America. Home of the brave. Land of the free. Society of redemption. These are the principles that, in theory, we idealize and symbolize in our salute to Old Glory. We posture to be a national community that “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” We have a tendency to remarry “ex”-spouses or forgive “ex”-friends or book reservations on “Ex”pedia” in the (re)pursuit of life, liberty and happiness....but when it comes to our returning citizen population —
Opps....I mean “ex offenders” (or is it “ex cons”?).
— the actual practices of those ideals are about as imbalanced as a playground see-saw. We say we believe in and support redemption, but only when it benefits our own interests; interests like when we are in desperate need to be forgiven or need to be the recipient of redemption ourselves.
I was recently the subject of justifiable criticism in a local newspaper. I won’t dignify an articulation of the article’s content, or the vitriol comments that were made by social media trolls. What I will share with you is that the few words in the lead-in for the story identified me as an “ex con.”
Granted, this is factually true. In 2000, I stood before a United States court judge and plead guilty to crimes that involved fraud, and the inadvertent injuring of a five-year-old in reprisal of men who attempted to kidnap and rob me. I was consequently sentenced to 188 months in federal prison — 15 years, 8 months — of which I served 13.5 years. However, what often fails to get mentioned in public narratives of the “ex” is that individuals like myself earned dual degrees while incarcerated. It’s conspicuously omitted that, rather than capitalizing off the criminal enterprising resources that were richly at our disposals, we facilitated workshops, developed curriculum, drafted best-selling books, and demonstrated “model behavior” while there. It gets lost in the attempt to draw readers into a story that the Louis L. Reed’s, Glenn E. Martin’s, (Mayor) Joe Ganim’s, and Brian Banks’ of the world only became fraternal members of change agents because we perpetuated a resolute vision to re-deposit back into the areas of life that we had previously bankrupted. That we have consulted for the White House, been sought-after thought leaders in our respective subject matter areas, won national awards for service, been (re)elected or appointed into public office(s), appeared in reputable periodicals, or make regular appearances on national television. All of those accomplishments yield to the marginalized notion of “ex” offenders being untrustworthy, unscrupulous, unsavory, and outright unqualified for “pursuits” we undertake!
The Numbers in Perspective:
As the first sentiment expressed in Ava DuVernay’s 13th, President Obama factually exclaimed: “The United States is home to 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners. Think about that.”
The Brennan Center reported:
“America houses roughly the same number people with criminal records as it does four-year college graduates.
“Nearly half of black men and almost 40 percent of white males are arrested by the age of 23.
“If all arrested Americans were a nation, they would be the world’s 18th largest. Larger than Canada. Larger than France. More than three times the size of Australia.
“The number of Americans with criminal records today is larger than the entire US population in 1900.
“Holding hands, Americans with arrest records could circle the earth three times.”
These are sobering reminders that more people are impacted and/or directly effected by our criminal justice system that we like to admit being comfortable with. Individuals who are, in fact, rehabilitated and thriving in our communities, unbeknowst to the permissions we have granted them to do so. These are the mechanics who service our vehicles, the drivers who deliver freight to our stores, the fire wo/men and EMT’s who respond to our emergencies, the barbers and cosmetologists who groom us, the elected official(s) who legislate our laws, ad infinitum. They are our neighbors, cousins, friends, colleagues, associates, children, and ex-lovers!
The Opportunity Agenda eloquently frames the spirit of true redemption. In practice, redemption means providing the conditions that allow people to redevelop, to rebuild and to take full responsibility for their lives after misfortune or mistakes. It means using effective rehabilitative approaches that are appropriate and proportionate to a person’s conduct and circumstances. It means recognizing that rehabilitation is an often-rocky road that requires patience and compassion as well as swift and steady intervention.
The crux of the Gospel of Jesus, the founding Christian principles that was the chief cornerstone of our nation’s construct, is unapologetically redemptive. Not stopping at the spiritual man of who we are, but extending the “extra mile” to the person of community we are in life with.
It is believed English evangelical preacher and martyr, John Bradford is said to have uttered the variant of the now common expression - "There but for the grace of God, go [I]”, when seeing criminals being led to the scaffold. All of us either were or are one solitary decision from standing on the left side of a courtroom at a defense table.
The only way the patriotic song America kind of freedom will truly ring in our nation is when we lift our voices in a chorus that sings inclusion for all, especially when the key of song regards our 2nd chance population who have paid their debt to society with the most invaluable restitution they could give - time.
Let (true) freedom ring without associated stereotypes for the 688,000 men and women — mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers — annually released from custody.
Let (true) freedom ring without discrimination for the 70,000,000 citizens with convictions who live in our communities.
Let (true) freedom ring without disenfranchisement for the laborers, health care workers, human service professionals, political appointees, and even (re)elected officials who are “exes” but gainfully employed and dutifully serving their communities.
Let (true) freedom for the very well qualified degree holders and certificate achievers whose resumes get shredded at first glance of a checked box for conviction on an employment application.
Let (true) freedom ring for the brown and poor defendants who are arraigned in our nation’s courtrooms held with excessive cash bails for misdemeanor offenses.
Let (true) freedom ring without the slightest bit of compunction or re-indictment for the “exes” who are re-calibrated, refocused, and re-positioned to stand in the winner’s circle of life along with those who have never seen the concrete confines of a cell.
Let (true) freedom for mothers who travailed in labor -- their legs shackled to a bed -- birthed children while incarcerated, are now home, and can’t get their babies returned to them by the state. Where is this freedom that rings?!
The bell of freedom in these United States of America needs to be recalibrated so that it rings every hour on the hour with a reminder to her employers, neighbors, friends, colleagues, media, places of worship, state houses and justice departments that “we the people” still have a God in whom is trusted. And on that Day of redemption – when the clarion trumpet of spiritual freedom resounds in the lives of every man, woman and child - He will remind us that whatsoever we did unto the least of those who were in prison…we did also unto Him.
Let (true) freedom ring, let it ring, let it ring -LET IT RING!