The System
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Cropped view of a prisoner in an orange jumpsuit standing in a prison cell with arms extended through the bars. Horizontal format.
Cropped view of a prisoner in an orange jumpsuit standing in a prison cell with arms extended through the bars. Horizontal format.

There are about 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States of America. According to the NAACP, African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population. If you asked me why I went to jail, the easiest explanation would be to say, because 'I'm Black.' Unfortunately there isn't a simple answer to this question; Being that I never actually grew up in an impoverished community and the fact that I am the first person in my family to ever go to jail, the stereotypical urge to categorize my situation doesn't apply. No... Not the same way it would for the rest of my friends who have been incarcerated. The roots are much deeper and the answer is far more extensive. It's an answer I will be sharing for the first time today.

I grew up in a middle class home, 15 minutes away from Washington D.C. in Glenn Dale, Maryland. My mother, Julia, a paralegal just shy of earning a master's degree, purchased our home with some financial help from my stepfather, Martin. The neighborhood bordered The Bowie (middle-class, African American city) and Glenarden (lower-class African American city) areas. My first year of high school, I attended Duval High, home of the Duval Tigers. It's located in one of most notorious neighborhoods in the Prince George's County, Maryland area. It's safe to say Duval was one of the worst schools in the county at the time. My days at Duval consisted of talking to girls, cutting class and looking for more girls to talk to. I always went for the girls that liked the bad guys. At Duval, the best way to fit in with the cool crowd was to act up. This mentality would throw me in a whirlwind of trouble for the next six years.

Three years and three different high schools later, I found myself behind a shatterproof window. Directly across from me was a Black male about the age of 20, eating a cold bologna and cheese sandwich exactly identical to the one I had in my hand. Next to him was what looked like a middle age, Hispanic man whose face was so battered I had trouble believing he could even see his sandwich and just assumed he was eating it based off his sense of feeling and judgement. As he began to taste the cheese, bread and processed meat made by inmates, I was getting my first taste of incarceration. The fact that I was only 17 in an adult prison proves the extent of what my charges could have been. In the state of Maryland, a minor only gets charged as an adult for the following: murder, rape and anything that involves being armed with a weapon. My charges in total carried over 80 plus years in prison. My bond/bail was $300,000. The only thing I could do was sit down and realize that all those years of trying hard to be cool had finally caught up to me. I was charged with armed robbery with no hopes of getting out.

My days as a juvenile inmate consisted of breakfast at 4 a.m., educational program from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., with lunch in between, dinner at 4 p.m., and the rest of the time in-between to mingle with other inmates, watch TV or stay in my cell and reflect. Weekends were less educational and were use for more TV or reflecting time, and Sundays were left for us to hone in on our spiritual sides. This was no place for a 17 year old developing mind, if you asked me. But if you asked the justice system, it was perfect. They would tell you I was right where I belonged, regardless of the fact that I was not yet convicted and could be completely innocent. Regardless of the fact that this was my first offense ever. Ignoring the fact that the weapon used, which was the only reason I was in an adult jail, was never found. There were 35 other juvenile inmates like me. We made up a small percentage of the nearly 2,000 inmates at the Prince George's County correctional facility. All of us had serious charges, orange jumpsuits and, at one point, a future.

My first visit in in 'the system' came to an end 6 months after going in when my lawyer convinced the judge to release me on private home detention. Months of prayers had been answered. During my stay, I had been practicing Christianity much more than when I was in the outside world. My plans and interest in education were at an all-time high for the first time, and I was eager to finish high school and move on to college. In 2010, I attended Prince George's Community College in hopes of transferring to The University of Maryland. My major was computer science, and the goal was to one day work as an I.T. I figured it was a good source of income and I had a slight interest in it due to a summer job prior at Tech U.S.A. A job that only God could tell you how I got it since I had been registered in the system as a felon.

In October 2011, I was a full time student with a job working as barber, but all of a sudden, I was back behind bars. Without my knowledge, the woman running the private home detention company decided to violate me due to late payments. $350 dollars a month isn't the easiest to keep up with when you have $3,000 worth of restitution, $1000 of court fees and college tuition to pay. Nonetheless, that orange jumpsuit that I thought I'd never see again, became my uniform for another three months until my violation hearing transformed the orange into denim jeans and a blue shirt that read "D.O.C." D.O.C stands for Department of Correction. Translation: I had graduated from county jail to state prison and it became my home for the rest of my three year sentence (1 year).

My questions are the following: Does it matter that I was Black and the victims were White? Even if being Black didn't directly put me in jail, did it put me in the position that landed me there? Or is money the issue? Doesn't being Black make me less likely to have money? If that's the case, then being Black is indeed why I was in jail, right? Is money the reason why there are so many inmates? I overheard a prison guard saying that private companies make a certain amount of money for each bed they fill. The inmates then work outside of the jail for $30 a month doing a job that could make up to $30 dollars an hour. Where does the rest of that money go? Do the taxes that we pay today go towards the inmates? If that's the case, I ask my question again: where does that rest of that $30 an hour go? Although we had our struggles, money wasn't the biggest source of my family's' problems, but my case wasn't the norm. What about the mass majority of black who do have that issue? I could ask three pages worth of questions...

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