Our Life Experiences Have Greater Value and Power than Anyone Else’s in Fighting for Criminal Justice Reform

April 26, 2018

“I left prison twenty years ago, and then spent seventeen years on parole. ”

During that time, I got on with my life and established a career as a Senior Accountant with the Texas state government.  Then, in 2011, I read Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow,” and heard her on the radio.  She talked about things that most of us who have been incarcerated already knew, so the book wasn’t really a revelation, but it was refreshing to hear someone talking about it.  Then she came to Austin to a church to give a talk.  It happened to be the church that was my family’s church growing up, and her lecture lit a fire under me.  I realized that people like me were going to have to lead the movement for criminal justice reform and against mass incarceration and I knew I had something to offer.

I went on to serve a two-year term on the executive committee of the Austin/Travis County Re-entry R oundtable and today I co-cha­ir, the Reentry Advocacy Project (RAP).  Our mission is to engage formerly incarcerated men and women as leaders in bringing about policy change.  We regularly testify before the Austin City Council and the state legislature, and we share our knowledge and perspectives through the media and public appearances.  My current priority is to develop a series of talks that we’re calling RAPSTAR which stands for RAP Speaks, Teaches, Advocates, and Reaches.  Modeled on the TED Talks, we’re going to have four or five people speak and then respond to the audience.   I’ll be targeting the communities that have been most affected by mass incarceration.  If I can get a couple of elected officials to participate that would be fine, but if it’s just people in the community, the directly impacted and their families, that’s also fine.   Our life experiences have greater value and power than anyone else’s in fighting for criminal justice reform.

For me this work is very personal.   I was 19 when I got arrested and charged with a drug offense, and I was 20 when I was convicted and sentenced to 22 ½ years in prison.  That experience with the young and old men that I met and forged bonds with is something I will never forget.    One of the first things guys often ask you is, “How much time you got?”  This was an unusually long sentence for a first time offender and young person, but many prosecutors have little or no regard for any of that when you’re a black defendant in a jury trial.  So the progress we’re making now is very gratifying.  Last month the new Travis County District Attorney came to one of our meetings.   We discussed decarceration and diversion programs and she challenged us to tell her what would work well versus what we see that’s not working.  Now an Assistant DA meets with us regularly and works with us.

When people wonder why I fight for criminal justice reform I explain that I have been  both convicted of crime and a victim of crime.  All too often the people who are the harshest in talking about what people deserve as punishment have never been victims of crime or convicted of crime.  If I expect people to give me a second chance and see the humanity in me then I also have to see the humanity in other people just like me.

The LwC trainer David Mensah is someone who has super powers.  He definitely understands us, and I find that very fascinating.  The members of my cohort are so dynamic. Just listening to their stories makes me feel like I need to do more.

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