To the kind people who commented on the NC death row monologues and life maps presented by the Hidden Voices at Guilford College and Vanderbilt Divinity School:
Thank you for acknowledging our humanity. It means a great deal to us and eases some of the burden that is a death sentence. Your feelings of disgust, anger, frustration and shame over the way our criminal justice system works are both understood and fully relatable. That you recognize the troubling path of America’s school-to-prison pipeline, and the need to end it, bodes well for future generations. I was personally moved by your messages of hope and it’s good to know we are reaching people. However, we cannot be satisfied by hoping the system will eventually right itself or suddenly stop sending children to prison. Real change begins with individual action.
Many of the questions asked at the Revisioning Justice in America conference are issues I’ve given a lot of thought during my incarceration. Some of them have answers and it is those I want to share with you.
1. How can the state of North Carolina, its agents and officials, treat other human beings so miserably?
Imagine the state government is an animal that hasn’t quite evolved . . . It was just last year a group of African American women were grudgingly awarded compensation for their sterilization in the 60s. If this isn’t an indication of how far behind NC is, then consider also the recent voting restrictions that brought national criticism. If minority citizens in the free world struggle for equal protection and the right to vote – what chance do we have? Prisoners have always been thought of as second class citizens. We are the civil dead. The brutality and oppression that occurs is a natural byproduct of a penal system that literally interprets the 13th Amendment’s exception for slavery.
2. What enables you to survive?
A willingness to learn. My survival is dependent upon understanding the elements of the criminal justice and penal systems. Ignorance of the law really isn’t an excuse – at this stage, when the stakes are your life, they make no exceptions for people who don’t know any better. Also, you often hear “the system is broken”, but what does that really mean? It’s only broken to the people victimized by it, for everyone else justice has been served. Besides prison is an intermingling of several flawed systems – mental health, education, state government and federal oversight. As infuriating and saddening as it can be I gain the will to fight from such knowledge. It helps to understand few people in prison are here of their own volition – most were failed by people who could have helped and did not, or they were pushed, prodded and corralled from a very early age until failure wasn’t a choice but an inevitability. I write about these not-so-hidden connections as a way of expressing my opinion and shouting my continued existence to the people who would discard me as a matter of course.
3. How do you share your wisdom?
For my own part, I try to share my wisdom by example; thinking, speaking and living in a way that creates success and hoping others take note. When I first got to death row I was really naïve. An old man, who later became a good friend, told me there are plenty of stupid book-smart people. It took maturity to understand what he meant. All the learning in the world can’t account for the wisdom necessary to wield it. Sharing wisdom is easy, getting people to listen is another matter entirely. Fortunately, I was ravenous for the right kind of wisdom and finally at a point in life where I was capable of listening. As for sharing wisdom from death row to the rest of the world, it matters who is hearing the message. Young children on the cusp of adolescence, juveniles who think they know everything, adults who blindly support politicians and vote without understanding the issues, community leaders, public officials, judges and legislators.
4. What can a person who grew up privileged, do to relate to you? How do we create proximity between the classes?
Don’t confuse privilege with right. Freedom, family, life, education, health and wealth are privileges not afforded to everyone. The sooner you remember not to take these things for granted the better off you’ll be. Once incarcerated you discover that all the things you believed were rights are nothing of the sort. To relate you need only imagine losing everything you have – even your identity—in a moment of stupidity, rage, greed or jealousy. It’s that easy. Proximity between the classes begins with the acceptance we are all human beings who want our basic needs fulfilled. Once that happens then and only then can proximity between the classes be a reality.
5. What do you want people on the outside who are fighting against mass incarceration to know?
Remember you’re fighting against a cultural belief that says it’s okay to devalue people who have been convicted of a crime. Keep in mind the main premise of that belief justifies severe punishment as the only way to reduce crime. A tough-on-crime attitude doesn’t have to mean more laws and longer prison terms. There must be an effort made to habilitate people who lack the requisite skills to survive in society, and rehabilitate offenders who didn’t understand those lessons the first time around. If you really want to end mass incarceration it must be through education – especially the general public, but every prisoner as well.