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.