment centers, mental health facilities, and therapeutic halfway house communities.
Labels are powerful identifiers that feed public opinion and judgment to the point that law-abiding people are unable to see a human being apart from their isolated act of wrongdoing. For example, an 18-year-old male who has consensual sex with a 16-year-old female is lumped together with a child molester under the broad label of sex offender, and even after he has completed his prison sentence, he will be a piñata of ridicule for the rest of his life. Likewise, people who commit non-aggravated offenses, or aggravated offenses where no one died, are presumed to be cold-blooded murderers by misinformed people when the label "inmate" is used. Sensationalized media images are force-fed to the public to further fuel the stereotype that every inmate is a monster. The moment the person becomes a convicted felon, no matter the offense, he or she is treated as if infected with an incurable and contagious plague. Even after the government spends millions of dollars to "rehabilitate" and educate us, upon release, ex-felons are ostracized by society, becoming the modern-day lepers. Don't hire him. Don't touch him. Don't love him.
Undeniably, there are some men and women who deserve to serve long sentences behind bars, as their crimes are so heinous. And some, I agree, whose crimes are so atrocious, and they are such high risks/threats to public safety, that they shouldn't be allowed to place a single foot back in society as a free person. (Most of them would be served by mental health treatment that is sorely lacking in the current system.)
However, even the small percent of inmates who have committed the worst crime (murder), are still people, and though their punishment should not be negated, even they deserve a chance to redeem themselves, to become better people, as inmates on the inside of prison.
These top-tier, ultra-violent crimes that are shown nightly on the evening news are in the minority. Ninety-five percent of all inmates (murderers included), no matter what society thinks of us, and whether you like it or not, WILL be released back into society at some point, and will be the people - yes people - that you live among you and interact with you on a daily basis. It's likely that these former inmates are now, or will be, your neighbors, co-workers, waiters, and strangers you make small-talk with in the checkout line. In fact, the inmate you passively hate today based on a false stereotype formed from watching too much television, could be the same person that helps you out tomorrow on the side of the road when your car breaks down. I can't count the number of good, down-to-earth, regular men I've met in prison who were living successful, honest lives on the outside, but got sidetracked, made a mistake and broke the law.
What Happened to Second Chances and Forgiveness?
When a dog or cat screws up one too many times and the fed-up owners have them locked up an animal shelter, someone else comes along and gives the same rebellious pet a second chance. How much more should a human being, who is currently an inmate, be given a second chance? "And I believe we can help those who have served their time and earned a second chance get the support they need to become productive members of society," were the words of President Obama when visiting a halfway house and drug-treatment center on November 2nd of this year. It's encouraging to hear our President advocating for second chances for ex-felons, but the second chance I am referring to starts while an inmate is serving their sentence, rather than waiting until inmate completes their time and regains their physical freedom. The fact is, without support, an inmate can leave prison in worse condition than when he or she arrived. Recidivism statistics don't lie: many ex-felons will re-offend and return to prison within their first year of being released.
Besides not getting the needed support while inside, Obama is right that one of the main reasons ex-cons re-offend is because the current system of Mass Incarceration, which your tax dollars are being wasted to finance - to the tune of $80 billion - is ineffective as a deterrent to criminal behavior. Ex-felons who strive to reintegrate back into society as productive members are black-balled by most employers and are given few opportunities to succeed. By adopting an inmate, you can give a man or woman a second chance NOW at a critical, rehabilitative impasse in their lives when your kind, positive influence and support system could be the key difference in changing their thinking, behavior, and ultimately their lives, once your adopted inmate is released.
In 2012, the Supreme Court banned states from giving juveniles mandatory Life sentences, but several states - Pennsylvania Michigan Louisiana Alabama and a few others - did not treat the ruling retroactively. Because some states refused to extend the second chance the Supreme Court justly gave to juveniles, there are currently people who have been in prison multiple decades because of an offense committed when they were KIDS. People like Henry Montgomery, Then 17, now 69, (52 years in prison); Trina Garnett, then 14, now 54 (40 years in prison); James Porter, then 16, now 49 (33 years in prison), and too many more to list (2000), but you get my point. These kids, now old and gray, haven't paid their so-called "debt to society," then I don't know if there ever was a criminal who has, without still being marginalized and stigmatized by the religious, educated, "good people" in our society.
Before of the 2012 ruling, there was another significant second-chance Supreme Court ruling in 2005, barring the death penalty for crimes committed by juveniles. At the time, the US was the only civilized country in the world that was handing out death sentences to juveniles and executing them years later once all their appeals were exhausted. Even the 'axis of evil' countries - Iran, North Korea, Cuba, etc. - were not using the death penalty on juveniles.
Most of us have heard the statistic quoted in a recent USA today piece, that the US has just under 5% of the worlds population yet nearly 25% of its prisoners. The paradox that is disturbing when you really think about it is, as a nation, we not only lead the world by a landslide in incarceration rates and death penalty executions (killing our own citizens through the "proper" legal channels), but also in the number of religious establishments - churches, mosques, synagogues, and other religious centers, where we seek to commune in worship with God and seek forgiveness for our unholy transgressions. As a nation, how can we be so religious when it comes to seeking forgiveness for breaking God's law, yet be so unforgiving and judge mental towards our citizens when they break complicated man-made laws that grow more complex with each legislature session by tough-on-crime politicians? I am so grateful that God doesn't operate on our vengeful level of harsh punishment, because if God were a human judge, we would all be destined for life sentences like the kids mentioned earlier.
As I stated previously, I can understand the criminal justice logic behind locking away an adult murderer, serial killer, for violent rapist - the worst of the worst lawbreakers - for multiple decades, but giving a guy 25 years to life in prison for stealing a bottle of vitamins in California where he violated their three strikes law. C'mon, now, this is just outrageous and this type of backwards, cookie-cutter justice hinders our social progression and evolution as a civilized, enlightened, democratic society. In many states, according to the same USA Today piece from above "low level crimes such as possession of small amounts of marijuana or shoplifting are felonies." When $80 billion is being spent nationally on an annual basis from your tax dollars to finance Mass Incarceration, it doesn't make economic nor moral sense to continue increasing the Prison Industrial Complex spending budget by incarcerating low-level, nonviolent offenders or to re-incarcerate someone on parole for a technical violation.
Last year (2014), the author John Grisham caught some flak in the media for speaking out publicly against Mass Incarceration by personally defending his friend - not his friends illegal actions - who did 10 years of his life in prison for viewing a two dimensional picture of child pornography online. Was his friend wrong? Of course he was, and again, Grisham didn't defend his friend's illegal actions, but Grisham's point of emphasis was that his friend's crime did not fit the sentence he received, and that there should be more common-sense, rehabilitative treatment alternatives for low-level, non-violent offenders. Here's an afterthought: if we were able to view some of the deviant, illicit thoughts and images that project everyday on the screen peoples minds, there would be a floodgate of citizens doing ten year sentences or longer. After all, according to the major Abrahamic religions, whether it takes place online or in your mind, lust is lust and sin is sin, anyway you look at it. So, if God can forgive you for your perverted, grotesque thoughts, why can't you and the system forgive and help someone who broke a law without physically harming anyone? Have we become so "religious" as a nation, that we have forgotten we are all sinners - inmates - in the omniscient eyes of the Creator?
The good news is the tides are shifting against Mass Incarceration. On both sides of the aisle, Democratic and Republican, there is a growing movement to end Mass Incarceration against our citizens and to reduce our nation's prison population by half by 2030. Furthermore, it's great to see Obama, our Commander-in-Chief, leading the charge for second chances and change, as he campaigned to do, to overhaul our broken criminal justice system. In a major move, 130 law enforcement leaders nationwide, made up of police chiefs and superintendents, have come together on their own accord and launched the Law Enforcement Leaders to reduce crime and incarceration.
Even so, many states still have ridiculous laws that classify what should be ticket-misdemeanors into unnecessary prison-bid felonies, but police officers are paid to enforce even the most outlandish laws that are on the books. The police department hands are cuffed, so to speak, and they're forced by the letter of the law to continue doing their civic duty by loading people up in the back of their squad cars and down the criminal justice pipeline to a prison cell. By forming the new coalition, police leaders are making a huge statement to politicians that they want laws and the paradigm for punishment to change, so they can effectively and efficiently do their part on the front lines to both reduce crime and incarceration numbers. From the public sector - president, politicians, and police chiefs - to the private sector - celebrities athletes and authors like John Grisham - more people are speaking out against Mass Incarceration of US citizens. However, true change starts with the power of the people.
All it takes is one flame to start a forest fire; meaning, don't underestimate the far-reaching power of your individual influence. You don't have to wait on the president, a politician, or a celebrity to do something to change the culture of the criminal justice system. YOU can do something on a personal, one-on-one level by transforming a novelty concept (adopting an inmate) into a nationwide norm as your way of giving someone who made a mistake a second chance and pitching in to do your individual part to reduce Mass Incarceration.
Do What You Can
When faced with the goal, challenge, obstacle, or task in life, most people naturally focus on the many things they cannot do instead of the few things they CAN do to achieve incremental progress. One step forward in the right direction, even if it's a tiny baby steps, constitutes progress. One inmate adopted by you, and positively influenced by you overtime, who doesn't re-offend and doesn't return into the revolving door of prison life, is progress. Many people also succumb to what psychologists call the "bystander effect," where they won't do something until someone, or a group of people, acts first. What are you waiting for, person reading this blog? Someone else (a celebrity) to act first? Why don't you adopt an inmate and give an inmate a second chance? If not, what's holding you back? It's normal for you to be hesitant and cautious when trying something new like the concept of adopting an inmate. Take your time and think about it, but please don't allow a convenient excuse to prevent you from changing someone's life for the better and maybe even your own life in the process.
If you have something against murderers, fine, but don't let that single prejudice hinder you from adopting an inmate with a low level offense who is nowhere close to being a murderer. Do you have something against child molesters and rapists, well, welcome to the club (applause), me too, so ... adopt someone who isn't, easy as that. Focus on doing what you CAN do so you can tailor your adoption selection to fit around your conscience to where you will feel comfortable giving your all to the inmate you adopt.
Once you take the pivotal first step forward, by adopting an inmate and establishing contact, be mindful, and open-minded that the new journey you two will be traveling together won't be perfect. There will be instances where you will second-guess your decision based on something the inmate says, asks, or does that rubs you the wrong way. Remind yourself that you're not helping someone that's in your church choir (smile), so keep low expectations that way you won't be surprised when you encounter flaws in your inmate's character. Just try to be the mature, civilized adult with thick skin and understand that most inmates, at their core, because of their upbringing and the "story" that led them to prison, are resistant to true change and have criminal-thinking minds, even if on the surface of their personalities, for the most part, they already sound and appear changed and fit for society. It takes just as much energy to live a good life as it does to live a bad life, so you want to help your inmate redirect their energy towards getting in the habit of striving to live a good/positive life. And your influence/impact you you have on your inmate doesn't necessarily have to be with preachy words, you can influence and lead by example.
The ultimate goal is to transform the way your inmate thinks, because if you change how a person thinks, you can help guide to change their behavior and how they live their lives. Before you can take someone's hand and guide them, you have to touch their hearts by showing you care. "People don't care how much you know until they know that you care" (John Maxwell). Adopting an inmate and trying to change their lives, involves more than just talking about it, you have to support your words with actions to show you truly care. Everyone is different, so again, do what you CAN. When helping an inmate with their needs and wants in prison through your actions, I think it's best to draw lines and boundaries in the sand early on. Why? Well, your inmate may try to get out of hand with requests, and since you want the focus to be on your newfound friendship and not on constant to-do-list requests, it's a good idea to bluntly outline what you CAN and will do for them from the get-go, so that there is an out-in-the-open mutual agreement. The actions I'm referring to can be sending your inmate money for commissary (most popular), weekly letters or electronic mail, cards, pictures, occasional books/magazines, phone conversations, and face-to-face visits. here's an example of a monthly support-system plan you can use as a general guide: $40 for commissary, 2 phone calls, and 4 letters or email alternatives, like Jpay.
Not that you can't deviate from your plan to do more/less when you choose, but once you clearly state your plan with your inmate, you can better focus on getting to know them and truly helping them. As you get to know your inmate and get a good feel for their mental states, weaknesses, addictions, and shortcomings, then - if you choose to get heavily involved - you can take greater steps of your choosing to show them a new way.
When I first got locked up, I was only 17 years old, much like the fictional but all-too-true story of little Johnny that I started off this blog with. If it weren't for my Aunt Lucy and Uncle Gary and their positive, Christian influence, words and actions early on and throughout the first half of my two-decade long prison journey, I wouldn't be the transformed, new creation, college-educated, forward-thinking, creative man-with-a-purpose I am today.
During those early, difficult days when most people, family and so-called friends forgot about me and gave up on me, Lucy and Gary gave me more second chances than I could count. My first County Jail visit was from them. Who sent me my first Bible - they did. When I needed commissary necessity items like (hygiene/stamps), and luxury food items to supplement the skimpy tray meals they fed us, they sent me money. When I arrived to my first prison unit, they were again the first to visit me again. When I wanted to enroll in some college classes and start working on my Associate's degree, they didn't just give me their vote of confidence, they stepped up to pay for half of my tuition (the state paid for the other half through a reimbursement program). When I wanted to get in the craft shop and learn to make custom leather goods, they forked over the initial investment so I could buy the tools, equipment, and materials I needed to get started. Do you see a pattern? Lucy and Gary kept giving me chances to better myself and to succeed inside prison (not wait until I get out), and I kept taking advantage of those chances. When I wanted to start on my Bachelor's degree, they put $600 on my account to expedite my transfer to the unit that offers my degree plan through an accredited university.
Once I started taking my classes they stuck by me and my educational goals by again paying for half of my tuition. And when I make parole or I'm exonerated one day soon (whichever comes first), it should come as no surprise that I will be paroling to their house, where I know the non-biological family, Lucy and Gary, who loved and supported me all these years in prison will support and facilitate my successful, productive transition back into society.
It's important to note that Lucy and Gary are not my blood-relatives, but by their love and actions, they are my family. I'm highly recommending through this blog that you give at least try to give an inmate the same second chance that they gave me nearly 21 years ago. One day soon, when I'm released and I never come back to prison as an inmate, and I'm highly successful - legitimately and legally (smile) - member of society, and I'm using my voice, writing, and talents to combat injustices like Mass Incarceration, I truly owe it all to them for unconsciously adopting me.