JLUSA board member Ashish Prashar on “The Radical Power of Second Chances”

September 12, 2023

JustLeadershipUSA board member Ashish Prashar spoke recently at TEDx Culver City in California on “Mind the Gap: The Radical Power of Second Chances.” The video of that talk has just been released, and the text of his speech is published below, as well.

Watch the full video:

Mind the Gap: The Radical Power of Second Chances
by Ashish Prashar

Years ago I was at a reconciliation council meeting in Sierra Leone, after the civil war. These meetings were set up to respond to the suffering of victims of war crimes and to provide a place for healing after the brutality that ravaged the country. During the war families were murdered, villages were destroyed, and children were kidnapped, drugged and forced to become soldiers.


At this meeting I witnessed something profound.

A husband and wife came before the council. They looked aged but they held themselves with pride and strength. Standing in front of them was a boy, a teenager. He had been abducted years before and forced to take up arms as a child soldier. He stood with his head bowed and his hands clasped in front him. He did not look up.

After a few formalities, the council seated in a semicircle, read out his crimes. He was accused of taking the lives of the couple’s children – their daughter and their baby son.

The head of the council asked the couple what justice they sought.

The mother gathered herself and rose to her feet while holding her husband’s hand and said: “Our country has lost too many of our children,” she paused, “we ask that he be released into our care for us to raise, raise as our own.”

The teenager looked up in disbelief. I was speechless; some witnesses were crying. I thought to myself “is this really happening?”

With her words and this act the mother restored that boy’s humanity. When the couple were finally allowed to embrace him. Well. No words have ever done that moment justice. There was such deep love and world-changing power in their reconciliation that I still feel that moment deeply today.

I still feel that moment deeply today.

Those parents accepted that this tragedy was a part of their history now, they had to face it, that it could not be undone, but they didn’t seek vengeance, they showed compassion and chose to love.

Instead of widening the gap between this former child soldier and his home and his community — they chose to come alongside him and encircle him and give him a new home, a new family and a second chance.

I realized in that humbling moment that our society defaults to vengeance and erasure. We punish and punish and punish. Even if we yearn for reconciliation and healing, our institutions are not built on that set of values, so they cannot not give it to us.

Why am I here telling you this story?

Well, over 20 years ago, at about the same age as the teenager in Sierra Leone, I was incarcerated.

My crime was stealing from a popular London department store.

The morning of my sentencing I didn’t believe I was going to prison. It was my first offense. I was honest with the police. I pleaded guilty and accepted responsibility.

There I was in court, standing in the dock, surrounded by lawyers, clerks, and my fellow defendants. My family was on the other side of the security glass. Everyone anxiously awaited our sentencing.

I don’t remember anything the judge said except that I was sentenced to one year in prison. It was an out of body experience.

The next thing I remember was the door opening in the cell below the court and being shuffled into a prison van to take us to prison.

The van eventually arrived at Feltham Young Offenders Institution. I was nervous and scared.

My initiation began at a windowless reception room with harsh fluorescent lighting. I was assigned a number. That number that would replace my name and become my only identity inside. I changed into prison issue jeans, a blue and white striped shirt, and a faded blue sweatshirt. My old clothes were packed away into a plastic storage box and labeled with my prison number. It’s odd the things you remember when you’re in shock. It smelled of fish and chips in the holding cell.

I was eventually escorted down a dark, cramped corridor to my prison wing, and my cell.

The cell itself was desolate.

In it were two tiny bars of soap on the desk beside a comb, two packets of Colgate and a toothbrush. It was narrow and confined, the pillows and blanket on the unmade bed were yellowed and stained. The toilet had no seat. It was depressing.

The door slammed behind me. It was at that moment I knew my life had changed.

I sat on the bed. I began to cry. Somehow I knew it was the last time I could be vulnerable.

I was on guard from day one, I didn’t sleep my first week and over the course of my sentence experienced the various humiliations of prison. There were lockdowns; abuse; beatings and gang brawls. I was more afraid of the prison officers than prisoners, because they took delight in being cruel. They set up fights between us for the fun of it. They verbally and physically assaulted us. They took our food away on a whim. They even put me in solitary confinement for a week for no reason. Solitary confinement, what we call “the box.” The box is where people lose their minds and where people kill themselves rather than face another moment alone suffocating in a cell barely big enough to move in.

As I sat at the reconciliation council meeting, the contrast between my experience of “justice” and this beautiful thing that was happening in front of me felt profound.

But, what overcame me in those moments were the memories of people in my life who chose the Sierra Leone version of justice.

I knew then that the UK institutions had failed in their design. They wanted to break me. They wanted to keep me small. For the rest of my life. But because of people who I was lucky enough to know, be loved by or chance upon, my life was big and full of promise.

Like those parents in Sierra Leone. They made the choice to maintain my humanity, restore my hope and ‘mind the gap’ in my life.

Like those parents in Sierra Leone. They made the choice to maintain my humanity, restore my hope and ‘mind the gap’ in my life.

It began with my aunt and my grandparents.

They fought the justice department so I could complete my education in prison, they fought the warden to ensure I had the necessary books and they fought the system to get me out early.

They knew every day I spent in prison was another day catastrophe could happen.

When I was released, my grandparents brought me home where I was loved and supported. If they weren’t there, I would have been sent on my way with £40 (which every person gets on release) and the clothes on my back.

No roof over my head. No food. No job.

But thankfully they were there.

My grandfather didn’t stop there. He had a friend who was an author, Donald James, and took me to the launch of his latest novel at the time. This event had other well known authors, people from the media and other TV and film personalities.

Donald made a point of introducing me to one of those people, the editor of a national newspaper.

I remember that he made a beeline for him at his own event, almost carrying my grandfather and I across the room as he parted the room like the Red Sea. After Donald made the intro, my grandfather simply said “my grandson is looking for a job.” This simple direct act was empowering. His belief in me gave me a choice. A choice to pursue a new life.

This Fleet Street editor who knew I had a record – didn’t ask what I did, what prison was like, or why it all happened. Instead, he asked me what I wanted to do next. He didn’t just see an ex-con. He saw someone who would give everything to this opportunity to start again. He saw a hustler. He saw someone who might do it differently, even use a little mischief (after all he was a tabloid editor). He saw my life experience — all of it — as a positive.

If he had said no, where would I be? I might have had a job – my grandfather would have made sure of it – but the potential harbored in the seventeen year old me before prison would have been extinguished.

But, that editor said yes and took me under his wing. Thanks to him I got my start in journalism; from there I built a lengthy career in British and American politics, and worked in the private sector, most recently as the global Chief Marketing Officer at R/GA – a creative agency.

I am here today because people offered their hand to me. They chose love and kinship over fear and othering. My story is not common, but it should be.

My story is not common, but it should be.

I speak freely about my record, because it is necessary. Because it is an essential part of my responsibility to my fellow incarcerated and formerly incarcerated family; because it is an essential part of my responsibility to my community and my society. It means I make waves, which are not always welcome.

It isn’t easy to look at people who have been conveniently othered. We’d much rather look away. Pretend their suffering is deserved. That they are not our responsibility. That we are not like them and vice versa. But that just simply isn’t true.

Our fundamental responsibility is to care for each other, to forget the noise of the crime shows, the six o’clock news, the Facebook posts, and choose to respect the humanity of every single person, offering our hand when the opportunity presents itself.

I don’t know the ending of the story of that family in Sierra Leone. I don’t know what the days were like; how the trauma was or was not healed. What limitations and challenges threatened the love with which those parents welcomed a new son on that day years ago.

But I do know how love gave me a second chance. How my funny, hodge podge community of imperfect people – a controversial News Corp editor, two wise and loving grandparents, an aunt who gave up some portion of her own life to raise me, a deservedly maligned ex-Prime Minister with famously frizzy hair who believed in my abilities, and countless friends and partners along the way – offered their resources to me to make a life of my own choosing. This is the better way. To acknowledge our responsibility to mind the gap for each other, and be defiant against institutions that would tell us to shirk it.

As you listen to me today, know the prison experience I described and its aftermath, is what day to day life is like right now for the 70 million people with a record across the country and for the 2 million people currently incarcerated in the United States.

That defiance, that action rooted in love, that minding of the gap, is a job you can give, housing you can offer, transportation you can provide. It is coming alongside someone like me and rebuilding, mending, and thriving together.

So when the opportunity presents itself, step forward with love and commitment, and mind the gap.

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