“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are outraged as those who are”. Benjamin Franklin.
Throughout most of my life, this statement applied to me. I had a framework of the criminal justice system, jails, and prisons solely from TV, movies, and a brief mention of a charitable visit to a prison from an individual at my church.
I am sure the thought, “who cares, those people who break the law get what they deserve”, went through my mind many times. After all, it didn’t affect me so why should I care? That would change.
In October of 2018 I was sitting in shorts and a t-shirt on the couch of our condo. It was a beautiful fall day and I thought little of the freedom I had to enjoy it as I typed away on my computer and listened with one ear to ESPN.
As the doorbell rang, I caught a slight glimpse of the sleave of what looked like a police uniform. Panicked, I went to the back door and opened the garage to see flashing police car lights. Quickly, an officer swept up, handcuffed me, and I was under arrest.
As I sat in the backseat and watched, as I was driven through the neighborhood I had traversed innocently, a hundred times with my wife and daughters, I was in shock. Like many others in the same situation, I thought, “this is something in a thousand years I never thought would happen to me”.
After my conviction and spending four separate weeks in a county jail, I have been more than awakened to the travesty that is the lives of people affected by the justice system. My attitude has changed from one of being aloof to that of a determination that I will never forget the people I met, their personal challenges with addiction, broken families, poverty, and more. While living in confined conditions that are slightly above that of war camps that we’ve condemned throughout history.
Despite this, most everyone I met wanted to help me learn the rules and adjust, while also being attentive to my personal story. Jail/prison is the ultimate leveling space in society, no one is any less or more than anyone else, we’re all guilty and to be treated the same. It’s that simple.
If I try to explain what it’s like to lie in a metal cot with a 1/2-inch mat, sleeping intermittently at best, fighting hunger and counting minutes until the next meal, I’ll fall desperately short. Not to mention missing your loved ones with every iota of your being, sharing one toilet, shower and sink with twenty-five other men, in a cell that hasn’t been cleaned or painted in at least thirty years.
Personally, I pay homage to my experience by thinking about each cellmate, while trying to picture their face. I have sent those I met reading glasses and books as the smallest of gestures that could somehow improve their situation. I pay reverence to their heartbreaking stories and challenges that none of us would overcome with any more success. I follow their criminal cases and hope for them to be free as soon as possible to rebuild their lives.
I can’t ask the same of you without this experience. But I can ask for you awareness and by answering my call to action. Even though you may be “unaffected” as Benjamin Franklin says, you can still find a way to be outraged.
The cognizant people realize that “there by the grace of God goes I”. The racial, socioeconomic and birth family you have been given, may be the only thing that separates you from the incarcerated.
What I call for you to do with your outrage is; attend to criminal justice reform on a national level. Read about the issues of mass incarceration, high rates of recidivism, and discriminative cases based upon factors such as race, socio-economic standing and more. Become aware of the poor living conditions in our jails and prisons and challenge the funding systems that create that environment. Realize that, although you don’t see them, there are human beings without any family and friends on the outside that would love to receive a handwritten letter acknowledging their existence.
After all, justice will not be served until a critical mass care enough to change it. When will that be? No one knows, but there are millions of forgotten souls waiting and praying for your actions to rescue them.