Keep Going or Shut the Door….

People ask me how this got started.  It’s coming up on a year, and I ask myself that too.  I also ask myself if I can keep it going.

The honest answer to the second question is, I guess I am going to try.  Near the beginning, I was talking to a woman who ran a program in New Jersey.  She told me she didn’t know if I would have the heart for it.  Not meaning that I didn’t have the drive or the passion, but meaning that my heart was going to take a beating.  She was dead on.  Correct.  This isn’t for the tender hearted, and I always saw myself that way.  The stories are heartbreaking.   You want to help the people who reach out to you through those bars, but you can’t.  There’s no way to open the door.  You talk to people facing death in prison, and we aren’t talking ‘nice’ prisons.

Some of the places are fair. Some have air conditioning.  Some don’t. Some are in places where you wouldn’t want your dog left out in the heat, and there is no air conditioning.  Some serve food the yard cats won’t eat.  Some places aren’t even guarded – the inmates guard themselves.  I’ve seen the video.  I’ve heard the stories.  This isn’t a joke.  It’s a reality.  Men and women are actually all locked together in some places with drugs and no supervision.  Some of them are cold blooded killers, some of them never hurt anybody.  Juveniles sent to live in maximum security and learn how to survive.  Corrections Officers with condescending, overbearing, power hunger attitudes.  It’s true.   I’ve seen articles written by a self righteous few, and comments on some of my articles.  I have to ask myself if those people are really that oblivious to all that is going on around them.  Yes.  There are some good Corrections Officers with their hearts in the right place.  But, don’t try to throw up this smoke screen that that is the overwhelming reality.  Blanket statements on either side make progress impossible.

I guess how it got started isn’t as important as can I keep going.  I have to.  It’s like opening a door and seeing a pile of broken souls and shutting the door quietly and walking away, trying to pretend I never saw it. I can’t.  So – if I am a voice that never gets heard, so be it.  But, I can’t live with myself if I pretend.  I thank God, I have faith, because that is the ONLY thing that keeps my heart from breaking after seeing and hearing the things I do.  Faith alone.

So, I’m going to pull out Rayvell Finch’s story again.   The man who got life when he was arrested for sitting on a stoop.   The poor guy had a drug problem.  A problem.  An addiction.  His life was a mess already.  They gave him life.  Twenty years later, he’s still in there.  He wrote me last week and kindly asked me to write to the parole board.  Get a letter like that and quit?  Nope.   For the love of God, somebody listen!!!  Somebody change this God awful system!  I’m just a mom, that’s it.  I’m not a politician or a lawyer.

My divorce has been in the courts now for about a year and a half.  Who knew you could learn how much is wrong with our judicial system from a divorce.   If we can’t get divorce court right, we don’t have a chance in hell, but I won’t be quiet about it.

Still haven’t answered the question of how it got started.   But – a year later – maybe I have answered my question about if I can keep going.  I don’t really think I have a choice.  I am not cold enough to shut that damn door.  It would be easier if I were, but I’m not.  I guess that’s the mom in me.  I’m a good mom, even though my ex’s lawyer said I was the ‘worst example of a parent he had ever seen’.  That was just lawyer bullcrap, trying to scare and intimidate me.  He was nothing but a bully, and our corrections system is full of them.  I won’t be quiet.  So, I guess I am in it for the long haul.

If You Believe in Second Chances, Click Below…

Travion Blount was fifteen years old when he got in trouble.  Described as a ‘shy but happy boy’ by his mother, in middle school he started skipping class and hanging out with the wrong crowd.   At the age of fifteen he went to a party with two older boys, and the three of them robbed the other people there at gunpoint, collecting drugs, cell phones and money.

The two older boys received ten and thirteen year sentences.  Travion, the youngest and the only one not to plead guilty, was sentenced to six life sentences, plus 118 years.   That sentence was later reduced to forty years.  With a forty year sentence, Travion will be fifty-five years old when he gets out, for a crime he committed at the age of fifteen years old.

Due to the length of his sentence, Travion has been kept in high security facilities.  He has continued to take classes and tells me he just ‘tries to stay out of people’s way’.  In the year we have communicated, he has never been anything but respectful.  He asks how my family is in every correspondence.   He asks how I am.

He deserves a second chance.  If you would like to read more about him, there are three articles about him right here on my blog.  But  – it is also easy to find out about him through a simple internet search.  The punishment he received was harsh.  I believe it was too harsh.  If you believe that also, please click here, and write an email to the Governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe.

Your message doesn’t have to be lengthy, it may take only three minutes of your time, but if you feel Travion deserves a second chance, please take those three minutes.  I wrote one that was a little more personalized, but if you need help getting started, feel free to copy and paste the words I have below.   Simply put Travion Blount’s name in the subject line, and start something like this:

Please consider a pardon for Travion Blount.  In 2006, at the age of fifteen, he committed a crime for which he has been in prison for ten years.   He is a young man now.  While incarcerated, he has taken classes to prepare for his future and he has a family that supports and loves him at home.  I respectfully request that you consider a pardon for Travion Blount.

That’s it.  Please take a moment to contact Governor Terry McAuliffe if you feel Travion Blount deserves a second chance.  You can write your own words, or copy mine.  You can copy mine and add some of your own.   But, please, if you believe in second chances speak up for Travion.

The Echoes of Solitary

When people try to tell me I can find a better ‘cause’ than criminal justice reform, it only punctuates how much need there is for education. This is just one story. This story and the countless like it are why this is my cause.

I have children, and it isn’t a stretch to envision one of them being picked up by the police for something or other. As a matter of fact, I’ve received a phone call or two regarding my children. Their brains aren’t fully developed at the age of sixteen, and it’s fair to say there will be bumps in the road. It’s life. I’m not talking about gang violence or rape or home invasions. I am talking about kid stuff. One of the more concerning calls I ever received was when one of my boys was on top of a Staples office supply store.   Who knows what he was doing up there, because the police who were holding him when I arrived didn’t climb up on the building to find out.

But – what if. What if I didn’t know the officer? I did. What if there had been something on that roof that pointed towards my son. Kalief Browder was sixteen years old when he was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack. The charge was second degree robbery. The boy was walking home, in his own neighborhood when the arrest took place. Nothing was found on Browder at the time.

Kalief was given a choice. He could take a plea bargain. If he did, he would be released. He refused though, trusting in the fairness of the system. He was confident his innocence would speak for itself.

Browder’s family couldn’t come up with the bail money. So, a boy who was not found guilty of any crime, was sent to Rikers Island to await a trial. The trial never took place though. He was held for three years, at which time the charges were dropped.

Rikers Island has long been thought of as a dangerous and isolated place – with good reason. It is just that – dangerous and isolated. Not only are there walls and fences to keep eyes from seeing what takes place inside, but it is also on an island. That, in itself, fosters feelings of hopelessness.

During his stay at Rikers, Kalief was offered several opportunities to take a plea. He never waivered, maintaining his innocence. He also attempted to take his own life on several occasions while there. Kalief Browder’s stay at Rikers changed him. He reported abuse by inmates and officers and spent nearly two years of his stay in solitary. In an article written by Jennifer Gonnerman, she included a clip of footage that was obtained from inside Rikers. It’s haunting when you see this young man being tossed around like a rag doll, knowing that this is just the footage that we have access to. He had several more stories of abuse to tell, of which we don’t have footage.

Kalief wasn’t able to shake his experiences when the charges against him were finally dropped. He was twenty. He couldn’t fill his old shoes anymore. He’d missed his place in life. He didn’t know where he fit in while the rest of the world had kept moving without him. He was quoted in one article as saying, “…in my mind right now, I feel like I’m still in jail, because I’m still feeling the side effects from what happened in there.”

He reportedly couldn’t sleep at night until he checked all the locks throughout the home. At one point, he was fearful his TV was watching him, so he got rid of it. He wasn’t able to escape his experience. He tried to end his life on numerous occasions and finally succeeded at his parents’ home when he was twenty two years old.

This is what’s happening in the United States of America. This is my cause. The expanse of this problem – from the judges, to the corrections officers, to the prosecutors, to the public defenders – is overwhelming. Saying this is not a ‘just’ cause is so far from the truth. People like Kalief Browder deserve advocates. You can see a sick puppy, you can see an orphan – you can’t see what is happening behind the walls of a prison.

It’s difficult to open ourselves up to the possibility that this could happen to our sixteen year old son. It’s much easier to think it can’t. Kalief’s mom found him after he took his life. She heard banging in the house and couldn’t figure out what the noise was, so she went outside. When she looked up from her backyard, she saw her son dangling from a window by a cord. He’d hung himself.

It wasn’t long after that Venida Browder, Kalief’s mother, also passed away. Some say she died of a broken heart. I say the same when I try to feel what she must have felt during those years when she couldn’t free her son. When I look up and try to envision what she saw from where she stood in her yard, I am certain her heart was broken. It’s time we all cared.

REFERENCES

Gonnerman, Jennifer. “Before the Law.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 08 June 2015. Web. 07 Jan. 2017.

Gonnerman, Jennifer. “Kalief Browder, 1993–2015.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 17 Oct. 2016. Web. 07 Jan. 2017.