“I am a formerly incarcerated individual.” Originally published on Medium here
This is not something I typically lead with in my day-to-day life. In fact, I rarely opt to make such a pronouncement at all, unless it meaningfully contributes to the ever-changing social justice space, of which I am an advocate for criminal justice reforms. Choosing to identify in such a way is entirely situational for me, and this is my preference, my “Happy Place”, if you will. It is not a matter of shame, but, rather, a universal human desire for freedom of choice. After over two decades of being utterly stripped of materialism or identity, this basic freedom has been my most cherished possession.
And it is under attack.
Criminal Justice reform is a hot topic these days. Politicians, celebrities, countless non-profits, and individuals of means — mostly silent on the issue even as recently as 5–10 years ago — have all trended toward the idea that rehabilitation works and punitive justice does not. With this much-needed support, several bills have recently been signed into law, specifically in California, fundamentally altering the criminal justice landscape. I personally benefitted from the passage of SB 260, a bill requiring Board of Parole Hearing commissioners to lend great weight to my youth (16-years old) at the time of my commitment offense. This paved the way for me to reenter society in November of 2015, and to begin working alongside these very same, mostly well-intentioned, individuals.
I returned to society to find that the pro-reform arena was in the midst of a great expansion. Organizations, non-profits, and residential treatment programs were popping up exponentially. Even the California Department of Corrections began diverting funds toward rehabilitation and reentry programs. Extremely grateful for my freedom and the efforts behind these reforms, I was quite eager to jump in and add to the movement. I joined with various non-profits, and I would often find myself participating in panels as a speaker, as well as making several legislative visits as a living example of what reform and rehabilitation looked like in the new era. At this stage of my development, I rarely said, “No.” I would not have even known what I was saying, “No” to. After all, standing side by side with so many others in gratitude, regardless of what was asked of me, was supposed to be enough, right?
The truth is that I had come home as a blank slate. How could this NOT be the case? I had gone in at age 16 and returned at age 37. This is the case for any of the long or Life-term individuals entering the social justice space after years in the wilderness. I had no societal identity, and I had no means of predicting who I would ultimately become. As I slowly acclimated to life in society, I began to change, and so did my personal boundaries and preferences. My overall awareness of self and surroundings began to deepen. The sanctity of my identity took on a much greater significance, and I started realizing that many around me, the majority of whom have had no lived experience in the prison system, were unknowingly violating this sanctity with inherent biases and prejudice they naturally carry into the space. Even worse, many of my fellow formerly-incarcerated appear to be completely oblivious. When I have pointed this out, I often receive feedback indicating that I am somehow ungrateful or have become a “snob”, as if this somehow justifies the nature of the problem in the first place. It would be laughable if it weren’t so demeaning and inconsiderate of the absolute trauma that has encompassed virtually my entire life. On the other hand, how can these, mostly well-intentioned individuals, be fully culpable when virtually their entire life has been one of privilege? Perhaps ignorance is…having went to college and not getting stabbed in prison riots?
To be clear, I am very grateful for ALL who join the space with the intention of changing the existing criminal and social justice model for the better. This grudgingly includes many celebrities, influencers, and non-profiteers who have mostly joined for clout or because the space has become a well-funded path to a decent wage (No thousand-person revolution was ever won with a thousand pure hearts). However, in any effort seeking reform or justice or “Changing the Narrative” or whatever appeals to one’s sincerest intentions, one must be mindful of where they actually stand in relation to the issue or “Cause”, because it is quite possible to actually do harm in the process of doing good.
Not sure what that looks like? If you are currently involved in — or considering joining — the social/criminal justice space and have never actually been incarcerated yourself, welcome, and thank you. Here are some things you should consider:
“We are not interested in satisfying anyone’s ‘Savior Complex’.” Countless are the times we find ourselves in rooms with individuals or organizations, so-called allies and supporters, and their energy clearly communicated that they were present to “save” the “poor ex-cons”. The message”: We were not equals. We will never sit at their table for family dinner. These individuals are only present to provide services or charity for those of “less fortunate” circumstances. This makes us feel like we have diminished worth, like we are less capable, and am permanently branded with a scarlet letter. It makes us feel like we should never have the audacity to expect to rise above our circumstances, our dreams forsaken in exchange for gratitude for the pittance bestowed upon us. Our intelligence, our potential, and the vast reservoirs of drive within us are of no account. We are simply ex-cons, products of mistakes that the “Ally” can never fully see past. This is all veiled behind warm smiles and hugs, the invisible barrier imperceptible to most.
The very fact that we experience these feelings in the space is evidence that a bias exists, even in some of our most “staunchest” non-system-impacted friends. It is not my assertion that they are actually aware of the inherent bias of their privilege. I am simply calling it out, and I am suggesting that these individuals take a searching look into their motives for joining in the first place. Be aware that when I am in your presence, I do not assume but DEMAND equality in the space. I am NOT your path to assuaging some deep-seated, generational guilt, nor am I here to satiate an ego-centric vision of yourself as a lord amongst peasants. Celebrities, politicians, businesspeople, millionaires and non-profiteers, ask yourselves: “Where do my limited expectations of this population come from?” “Why does it bother me on some level when the system-impacted see themselves as my equal, or when they have evolved to a point of wanting to decide when and if they identify as system-impacted?” Remember that for so long the power of choice was absent for us. You should not have a problem with the paramount significance we carry in our hearts for it.
“We are vehemently opposed to your limiting or speaking with our voices.” This is, without a doubt, my main inspiration for not only writing this piece, but for deciding to enter the arena as a voice for the system-impacted in the first place. Too often, those without actual lived experience are deferred to on subjects such as social and criminal justice, especially when it comes to high-profile individuals, like celebrities. I have personally witnessed several speaking panels and events having both system-impacted and high-profile individuals coming together in common cause, only to be greatly disappointed at the sight of the impacted individual being made to “wait in line” to be heard. Imagine that. The individual with ACTUAL lived system experience, the true “expert”, having to stand by while someone who has lived outside of that experience espouses with righteous indignation and statistics about “how wrong this all is”.
Let me state this very clearly: No matter how well-intentioned a non-system-impacted individual may be, high-profile or not, limiting or speaking with our voices is tantamount to a traumatic event. Yes, you read that correctly. Once again, we are made to feel second-class, less than, even bullied. We are made to feel that what we have to say is less significant, just as it was throughout the length of our system involvement. Our self-expression, most of which comes from long histories of pain, fear and abuse, is diminished, its light dimmed by being supplanted in these moments. Our voices, what ought to be the driving force of changing the narrative, of change, are once more overshadowed. This is reprehensible. It is beyond unacceptable, and it happens daily in the social justice space.
“We want you to be mindful of our trauma.” One of the most insensitive things that I hear from non-system-impacted friends in the space is that I “seem so normal”. What does that even mean? How am I supposed to present? The fact that this is even said about any of us demonstrates a clear ignorance resulting from not having lived experience. They mean this as a compliment. It is highly insulting and degrading to hear. Yes, I spent over 20-years in a cage, 7 of which included being buried in Pelican Bay’s notorious solitary confinement unit. Yes, I have been witness to, and participated in, many real-life horrors most only experience vicariously or watch on television. Is the expectation here that I am now condemned to living the rest of my life as a mentally broken, emotionally damaged, inarticulate, practically helpless, incapacitated by a flawed nature, shell-of-my-former-self? Is this expectation — grounded in bias — the source of your being confounded by my “normal” habits and intellect? Whatever the cause, this attitude is divisive and harmful. It dehumanizes. Furthermore, it reveals deep misunderstandings of what trauma is and looks like for the system-impacted. It also spotlights the sense of “apartness” so many of the inexperienced bring into the space.
Here’s a heaping mound of utter transparency: Though I may satisfy your privileged version of “normal”, I am, in fact, a product of years of trauma. Much of this trauma stems from brutality and violence on a level foreign to you. This trauma is compounded with a traumatic upbringing in a dangerous environment (the “Hood”), an unstable family life, and, later, spending years in CDCR’s gang-riddled, racist, and authoritatively abusive confines. This trauma include years being buried in a virtual tomb of a cell, having no windows or access to direct sunlight and no human contact. What you do not know, because you were not there, is that what you are interpreting as “normal” is the outcome of years of deep processing and inner work on myself. I am speaking of a prolonged process of delving deep within myself for insights which allowed me to deconstruct my damaged self and reconstruct a healed “Me”. Fighting to preserve my sanity and humanity has been the greatest battle of my life.
Be sensitive to this. This is easily the most overlooked aspect of ourselves by both non-system-impacted people and organizations. Every single time we are asked to participate on a panel, be guest speakers, be on video, or attend any event where we are de-facto the “faces” of the system-impacted, we are being asked to revisit trauma. Let me say this again. WE ARE BEING ASKED TO REVISIT TRAUMA. It costs us to do this. It pains us to do this. At the very least, the matter of our comfortability around opening old, extremely traumatic and triggering wounds should be at the forefront of the ask. I am by no means saying that the willingness is not there; I am simply elevating awareness around an issue I have never heard discussed in the space. This awareness should be commonplace. Furthermore, organizations should be required to have training for it, as they continually use our “stories” to fundraise, vie for grants, and, often, do not compensate the system-impacted for this genuine sacrifice.
This article is certain to ruffle a few feathers, and I hope that it does. However, I do want to be clear that I am beyond grateful for so many in the space who truly give their all to the work, including many formerly-incarcerated persons and organizations who actually go forth fully-conscious of their impact on individuals like myself. This article has nothing to do with these folks, other than to raise their own awareness around this issue. The underlying statement of this entire piece is that the system-impacted population have earned our freedom, and we desire, more than anything in the world, to FEEL free. There is nothing more empowering than having the freedom to live in our truths, to have ownership over our own identity and expression. Anything which falls short of that equals imprisonment in another form.
Mass and static incarceration will not be solved unless we address that which we are most afraid to talk about: violent crime, and/or those serving life sentences. Our mission is to change the way society and the justice system respond to violence and harm. From Proximity to policy.