All posts by kimberleyann

Mentally Ill Boy Dies While On Suicide Watch

There is a family in Virginia whose last memories of their son and brother are in a jail’s visitation room. Lutalo Octave was feeling more like himself that day. Enough like himself that he was processing the things he had done to land himself in jail. Lutalo Octave was charged with arson for burning his family’s house down. No one was in the home at the time. It was while he was in jail that he was diagnosed with Schizophreniform, a mental disorder. The family’s story was chronicled in the Richmond Times Dispatch.

Lutalo wasn’t violent. The photo of him in the paper is angelic, and from all accounts I have read, he was a sweet, thoughtful kid who liked video games, played a tuba and was a lifeguard. He wasn’t hurtful. He could have been my boy. He could have been the boy next door. He could have had a future. Life had different things in store for him though.

Something went a little wrong in Lutalo’s mind. It wasn’t a choice, no more than someone chooses to get cancer. He went off to college and a wire got crossed somewhere in his brain. I suppose no one will ever know the trigger.   It could have been destined from birth, or maybe there was some sort of environmental factor.   All that is known is that Lutalo changed. I always heard that if you raise your kids right, they will find their way back if they veer off course. Lutalo didn’t have a choice to find his way back. He had an illness. An illness that had him battling within his own head.

It’s not easy to get help if your adult child has a mental illness in this country. Often times there is nothing you can do once they turn eighteen, unless they harm themselves or others. You’re helpless. You watch. You try to make sense of it. You struggle with searching for ways to help. You try to piece together logical solutions to a problem that doesn’t follow a logical pattern. It’s like fighting a fire with a water pistol, but the hardest part is that the fire is trying to engulf your kid.

Lutalo left college. He lost his job. He was not acting himself, not because he wanted to be someone else, rather because his mind wasn’t working properly. His family could only watch in frustration. Forcing someone with a mental illness to seek help, is often a losing battle. They can’t see what you see. They don’t recognize their own illness. You wouldn’t lay a newborn baby in the arms of a mentally ill person, because they aren’t always capable of handling the responsibility. It isn’t that they wish to harm anyone. They are no more capable of making healthy choices for themselves than they would be for a baby.  But our system doesn’t take into account that an eighteenth birthday doesn’t cure mental illness.  You can’t force help on a mentally ill adult, unless they have already harmed someone. So, Lutalo’s family could only watch.

Lutalo’s illness sometimes showed up in the form of fire starting. Again, his family was unable to get anyone to help. Then he burned the house down. Lutalo was charged with arson and taken to jail. The tender hearted, book reading, video playing musician was taken into custody. He wasn’t taken to a hospital or a mental health facility. He was taken to jail. And, although the mom in me knows that Lutalo’s parents knew he didn’t belong in jail, I would imagine that, for a moment, they were able to breath, and think that he was in a safe place until they could get him moved to a treatment facility. That is what I would have been thinking, if I had never been exposed to our criminal justice system.

Lutalo’s illness may not have been curable, but it was treatable. Lutalo was diagnosed with schizophreniform disorder while at the jail. He was also placed on suicide watch after saying he had nothing to live for.

I have learned all my life that if you have something that belongs to someone else, you take better care of it than you would your own. I would like to think that goes for human beings as well. Lutalo was in the care of a jail. They took him into custody for a crime committed because of an illness that he would never have chosen to have. No one would choose schizophrenia.

Lutalo ended up taking his life in a jail cell. He was by himself. There was a metal shelf on the wall in his cell. He was supplied with a sheet. There was a broken camera in the room. There was also a functioning camera that could record only part of the room. I have to wonder if the person who was supposed to be monitoring the cameras had any concerns that one of the devices was not working. I would think that a camera meant to monitor someone on suicide watch should be operating. If it were my child, I would want it working.

Excuses can be made. Arguments can be said that there are staffing issues or funding issues. Excuses and arguments are why our criminal justice system is what it is today. It’s time to say it’s broken. It needs to be fixed. The time for excuses and arguments has passed. The system needs to be fixed, and it needs compassion to be one of its cornerstones. When the sun goes down, Lutalo’s family has to deal with the memories of his sweet face. They have to relive the last day they saw him when he was just their lost son and brother, wanting so desperately to come home with them. They had to watch him walk away from them at that visitation. They have to relive that over and over. That kind of pain leaves no room for excuses and arguments.

REFERENCES

Kleiner, Sarah, and Burnell Evans. “Henrico County Family Watches Helplessly as Ambitious Teenager Spirals into Darkness.” Richmond Times-Dispatch. N.p., 15 July 2016. Web. 31 July 2016.

Kleiner, Sarah, and Burnell Evans. “Part 2: Mentally Ill Man Threatens Suicide, Then given a Cell with a Sheet and a Shelf.” Richmond Times-Dispatch. N.p., 15 July 2016. Web. 31 July 2016.

DOES DOC DISCOURAGE VISITATION?

The number of incarcerated in our country points to a problem on a grand scale. What’s harder to grasp than the numbers, is the reality that every single one of them is a person, a human being with a heart and soul. The tough on crime, tough on drugs policies, have led to nonviolent people living and dying behind bars. They are housed by the Department of Corrections within the states, or on a federal level. The name implies that something is being corrected, or fixed. It would make sense that encouraging inmates to maintain relationships with people who care about them on the outside would go hand in hand with that correction. It would make sense to help offenders remember what they have to look forward to on the outside. It would make sense to try and keep them from tumbling down the well of depression that so many fall into.

Inmates need visits from people who care about them. It’s often not a year behind bars. Or two. Or even five. Think about living five years without looking into the eyes of a loved one. Or simply the eyes of someone you trust. Five years looking over your shoulder. Five years without holding a hand. If it is the intent to ‘correct’ behavior, stable, supportive relationships should be encouraged. Keeping a foot in the world that an inmate is going back to one day, just makes sense. It’s shortsighted and ignorant to think otherwise. There is no argument to be made that someone feeling alone, uncared for, and forgotten will lead to improved behavior. Love heals. Compassion and touch trump disrespect and solitude.

Whether it be a son or sister, father or friend, inmates need the touch of a hand and words of encouragement. This is not about the crime, because often times they aren’t violent. Often times the punishment is overzealous. What I normally write about are the sentences that make no sense. That’s not what this is about. This is about compassion.   Having a heart for the suffering, depression, and loneliness of people that are often forgotten behind walls, hidden from our view, so we don’t have to acknowledge they exist.

I visit prison. I have been doing it for a while. I only recently realized just how I have come to feel about the experience though. I was walking up the steps to the door, when it occurred to me just how tense I was. I felt my defenses going up and mentally preparing myself for whatever employee I might face on the other side.   Would it be one that was going to ‘find’ something to send me away for, because that appeared to be the usual game they played?   Or maybe it would be the pleasant one, who I rarely saw, that followed the rules, but would say, “Have a nice visit.” Or, more likely than not, it would be the one that looked at you with contempt and seemed to thrive on making other people feel small. It also occurred to me that, if this was how these tax paid employees behaved in front of the public, could they possibly be even more disrespectful when there were no eyes watching them? Of course they are. An individual that has no respect for someone who is smiling at them, not a criminal and trying desperately to get their approval for a visit with their loved one, is not going to respect people who are at their mercy behind solid brick walls. Logic tells us that.

I can’t count the number of times I have visited prison.   I have come to expect disrespect. I have come to expect ugly. There isn’t a pretty word for it. The reality is, a smile is rare. I have been smiled at by a couple employees behind the desk. I remember their faces, and I miss them terribly, because I rarely see them. I’m not sure why the people who are responsible for checking us in don’t feel anything for the family members coming to see their loved ones. I have seen people travel to the prison from other countries. I have seen people who have driven for over ten hours, who can’t afford a hotel and have to get in their car and drive home when the visit is over. I have seen elderly parents, mothers with infants, and young children at an age when they find the entire process overwhelming. Nobody is expecting therapy or emotional support, but would it be so hard to dig deep and simply be kind. A little kindness could go so very far. Kindness travels so much further than ugly.

The disrespect and ugly attitudes aren’t all that you might run into when trying to visit a loved one in prison though. There are rules when you visit, and there should be.   The rules are meant to protect the prisoners and the employees. The rules aren’t always used that way though. Often times, heading into a visit, the rules are used to toy with the inmates and their visitor. I won’t even argue some points. I have seen babies – younger than one year old – sent away with the wrong color clothing, or no sleeves.   Maybe there is a logic to that. I suppose that having a set of rules that can’t be adjusted is okay in some situations. I suppose that it is fair to say that if we can’t train and educate employees well enough to know when their judgment can come into play, then it is okay to have rules that can’t be bent. I am not sure how a three month old wearing a solid khaki onesie or a sleeveless tee could threaten anything, but, for the sake of argument, let’s accept that rules can’t be bent.

Bending the rules is one thing, but using the rules to torment people is another.   I was sitting on a visit once, when I noticed ants crawling all over the person I had come to visit. Ants in the visiting room are common, and apparently we had gotten in their path. After knocking off as many as we could, we asked if we could move seats.   The answer was no. In a room with less than half of the seats filled, we could not change seats. That has happened to me on more than one visit. It would be too kind to allow us to move a couple empty seats over.

There are windows in the visiting room where I go. I have seen elderly visitors in seats with the sun blinding them, when they could easily move over a couple chairs and not have that problem, but they are not allowed to.

Where I visit, you are made to wait in a brick building with no air conditioning and call on a telephone to the lobby. You are not allowed to proceed to the lobby until they give you permission over the phone.   That is the system they have set up, and I am happy to follow those rules. More than once though, I have been told over the phone to proceed up to the building, and when I have arrived I have been scolded and treated as if I had broken the rules, and was not sent up.   There is one individual officer that seems very good at treating you as if you don’t deserve to be in the same room as her, and she has scolded me for showing up a few times. It is very odd, because in the year I was visiting prior to her sitting at the desk, I was never told to come up and then scolded when I did. But, apparently, this is the way that this officer likes to do things.

On another visit, I had been called up to the lobby, and on my way there, I passed a woman coming out. I had seen this woman on previous visits, and I knew she was familiar with the rules. She was covered from her ankles to her neck. Not a bit of cleavage and her dress hit her ankles. I would actually say she was dressed very conservatively. As she headed away, she told me they were going to turn me away. She said that they had turned her away. She was told the shape of her neckline was not allowed. It was a scoop neck. I was wearing a dress that also had the same neckline. Both of our necklines fell at least one and a half inches above cleavage, and our shoulders were not exposed in any way. I thought that she was surely wrong. I didn’t bring a change of clothes that day, because I was certain that what I was wearing followed all the rules. I had been visiting for over a year.   I walked into the lobby and saw the officer that liked to scold me.   She looked at me and said, ‘That is see through’. I knew I was dressed just fine, and had left home with my mother and children telling me I looked pretty. This officer wasn’t able to determine there was something wrong with my dress just by looking at me though. She told me to stand up against the glass door, with the sun blazing through the glass behind me, and said, ‘Yep, it’s see through. You can’t come in’. I went to the mall and bought another outfit. Not because I could afford it, because I couldn’t. But I couldn’t let my friend sit in that place, surrounded by people who don’t care about him and treat him like that woman treated me, without telling him hello and sharing a laugh before I made the hour long drive home.

My stories aren’t unusual. I have learned to not react to officers staring at you. I have learned that I need to always bring back up clothing in my car. I have learned that you don’t complain, because it will come back to haunt you on the next visit, or the person you came to visit. I have learned to expect disrespect and appreciate the rare glimpses of humanity. I have learned to bite my tongue. I have learned that right or wrong, what happens behind those walls is completely out of our hands. I have learned that wearing a badge in that environment gives you the right to treat people any way you want, because there isn’t anything anybody is going to do about it.

I reached out to hear other peoples’ stories. I hear them every time I am in the visiting room where I visit, but I wanted to hear from people further away. I heard of an eighty year old man that was turned away after driving six hours because he forgot to leave his wallet in the car. I heard of a woman who was singled out and made to rewrite her paperwork, because they didn’t like the way she checked the boxes. It reminded me of the time that I saw the woman in front of me make lines on her form, instead of checks. I decided to do it that way, and I was singled out, called up, scolded and told to fill out the paper again with checks. I heard over and over again not to complain, because it will only hurt your loved one.   I had already been told that on my very first visit when I had other visitors coaching me in the waiting area.   I heard of parents unable to get their inmate’s children in to see them. I heard one person sum up visiting in a way that struck me as right on target. He said, “the norm is to make the experience so bad that the visitor won’t come back.” The worst I heard was a woman’s experience when she had to ‘prove’ that she was menstruating by showing an officer her genitals, so she could be issued an approved sanitary napkin.   Sadder than that, was hearing that it wasn’t an isolated incident.

I have also heard from some people about the stress of the job on officers and how it affects them. What I have to say to that is, I am stressed also.   I am stressed for my nonviolent friends serving fifteen, and thirty and forty year sentences behind bars. I am stressed trying to make ends meet for my family. I am stressed at the overwhelming amount of dishonesty and lack of compassion in the world. But, I wake up every day, and I easily treat people with respect. I have never disrespected an officer, and I have been disrespected more times than I can count. I think it’s time to get a new job if you can’t handle the stress, or it’s time for the Department of Corrections to start enforcing standards of behavior in their employees.  But, don’t tell me that stress is an excuse to treat people like garbage.

What is ‘Corrections’ Correcting?

A Department of Corrections doesn’t exist in the reality of things. I will say over and over, we need a prison system. We need a place to keep people that threaten the physical well being of others until we can figure out if and how to rehabilitate them. And I don’t know what it should be called. We currently have something called ‘Corrections’, as if there is some type of system ‘correcting’ a problem. There isn’t.

We have an entire society of people locked up for, quite simply, absurd sentences. We are actually turning people who, in a different type of system might have hope for a positive future, into criminals.   We are destroying their faith in humanity, cutting them off from their loved ones and putting them in the care of understaffed and often undertrained institutions. That is a fact. It is irrefutable. It’s a system built from the bottom up on misery.

It reaches beyond the walls we can’t see through. I read someone else’s thoughts the other day and asked if I could copy and paste it here. This is what Dotty had to say.

Just got off the phone with the hubby. He told me tonight that he did the math, and for a telephone call in Kansas State Correctional Facility, Larned – there is a note by the phones, stating that a 15 minute call will be raised from $2.55 to include an additional 18.2% tax carrying fee, making the total $3.01.

Not bad, you say, compared to other states…but here is where mass incarceration comes into play here in Kansas. Budget cuts in medical, state healthcare programs and many other places have caused the state to tax us three times…18.2% to connect…18.2% during the call…and 18.2% imposed at the end of the call.   What good do federal guidelines do to curb the dishonest greed, when clearly we are helping pay to fix a state budget.

The prisons in Lansing are housing men on the floors and some who desperately need to be transferred closer to home are forever denied because prisons in Kansas are overflowing. We speak of needing Prison Reform at state levels as well as federal levels. What good is making a federal law when the states impose whatever they want. For seven months, Larned has had a billboard up regarding a need for correctional officers. There is nothing around for miles and good help is sadly needed there on the very huge campus grounds. It is also the location of the state mental hospital where inmates who are severely mentally and sexually unstable are housed. They use the term ‘work camp’ there to literally work minimum custody inmates in the laundry room and kitchen of the Mental facility. It’s a forced issue among many inmates. They must go to work there if told. Otherwise, they are subject to threats of good time taken, custody levels rolled back, write ups and yes, sometimes segregation.

It will be 10 months till my hubby can see anyone but me and his kids and his brother. None of us can make it that far often enough to help Darian have the support he needs from his family. Not with taxing the phone time 4 times. Yes, he is taxed also to buy phone time now. Darian has a rap sheet a mile long on the inside. His first felony resulted in his first prison term, felony driving without a license. Hardly the hardened criminal they have in there.

This is why we fight in the Prison Reform movement. They just want to do the time they have been given, without harassment and without hostile environments from wardens, guards, medical staff, food service companies, counselors and others that are hired to aid the inmates.

We are in the digital age. Our story is no worse than others. It does not stand out. There are so many cases and stories of abuse that occur within those walls, that no single website holds every account of them. It takes many voices united to make a tough stand to correct what is being done to so many lives. Tonight I will continue to fight for them all and to share their stories until they are heard.

 

Man Dead After Being Incarcerated for Theft of Soda, Candy Bar and Snack Cake

Jamycheal Mitchell passed away on August 19, 2015, in the state of Virginia. He didn’t die of old age. At the age of twenty four, he actually had quite a long life ahead of him. He was a young man who saw the world through eyes that were different than most of ours.   Jamycheal suffered from mental illness. We will never quite understand the complexities of his thoughts or his concept of death as it crept up on him. We won’t know how scared he was or his perception of his circumstances. I think it is fair to say he felt pain though.

His mental condition wasn’t a choice. I would like to think it would draw some level of compassion from those around him. It didn’t draw enough apparently. Jamycheal Mitchell died without his family around him. He didn’t have a loved one’s hand to hold or someone to brush his head and tell him help was on the way. That’s because help wasn’t on the way.

Jamycheal Mitchell died lying in a jail cell in the United States of America from probable cardiac arrhythmia accompanying wasting syndrome, as reported by Sarah Kleiner in an article in the Richmond Times Dispatch. He didn’t die in a deserted prison that had no employees or somewhere that his presence could not be seen for months. He died in plain sight in a cell. It wasn’t a quick death. It took months to get into the condition that Jamycheal died in. His condition was seen over and over again in the time it took him to lose thirty four pounds.

I hear and see it all the time – upright, righteous citizens so steadfast in the belief that we have to get tougher on crime. We were tough on crime in Jamycheal Mitchell’s case. He was arrested for stealing a bottle of soda, a snack cake and candy bar. The total value of his theft was $5. Until there is common sense and compassion in the criminal justice system, getting tougher is only going to succeed in diminishing our humanity. How hardened do people have to be to walk by this young man, day after day, and see him transform from a healthy 24 year old man to an emaciated corpse, without sounding 100 alarms?

There are investigations currently going on into how this happened. I am sure there will be a lot of people looking at how paperwork gets shuffled around.   Looking into the paper trail won’t help. The system needs an overhaul, and it needs to include training the employees who are responsible for the one out of one hundred people that this country keeps incarcerated. If we are going to put one one-hundreth of our population in cells under the care of others, I think that those people need to be held to a much higher standard.

Jamycheal Mitchell was not arrested for a crime of violence. He stole something to eat and was incarcerated for it. I am familiar enough with the criminal justice system to know that no one was telling Jamycheal that he was going to receive treatment, or explaining to him what the future of his case looked like. The prisons don’t do that for individuals that are not mentally ill. His treatment clearly shows that no one was concerned about how he might be emotionally dealing with his arrest. His treatment speaks volumes about the prison system in this country. He died alone, suffering from starvation and covered in his own feces and urine.

REFERENCES

Kleiner, Sarah. “Report: Clerical Errors Preceded Death of Va. Man Jailed for Stealing Junk Food.” Richmond Times-Dispatch. N.p., 21 Mar. 2016. Web. 04 Apr. 2016.

Kleiner, Sarah. “Advocates Call for Federal Investigation of Death of Va. Man Jailed for Stealing Junk Food.” Richmond Times-Dispatch. N.p., 23 Mar. 2016. Web. 04 Apr. 2016.

THROWN AWAY PEOPLE

With approximately one out of every hundred of us locked up, mass incarceration should be on all our minds. The subject is ugly and probably causes some discomfort, but ignoring it isn’t going to solve the problem. One in a hundred is a problem. Those numbers make us the most incarcerated country in the entire world. Every day that passes that we avoid fixing the problem is one more day that one in one hundred of us lives in a cage. Cages are necessary sometimes, but so many of them are filled to overflowing with throw away people that shouldn’t be there. And, nobody even knows.

I made a promise to myself from the start of this. I can’t tell the story of anyone that committed a violent crime.   There are so many inmates that never physically harmed anyone, and I don’t need to read about anyone that actually committed a crime involving violence. I have a lifetime of nonviolent offenders to write about. Then I read about Shimeek Gridine.

Dana Battles was the victim. I made a small effort to locate him, and ask his thoughts, but was not able to, and I didn’t feel comfortable looking very hard. I respect the victim’s privacy and can’t imagine the affect this crime might have had on their lives, although I would love to know what their feelings are on the sentence that Shimeek Gridline was given. I will assume that Dana was scarred physically and emotionally, to some degree, for life. I don’t ever want victims to be overlooked in the telling of a story. Shimeeks’ story doesn’t lessen the price that Dana paid.

Shimeek was 14. From all accounts he had a solid family foundation, and I read that he played Pop Warner football. His mother lost her job not long before the incident, and they moved in with Shimeek’s grandparents.

I know that Shimeek was cared for, but going through some instability that may have included the recent death of two relatives. He was fourteen. I have had a few fourteen year old kids and been one myself. It goes without saying, he wasn’t yet wise, or mature, or fully developed in any way. Who knows if he was shaving yet. I know that he didn’t have the capacity to fully understand actions and consequences. An educated and experienced judge, adult, lawyer, prosecutor, parent – all those people should know that.

The day that the crime took place, Shimeek was with a 12 year old boy. They had a small shotgun, and claimed to have found it under a car. I am not sure it is overly important where the gun came from, but we will assume the boys found it.

The two boys probably felt a little invincible with gun in hand. They attempted to rob a man at gunpoint.   I don’t suppose we can ever know what was going through Shimeek’s head when his finger tightened on that trigger enough to set the gun off.   The man was grazed in the head and shoulder area, was hospitalized and released the same day.   I don’t know the severity of his injury, or if there was any scarring involved, but he was sent home from the hospital the same day that he was shot.

Shimeek Gridine turned himself in to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, accompanied by his grandparents. In reasoning that I don’t quite understand, he was charged as an adult. The boy went before Judge A.C. Soud, without a jury. Shimeek’s family was supportive and their presence was noted in the courtroom. Judge Soud explained that, because Shimeek had so much support, he should have known better. He was sentenced to seventy years for Premeditated Attempted Murder and twenty five years for Armed Robbery.   The sentences would be served at the same time and there was no possibility for parole. At the age of 14, a seventy year sentence will probably last longer than your life, earning release at the age of 84.

I can guess that Shimeek was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was not privileged. He probably saw his mother struggling to take care of him, and I am sure he knew some hardships. He played in a neighborhood where you can find shotguns under cars. Most likely the sentencing judge could not have a full appreciation of the child standing in front of him and his life experiences.   What I find more frightening about his case than anything else, is the power of one man’s words. With a few sentences a man in a robe essentially sentenced a young boy to never be free again. One man had the power to throw a child’s life away, and did so because he felt the boy had a supportive family and should have known better than to shoot a gun aimed at somebody’s head.

Shimeek is no longer a child. He lives in a prison in Florida. He is scheduled for release in April of 2079. I will be dead by then. Some people worry about prisoners being too comfortable. Most prisons in Florida do not have air conditioning.   In order to keep from being idle, inmates get to grow a lot of their own food. Although Shimeek may get to do something to earn some type of job experience in the future, he has no future outside of a cage, so it is irrelevant in his case.   At today’s cost to house an inmate in Florida, it will cost taxpayers $1,264,480 if he lives for the seventy year sentence. That price will surely go up as the cost of keeping someone incarcerated increases over that seventy year time. At that cost, Shimeek could have been sent to college, and also been given a personal therapist and personal jailer. Imagine if he had been sent to college after spending four years in a juvenile facility, and agreed to donate a certain amount of hours a year in his given profession as a payback to society for his extremely poor judgement. With that solution, we would be receiving tax money and time from Shimeek, rather than paying to cage him until he dies. He may have been the first in his family line to graduate college, and he may have started a bright path for an entire new generation. We won’t know that though. All we know is that our tax money is going to cage him to death. It is so much more convenient that way for the system, I guess.

A man in a robe couldn’t come up with anything more creative than seventy years in a cage at a pricetag of $1,264,480. This brings me back to the most frightening part of this story. What kind of power are we giving to individuals with our tax dollars and our lives in their hands? I doubt that the Judge has given Shimeek Gridine much more thought. I, on the other hand, will never forget him. With one in a hundred of us caged, nobody should. Shimeek Gridine has changed my world.

What Tax Dollars Are Funding

Robert Booker will spend every day until August, 2027, locked up and surrounded by the sadness that is prison. That is a lot of days to look forward to – quite a bit more than 4,000.   I don’t think I would have the strength to do it. Robert has been doing it for over two decades.

Robert messed up. I have messed up quite a few times in my life. Just never on such a grand scale, but I have messed up all the same. We are near the same age, so I know what things were like in the ‘80’s. I haven’t spoken to Robert personally, but from what I have read, he had a stable life, and could hold down a job.  He was a lifeguard.  I could hold a job down then too, but that didn’t stop me from running in some pretty shady circles. I think Robert saw a way to make some easier money. He was working hard at an honest living, but saw things were much easier and lucrative for some other people. One thing led to another, and he made some really bad choices.

Robert Booker was arrested and eventually sentenced to life without the possibility for parole for a nonviolent crime. He was basically a drug dealer, and from what I have read, the actual crimes were possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine, conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute crack cocaine, and operating a “crack distribution house.” He was busted. The good times were over. Robert Booker took a shortcut in life. He wasn’t a choir boy. He probably didn’t put much thought into it and got into the business of cashing in on people’s addictions. He wasn’t the first to do it, and he won’t be the last. I’ve had friends who did it, and probably a lot of people growing up in that time had friends who did it. They weren’t evil or violent. They were young and stupid.   It wasn’t about malice.

So, Robert Booker could have been a friend of mine. A good soul, with a reckless nature who didn’t really think about the consequences or repercussions of the business he was in – either on his customers or himself. I don’t think any of us are truly fully done developing good sense until we are near thirty years old. Some of us take even longer. A side of me thinks I am not fully developed myself, or I wouldn’t be seeking out all this sadness, because it is putting a heavy weight on my soul.

I have read all the legal back and forth on this one, and it is too much for me to wrap my brain around without a law degree. When it was all said and done, Robert was given a life sentence without the possibility for parole. That was over twenty years ago. By my calculations, this man began his time behind bars in his twenties and is nearly fifty years old right now. Isn’t that enough? For the love of God, isn’t that enough?  In that time I have had four kids and a grandbaby.

I am Robert’s age. There is a lot of common sense that comes by age fifty. He has the common sense thing down, I am sure. He’s good now. Open the doors. There is not one ounce of sense to be made of this. Not one ounce. There is not one politician or judge or prosecutor that can stand in front of me and make ‘this’ make sense. What is being done to Robert Booker is cruel and unusual punishment. Depriving him of the company and touch and words of his friends and loved ones from this moment forward is inexcusable.

And, it doesn’t end there. Taxpayers who don’t even know his name are paying for this disgrace. They don’t even know that their hard earned money is funding the caging of this grown man. For no purpose.   It has become a game. How many years can we tack onto this person or that? How much hard time can we give them? Can we see them die behind bars – won’t that be good for our resume?

No, it doesn’t end there. What of Robert’s kids? His grandkids? The people he can’t touch with his experiences and his hard earned knowledge of what not to do? Robert Booker may not know it yet, but he inspires me. This has got to change because it is not humane. It should be against the law to cage this man for one more minute.

Although all of my research indicated that Robert was sentenced to life without the possibility for parole, my search of his name indicates that he currently has a release date of August, 2027. If that is the case, that isn’t good enough. It may be an improvement over life without parole, but there is not one more day behind bars that is going to ‘rehabilitate’ him anymore. Every second from this day forward is a sin. To keep someone in a miserable, cold cage because people need to continue to argue over the letter of the law to prove some point while wearing their freshly pressed suits is the definition of despicable.

TRAVION WITH AN I

I was tentative when I started this project, not sure where it would lead and not sure I was up to the task. I’m still not sure I am. I knew finding people to write about wouldn’t be a problem, but I didn’t anticipate just how invested I would feel in their lives.

I am working on someone else’s story, but got a note from Travion today. I had written to him, letting him know of my interest in his case, and the post I wrote about him. It’s funny, but when I was originally trying to contact him, I had a little trouble finding his location. The system has him listed as “Travon.” He has been incarcerated for years, and they don’t have his name right.   It seems like such a little thing, really, but it’s not. It’s his name.   It is what his mother gave him. If his only contact with the outside world for most of his life is through this system, can’t we at least give him the courtesy of getting his name right? It’s Travion.

Travion changed things up for me today. Until now he was a story and information on paper. His story originally spurred me to action, but it was paper all the same.   This morning when I read his note, he became more than paper. He is a person. He’s about the age of one of my sons. From that grey cinderblock home of his, he wrote the words, “hope all is well.” He said some other things, and closed with, “thank you for reaching out.”

The one paragraph letter I found in my mailbox this morning confirmed that I am doing the right thing. It made me know, without a doubt, that succeed or fail, wherever the path leads, I can’t get off it. I am not giving up on Travion. I will be copying and pasting his story to anybody I can think of, and I will keep on doing it until this wrong is made right. It doesn’t just have to be me though. I welcome anyone who wants to join me on this path.

I am not anti-government. I just want to make us better. We are better. This system has got to change.

Sentenced to Life at Fifteen

I first read about Travion Blount in a three by five inch article, including title, on page five of the Metro section of my local paper.   It was the smallest article on the page, as if it were a filler. I’m surprised I even read it. Once I did, I wanted to know more.

This is what I pieced together after I searched his name on the internet. Travion was born and raised in Virginia. His mom is Angela Blount and his father is Patrick Mills. His mom described him as ‘happy but shy,’ and from what I read, he was pretty typical up until middle school. That seems to be about the time his wheels got a little off track.

Skipping school was a problem, and Travion couldn’t seem to get past the sixth grade. He also became friendly with some slightly older boys that probably weren’t the best of influences. I would imagine Tavion looked up to them, and I am not going to try and paint him as an angel.   He wasn’t.  If he had lived next door to me, I would have probably viewed him as trouble.

From piecing together all the news accounts, in September, 2006, Travion and his friends, Morris Downing and David Nichols, went to a party and robbed the partygoers at gunpoint. They collected drugs, cell phones and money. Travion did not physically hurt anyone during the robbery.

It is clear these boys did something terribly wrong. I can’t imagine the fear they caused in the people at the party on that night. A few probably thought they were going to die. What the three boys did is inexcusable.

The two older boys pled guilty, one receiving a ten year sentence and the other receiving a thirteen year sentence. Travion, at the age of 15, decided to plead innocent and fight the charges, against legal advice. That is the first part of this that has me wondering about fairness.   What 15-year-old should be given the responsibility of deciding what his best defense would be? I have a fifteen year old, and, as smart as she is, I don’t think she should be allowed to decide how she should plead in a criminal case.

After a three day trial, and being found guilty on 49 counts, Travion was sentenced to 118 years and six life sentences.   Being a mom, and knowing just how ‘not’ grown up a boy is at the age of 17 – his age at trial – there is one thing that I read that really sums up just how young Travion was. I read that he turned to his mom and said, “What happened Mom?”

In my opinion, that sentence is criminal. In my opinion that sentence is cruel and unusual punishment. There are no words to adequately describe what I think of that sentence.

At a later date, Governor Bob McDonnell reduced Travion’s sentence to forty years. That might sound like a good thing, but in the twists and turns of our illogical legal system, it actually makes it a little more difficult for the sentence to be further reduced, as Blount had a chance to appeal the sentence as unconstitutional when it was a life sentence – he can no longer do that now that the sentence is forty years.

So what is forty years? That is 14,600 days waking up knowing that you will see the same exact things you saw the day before. To a fifteen year old, that could mean never being half of a serious relationship. That is never graduating high school.  You will probably never have the work experience in place to find successful employment, even if you were healthy at the age of 55, when you got out. You possibly may not be able to spend another day in the company of your parents.   A good deal of your relatives will not be here anymore when you get out, even if you did remember who they were. Did he ever slow dance, I wonder. Did he ever leave the state of Virginia? Forty years to a fifteen year old, is his entire life. His entire life.

Shouldn’t doing that to Travion Blount be against the law? Travion Blount made a stupid, irresponsible, shameful decision when he was fifteen years old, although he did not physically harm anyone. And for that, he will pay with forty years of his life. And, we are paying the price of that, both with our pockets and our souls.