Recognizing the need for social responsibility in our present environment became a starting point to figuring out what an authentic response would look like from my perspective.
Last December, my wife and I attended the Robert F. Kennedy Ripple of Hope Awards dinner in the city. Seated near us was a person who looked familiar to me, yet I wasn’t sure why. I realized it was Adam Foss, whom I remembered watching on YouTube. Adam had given a TED talk that quickly gained attention surrounding the unique role prosecutors play in determining the course of action for the accused. Adam, a former prosecutor himself, spoke of his own experiences that allowed him to flourish into the person he’d become versus what could have been had a court not given him another chance.
As we spoke throughout the evening, I expressed to him my recent awakening about issues of social justice and being more intentional in this space. His response was that I should go and see those individuals who have been impacted by the system. In other words, visit a jail or prison.
This wasn’t how I envisioned my involvement materializing.
Taking some time after the event to consider what going to prison would feel like, I was hesitant. Perhaps I was getting too close and a more arms-length approach would be reasonable, like donating money, I’ve done that before, and that doesn’t require a big commitment of self. But the more I tried to find other ways out, the more I realized that this was an important step to take.
Queensboro Correctional Facility, a minimum-security facility which houses prisoners who are preparing to re-enter society, was the institution that I visited with Adam. We were sitting in on a pilot program developed in conjunction with Columbia University and the Manhattan DA Academy. The goal of this program was to bring together district attorneys and those imprisoned at the facility to have discussions about the criminal justice system and the ways in which policies could be reconsidered, developed and ultimately improved.
I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect visiting the facility, but I was shocked to see how the attorneys and the prisoners participating in the program interacted with one another. We all sat together around a large conference table, the only visible difference between us was the clothing we wore — no one was in restraints. The atmosphere felt more as if I were in a classroom full of my peers, and less like being confined in a prison.
I was seated next to an individual who was serving time. He informed the group that he’d been incarcerated for most of his life. He spoke about his affiliations with gangs and drugs. Yet he said he was at a turning point in his life, his family at home being one motivation, and also a realization that there was a better way to live.
Others in the room spoke about obstacles that they faced. One shared his experience of what he believed was a lack of concern for his freedom, given the type of deal he was presented with prior to being incarcerated, and the pressure he felt to sign such a deal.
I think Adam’s motivation for having me come inside the prison system was to see those being incarcerated as people first, to really listen to their stories and not immediately allow any biases to determine how I’d perceive them.
In Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, she mentions something I’ve begun to take notice of: “The notion that a vast gulf exists between criminals and those of us who have never served prison time is a fiction created by the racial ideology that birthed mass incarceration, namely that there is something fundamentally wrong and morally inferior about them. The reality, though, is that all of us have done wrong.”
If I am accepting of the idea that the differences between me and those that I was seated alongside of in the conference room were a mere construction, how should that then inform my actions?
Jarrell Daniels, whom I’ve learned a great deal from, was present at Queensboro that day. He spoke with me about the need to create forums to speak about criminal justice reform. By building awareness, educating people on the issues and advocating for policy reform, there is the opportunity to create change and make a difference in the communities which are being most affected. Jarrell, who as a young man experienced incarceration first hand, now utilizes his past as a way to connect with others who are most at risk.
I’ve teamed up with Jarrell in order to make forums a reality. As we look to work together, I feel as though our steps have been divinely orchestrated to get us to this point, which otherwise would not have occurred. It is that very belief in the divine that reminds me to speak out for those who cannot speak, and to defend the rights of all who are destitute.