maxresdefaultA young black teenager wakes up and rolls out of his twin size bed in a room he shares with two other siblings. It is hot muggy and smelly, but he dares not open the small dusty window. The window leads to the back alley and he fears letting in the big black flies that buzz around the trash scattered throughout the alleyway. The same flies that pestered him all night long.

He stares around the room and sighs, “how much longer will things be like this?” he questions himself as he pulls himself up out of bed. He pulls on a pair of dirty jeans and a stained t-shirt. The same outfit he has worn three times this week. He grabs a old worn out pair of Nike’s and the sweaty smell causes him to cringe. He heads down the short hallway to what passes as a kitchen, in search of something to eat.

“The same ole thing.” He murmurs as he stares into the half empty refrigerator. He finds more relief from the cool air that blows out the refrigerator than the food inside. All he finds is processed meat, cheese, milk and other food scraps. He grabs the milk and takes a big swig from the container.

He steps outside into the summer air and sits on the stump. The day is bright, but not that promising for him, the sun is shining, and the city is starting to come alive. He notice more and more white people, people he has never seen before. Young, old, hip and seemingly carefree, walking their dogs, talking on the latest I-Phone and drinking coffee. Some walk by him and stare, as if he is new to the neighborhood. Some hardly notice him at all. They are the ones that he despise the most.

He lights up some K2, he can’t afford a real bag of weed. Plus he is on probation and a dirty urine will send him back to jail. It is bad enough his probation officer is on his back to get at job. He was just given 30 more days to get at job, or else. The young man knows he is on borrowed time. He does not have a GED nor vocational skills. He has no money to get to and fro so he can’t get to the job interviews.

As he begins to feel the effects of the K2 he begins to think of what is to him a master plan. What is this plan? Commit a crime. What crime? A petty robbery. He thinks it is safe to snatch a phone from someone getting on the subway.

He heads out in search of a unsuspecting victim. He searches high and low. He begins to get frustrated and agitated that he cannot make his move. It is getting late in the day and his agitation beginning to mount, as well as his desperation to rob someone. As decides to stop and take a break. He stops in front of the corner store and sits on a crate. While sitting on the crate he notices an elderly man walking towards a new Audi. “Dam, if I can get that joint I can sell it and make some money.” He tells himself as he stares out at the elderly man. He creeps up behind him and hits him over the head with a bottle. The old man falls to the ground, stunned and bewildered. It takes him a minute until he realizes he is being mugged. He begins to fight back. The young man was not expecting this and panics. He begins to stomp and kick the old man. Blood is spurting all over the parking lot and the man has passed out, or so he thinks. He finally gets the keys, jumps in the car and pull off. He smirks to himself as he search for some music to blast as he heads back across town.

Two days later the old man dies. There is a police outcry and man hunt for the young man. The community is shocked and want justice for the old man. They want blood. They call for longer prison terms for violent offenders. They want to keep them in prison longer. They want to be safe from these violent people. Meanwhile in SE another young teen wakes up to the same conditions. Poor, living in an underprivileged/underserved community, where cheap synthetic drugs are easy to get, hopeless, plotting to pull off the master plan. A petty robbery. One that will almost certainly turn tragic.

This is the story of so many youth across America. This is the story of many of today’s incarcerated population. They are the victims of social disparities that cause them to victimize others.

Criminal offenders, by nature of their actions and involvement in the criminal justice system, are typically regarded as social outcasts. Truth be told they were social outcasts long before their direct run in with the criminal justice system. It is only after the act of a senseless crime that they are noticed. At this point the community wants to put them away forever. They are not to be trusted as they cannot conform to the decorum of society. So it is best to label them as violent, to invoke fear in the public, and keep them in prison for a long time.

There is a lot to be understood when it comes to criminal offenses and penal reform. First, crime is a result of poverty, racism, homelessness, substance abuse, mental health and social/psychological issues. Crime is a result of lack of education and ignorance. Crime is a problem that cannot be locked away. If the public response, if the President and other members of government, is to lock away crime then good luck.

That response to crime is the reason why there are 2.3 million people incarcerated. It is why the US spends 50 billion dollars a year fighting crime. In 1982 the cost of incarceration was 44 million. In 2001 that cost was 44 million. The current cost of incarceration is 80 billion dollars, annually. Each year the cost of fighting crime and incarceration increases while crime has not, significantly, reduced.

There are four goals of incarceration, and none of them actually addresses the problem of crime. The current practice of incarceration focuses on incapacitation, deterrence, retribution and rehabilitation. The way to reduce crime is to target it before it happens. All of the current measures used to fight crime and lock up its offenders are all post crime related. If this continues to be the means of addressing the rise in crime and the way it is dealt with, the chances are slim that there will ever be a significant decrease in crime.

The response by the public is motivated by fear. Many fear the stories they hear about across the news and other media outlets. It is as if they are only privy to the worst of the worst stories. The stories that make them feel unsafe when they see the “stereotypical” soon to be offender, or the recently released offender. The stigma and stereotypes play in the the psyche of many of them. These thoughts and ideas are hard to change and overcome. This is why the generalization of this term violent offenders should be used with caution. Every person convicted of a violent offense is not necessary a violent offender. Just as most drug offenses are connected to drugs, whether abuse or sale, most violent offenses committed are connected to drugs. In fact it is safe to say, with the exception of the most extreme cases, drugs is the major connector to almost all crime. So it is unfair, and not good penal reform, to discredit and disregard those violent offenders as people who do not suffer from the same social disparities as the rest of the members from their population.

Would it not be a good solution to include, as part of the sentencing process, violent offenders in the actual solution finding process. It those people who have, in hindsight and they say hindsight is 20/20, realized the error of their ways, and understand what it is that other members of their communities are experiencing, that have better ideas, ideas that are realistic, to solve these on-going problems. It is not uncommon for guys of rival crews, that have beefed for many years, to set their differences aside, while in prison, to live and co-exist in a peaceful manner. Most begin to realize how stupid it was for them to be at odds from the beginning. Now that they have come to this realization they look for ways to get those on the outside to stop killing and harming each other. Fact:  Never has law enforcement put an end to street wars and beefs. It is when, and only when, the members of those communities say enough is enough. Until that happens there is no stopping it. It is time for law enforcement and other law makers to open up their eyes and take note of this fact. As much as they may want to claim it was, some how, their work, they are sadly mistaken. Which is why when crime and violence surges again they are at a lost. They have no recourse other than lock’em up. If it was that simple the gang violence of Chicago, Los Angeles, and other places would have been solved years ago. Generations of gang members incarcerated yet gang violence has reached smaller cities and communities. As the tendency is to re-locate when things get hot. Not stop the violence but merely take it somewhere else.

Dealing with this issue is a challenge but there are effective ways to deal with it. People have to become properly educated, on all levels, and learn to work together. Everyone has to be included. Right now we live in time of arbitration. Everyone is pitted against someone else. The common news is cops against blacks. Or this group against that group. Or that group against that group. At some point people are going to have to come together. This means those incarcerated with those on the outside to bring about the solutions needed to save our communities. It is one thing to re-name incarcerated people as returning citizens. It is another thing to actually allow them to be citizens. Being a citizen is to be part of a community. If you want offenders to come home to the DC area and act accordingly they have to feel like they belong. They have to feel like citizens upon their return. If you change the way a person thinks of themselves so will their behavior change.

Violent Offenders???

Posted: August 4, 2015 in Uncategorized

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In recent months there has been a lot of talk about penal reform. In these discussions many have resorted to language that is discriminatory, bias and prejudice to offenders. Whenever Obama or any other of the many elected officials talk about penal reform they are quick to point out the differences between violent and non violent offenders. This is another example of lack of understanding, as it concerns crime and punishment.

It is as if distinguishing between certain crimes justifies the act of committing crimes. As if somehow someway a person that sells drugs is somehow less violent than one incarcerated for murder. According to statistics most law makers, including President Obama, are not informed as to the accurate depiction of crime. What has happened is that nobody wants to be responsible for setting free, what they classify as, violent offenders.

In the case of murderers the recidivism rate is much lower than it is for drug offenders. Drug offenders are often the repeat offenders that commit the violent offense that worries the public. Most violent offenders are sentenced to long term incarceration and when released have out-grown crime. Yet, whenever there is a wave in crime and violence the public outcry we are not keeping violent offenders in prison long enough.

The recidivism rate of short term drug offenders is 70%. That means 7 out of 10 come back. This is a phenomenon I see every week. In the 23 years I have been incarcerated not one of the men who has done long sentences such as myself have every returned to prison. They are guys who have pulled 20 plus years, where incarcerated for violent offense, and took the time to educate themselves while incarcerated. I can count over 30, that I know personally, that are not back.

When I look up every week there is someone that participated in the residential drug program, where one gets a year of their sentence for completion, that is returning back to prison. Some return with new cases, the others for violations. This fallacy that guys that have served long term offenses for violent are somehow more dangerous than short term, non-violent offenders, is absurd. It is the short term “non violent” offenders that are being released earlier and committing all these new violent crimes.

In recent days there has been a surge in violence in DC and I am appalled by how many times I hear someone say this is the fault of violent offenders. In most cases these are drug users, abusers, and dealers engaged in drug wars that reek havoc on the DC community. But somehow it is the fault of people who have been incarcerated for decades.

The new war is the war on violent offenders. It used to be the war on drugs. Which in essence was the war on poor black neighborhoods. The long term prison population, 20 years and better, are the causalities of this war. If there is ever going to be a time to address this wrong it has to start with the victims of that war.

Take the case of the young man high of whatever he was high off that stabbed to death on the metro bus. Or the people driving around raping men. Or the crime wave over the weekend where 6 were killed. What does that have to do with those people who have been locked up since 1988, 89, 90 etc.? How do they play a part in what is going on out in society today? This is the mis-education of Obama and the rest of congress when they take about violent offenders.

Crime is crime and it is a choice. Victimization does not know the difference between violent and non violent. One may argue the point that there are guys in prison serving sentences for drugs and the time does not equal the crime. And, there is a need for reform to balance the scales of justice. If it means granting clemencies, allowing extra good time days, or implementing incentive based programs,

I will be the first to agree. Yet, I would have to argue, in the case of DC parole-able inmates, that we are not asking for time cuts, for extra good days, or sentence reforms that will put them in the street earlier. We are simply asking to be cut loose when our time comes. No one has asked the UPSC to make an exception to the rule for early release. Many of us have done the time, 20 or better years, and have not complained. In fact many of us are grateful for the 20 or 25 years we got considering the time being handed out in DC for similar committed offenses.

There is a need to implement the system of parole that is in place based upon the particulars of individual cases. It is not fair nor just to hold a man in prison, that has been in prison for 2 decades, because some young 20 year old kid, high off K2 decides to commit an act of violence.

For these, and many other reasons these old law, 1987 DC regulations, cases need to be highlighted. Logic has to be applied to the growing concern of the increase of crime. As long as Obama and those that support different treatment for “non-violent” offenders, without regards to those long term offenders, who may have committed violent offense but have served there time, the real issue will never be addressed. Not only will that issue not be addressed but we will create another unnecessary stigma, and fear, for returning citizens. Because of the mis-understanding and mis-interpretation of what is considered violent and non-violent crimes, we are only making it harder for returning citizens to re-turn successfully into the community.

Now is the time to speak up and take action. We cannot, for those of us who remember the campaign on the war on drugs, allow for these stigmas to be placed on offenders. Once the masses begin to view offenders and classify them with these terms, regardless of them having served their time. It will only make things worse. It is if these people have some un redeeming quality about themselves because of the classification of the crimes they have committed.

There is a lot of work that needs to be done. My primary concern is working to fix the way the USPC deals with DC inmates. We have to get the word around that something needs to be done. We have to rally family, friends and love ones around this issue. We have to ask them questions and hold them accountable, by their own guidelines and standards, in order for justice to be served. They have to know that what our loved one may have done 20 something years ago has not bearing on what is going on today, with crime and violence. If our voices are not raised and united, for what is right, this false perception of who and what is effecting crime today, is only going to hurt them in the long run. The USPC need to know that DC inmates have support from their communities: family, friends, and love ones. A silent voice does not get heard.

In upcoming weeks we will be putting together a petition letter. A letter that will address and outline the issues, needs and changes desired for DC inmates. When this comes on-line we are asking for your support to get as many signatures as possible. We are shooting for thousands. So please be on the look out for this petition.

Many people do not know about this report but it is important that everyone know about it. This report is the testimony of Dr. James Austin to Congress, at the request of Former Parole Commissioner Isaac Fulwood, with regards to the way the USPC handles DC parole-able inmates. In short it was determined that the way the USPC handles DC inmate was too harsh yet the USPC has yet to abide by the recommendations of Dr. Austin. These recommendations and the promise to implement them is a good start to push for change. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes-Norton is the primary representative for the way the USPC operates. It is certain she is aware of the testimony of Dr. Austin. The question is at what point will she make the USPC acknowledge and implement these recommendations.

Dr. James Austin testimony

Like our new page DC Coalition for Returning Citizens on Facebook to support the movement to recognize change to the handling of DC inmate’s parole.

bird with cuffsBringing together the experiences and voices of DC residents affected by incarceration, follow our latest project on FaceBook:  DC Coalition for Returning Citizens.  With this group, we hope to bring advocacy and attention to the unique quest for parole faced by DC’s inmates.  DC inmates are the only citizens in the U.S. automatically incarcerated in Federal Prisons, and not state prisons. They are also the only offenders besides federal inmates whose parole is overheard and determined by the U.S. Parole Commission, and not a state parole commission. As such, incarcerated individuals from DC face a special set of challenges in their journey toward freedom and release on parole. This page serves as a source for information, networking, and advocacy for DC inmates and their friends and families.  Show your support and “like” us on Facebook!

The answer to that question is simple. There is no way that a discretionary panel, or entity, should have more influence and power than the sentencing court or the Judge. In most cases the judge hands down the sentence based on the elements of the crime committed. Whether that sentence is harsh or lenient, the Judge has that discretion. Once the Judge hands down the sentence it is the Department of Justice to oversee that sentence. It is not the job of that department to hand out more time for the same sentence. This has been the function of the parole board for many years. It is time that this practice and reversed. The duty of the parole board is to enforce penalties when there have been other criminal acts committed during the course of incarceration, or penalize the convicted if they fail to adhere to the rules and regulations of the prison and refuse to participate in rehabilitative programs. The USPC is setting guys off for offenses they were sentenced for in court. The DC 1987 regulations is an incentive based parole guideline. It is meant to give guys a push to program and eventually change their behaviors. It is not to be used as another means of punishment.

This has been the problem with DC inmates since the federal government take over. When they closed Lorton guys were shipped all across the country without regards to the distance between love ones. They were housed in super-max prisons where they were overseen by guards with loaded guns. Guns they used to shot guys if they crossed certain colored lines. All the while these inmates were, if still held in Lorton, medium and minimum security prisoners. The USPC has set many guys off for as long as 15 years, in increments. If the actual DC system was still in place these things would not be happening. If the public begin to question and hold accountable those elected officials things would have to change. More people need to get more involved in these affairs. There has to be a community effort for change to take place. It is time that we get our love ones, that have worked hard for their release for many years, home. The time is now!

In the rare moments when I really reflect back on my childhood, sometimes it is too painful to think about, the reality of what my world was like, along with the world of many others who share my pain, will not allow me to sleep at night. It is hard to get rid of that feeling in the pit my stomach when I think about life during those times.

The faces of fallen friends who died very young, some as young as 12 and 13, stare back at me, illuminated by the prison lights and silhouettes. Those moments make me think back when I attended the wakes and funerals, fighting back the tears and avoiding the looks and stares of mothers. Mothers who often shout out in pain why was her son or daughter taken, and not the son or daughter of some other mother. These nights make me think about the times when I cried out why him and not me as the alcohol fueled the rage and anger boiling inside of me. I think back to the times when, and how many times, I was close to being the one shot dead, stabbed or beaten to death. Not really caring, actually preparing myself for an early death, if I lived or died.

They talk about a way out. The only way out, for most, comes by way of drugs, a good get high, alcohol, pills, heroin, weed and anything else that will take the pain away. The pain of what one witnesses every day in the “hood”. The death, violence and poverty that exist in the hood. It is a battle to stay sane and not go crazy.

Growing up in a world eating free cheese, eggs, peanut and drinking free powdered milk from welfare. Living in places that resemble prison complex’s. It seems the bars around the projects and on the windows were designed to keep us in. I swear when I think back to every apartment or project I lived in we were barred in. The hood was protected and patrolled by drug dealers and gangbangers. The were the ones that defended the hood from the other hoods. Or others lurking for prey to survive off. The hood policed the hood, as crazy as that sounds. How could one not be attracted to the respect of these young men who defended the “hood”. They projected the sense of fearlessness that one needs to survive the “hood.” Fear will kill you if you don’t know how to make it work for you. All it takes is to witness the death of a close friend to decide what side of fear you want to be on.

In the hood school is not an option, especially if you were poor and could not afford nice clothes and shoes. I remember wearing shoes from Payless or any one of the other cheap outlet stores, or the Compton swap meet. I remember not being able to buy the required gym shorts and tee-shirts required for gym class. I remember trying out for the football team and being laughed at because I did not have a helmet. That would be the last time I would be ridiculed and laughed at. I simply stopped going to school.

Nights like these, when I reflect back, I applaud my mother. Who was a single black woman raising 6 kids, 4 boys and 2 girls, on her own. We lived in one of the most dangerous cities at that time, Compton California, (South Central LA). I applaud how she held it together as we moved from house to house, shelter to shelter, project to project. She always found a way to overcome these hard times and give us a little bit more than we had.

It is no surprise that I sit in prison now. It is no surprise that all, expect one, of my brothers, and almost all my cousins, have been to prison. Or have been caught in the web of drug addiction. Who would be surprised by that? Who would be surprised to know that many of us turned to substances to numb the pain, even at young ages. A way to escape the hood, even if only for a moment.

They talk about the causalities of the Iraq/Afghanistan war. What about the war of drugs that claimed many lives. The nameless and faceless youth caught up in a struggle they did not create. During my youth the murder rate topped 300 most years between 1986 and 1991 (the year I came to prison), drug and crime related killing in DC. It was much higher in LA during those days. All young men and women. It is a shame to consider a 20 to life sentence was my way out the hood alive.

Stats show that:

*During the time between 1982 and 1991 homicide was the most common cause of death for y young African American. make and female. The probability of a young African American female dying by homicide was for time that of a non African American. Young African American males were 11 times more likely to die of homicide than that of non African American males

*Guns were involved in more that 75% of adolescent killings

*Children were becoming involved in violence at youngest ages. In a study of first and second graders in Washington DC 45 % said they had witness shootings. 39 % said they had seen dead bodies.
(American Psychology Association Commission on Youth and Violence, 1993)

*Between 1987 and 1991, the number for violent crimes index for juveniles increased by 80% twice the number for person 18 years of age or older

*Juvenile arrested for murder increase by 88% compared to 21% for those 18 and older

*The estimate 122,900 violent crimes index arrest of juveniles in 1991 was the highest in history, with 3,400 being for murder

*Juveniles accounted for 17% of all violent crime arrest in 1991

*Three of every 10 juveniles murder arrest involved a victim under the age of 18

*Juvenile arrest rates for heroin and cocaine increased dramatically, more than 700% between 1980 and 1990 for black youth the rate increased more that 2000%, compared with 250% increase by white youth.

*900,000 youth between ages 12 and 19 were the victims of 1.9 million violent crimes, rape, robbery and assault each year between 1985 and 1988

*67 out of every 1,000 teenagers were victim of violent crimes each year, compared with 26 per 1000 persons age 20 or older between 1985 and 1988

*Teen victimization were most likely to occur in or around schools -37% of the violent crimes victimizations of youth between 12 and 15 years of age old occurred at school

*FBI data shows that in 1991 more than 2,200 youth under 18 were involved in the US and average to more than 6 youth homicide each year
(Juvenile and Violence: Juvenile Offending and victimization, July 1993)

Considering these staggering stats it is chilling to think that these were the odds myself and others like me were up against during those times. These are the numbers that the powers to be, courts, judges, probation and parole officials don’t ponder when a young black man stands before them, as they enter the prison system, or come before them to be let out. They see and hear the crimes committed but they often respond by saying, “I have heard this before and I am tired of hearing the same story.”

Well it is the same story for a reason. More times than not it is the same story. The story of survival. The story of abuse, lack of education, poverty, and other social factors that deprive many of an equal start at life, as one starts his life’s journey in the “hood”. As George Jackson said, “Born to a premature death, a menial, subservient wage worker, odd job man, the cleaner, the caught, the man under the hatches, without bail – that’s me, the colonial victim.”

Yeah this is the story, they get to so tired of hearing, of the one born into a world where the deck is stacked against them from birth. Many are offspring’s of drug abusers, were neglected, under-educated and who came from broken and violent homes and communities. Born into a household as a second and third generation drug dealers, pimps, robbers, crooks and prostitutes born to fathers without names and faces. Talk about the causalities of war.

How can one stand up and explain to a judge the realties of his life. How can he be truthful, when the truth is going to get him sent to prison for many years of his life, that he grew up in a place where he had to rob, steal and maybe kill to survive. To those people it makes no sense. It is not possible that one can come from a background like this. It seems like a lie and excuse. They lack of understand often cause me to ask myself how did the rich and privilege get the right to rule and judge the poor and under-privilege. A class of people who could never, and often times never try to understand the young men that stand before them. They will never understand the journey of one who is conditioned to be institutionalized before understanding what those words mean.
As a side note I want to say that the hood is a place of extreme victimization but there is a cure for that. Just the name “the hood” in itself denotes a certain sort of defect. When you take out the mother (motherhood) and the father (fatherhood) and the child (childhood) and the neighbor out the neighborhood all you are left with is ” the hood”. If you take out these key components of the neighborhood out all you are left with is a community of victims.
These are the thoughts that cause me to toss and turn at night in my prison cot. To know I am here yet invisible at the same time. As Howard Zinn so eloquently put it, ” In one year 375,000 people will be in jail or in prison and 54,000 in juvenile detention, there will be 900,000 under probation and 300,000 on parole in total 16,000,000 people affected by the criminal justice system. Considering turnover in any one year, several million people will come in and out of this system. It is a population largely invisible to middle-class Americans, but if 20 million blacks could be invisible for so long, why not 4 or 5 million “criminals.” (A People’s History of the United States, Zinn 2003, p 517)

I guess this explains why I can’t make parole. Regardless of the struggle, pain, hardships and accomplishments, to many I am visible. A night the cell I reside in is very real. The experience of my incarceration, one I have felt every single day since the age of 17, the age I was when I entered prison, up until now 23 years later, is very real. But to others I am others like me no longer exist. Our efforts to contribute to society no longer matter. There seems to be no room for redemption. But the struggle continues and will not stop. If there was one thing about growing up in the hood taught me it would be that no matter what I can survive.

Disclaimer: Some of the graphics represented in this infographic may be difficult to witness.  They represent the realities of prisons, past and present, and therefore we decided to include them.