By Rahim Buford
I spend my days working to reform our justice system and volunteering in prisons and juvenile detention centers because my experience is similar to that of many youth who enter of justice system.
When I was 18, I was sentenced to life in prison, plus 20 years after I was convicted of felony murder. Despite the horror of that situation, my story neither begins nor ends with it.
As a child, I experienced poverty, neglect and emotional longing. During my years in prison, I sought forgiveness for the hurt I caused and transformed my life to make sure that I could live positively while incarcerated and that if I ever came home, I could make a positive contribution to society.
As Youth Justice Awareness Month draws to a close, I share my story as a reminder that none of us can be defined only by the worst thing we have done. That is why I continue to advocate for an end to the practice of sentencing children to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Although 17 states now ban these sentences, my home state of Tennessee still allows it. Rep. Jeremy Faison and Sen. Doug Overbey introduced legislation earlier this year that would have brought Tennessee in line with these states, but the State Assembly failed to pass it. When the 2017 legislative session convenes on January 10, they will have another opportunity to make sure we don’t sentence our children to die in prison. I invite all Tennessee residents to join me in contacting our legislative officials and encouraging them to act.
My story is similar to that of many youth who enter our justice system. I and two of my four siblings were born to a single mother and lived in poverty during our early childhood. I lived with my mother and two older brothers for a few years but spent most of my early days with my grandmother. I have only vague memories of my ‘daddy.’
My life against the grain began when I followed my two older brothers into stores to shoplift bubble gum. We were not bad kids; we were misguided and emotionally under-nourished. Mom did not hug or kiss us, and we were conditioned not to cry. I also remember being ashamed to go to school for fear that other kids would ridicule me for wearing cheap clothes and off-brand shoes. Stealing was our way of evening out the odds, a way not to be poor, a way to hustle and get money.
The crimes I committed got bigger over time. When I was 16, I was sent to juvenile detention after I was arrested for car theft. My grandmother, who had been a mother figure to me, passed away while I was there. When I was released, I moved in with my mother and her husband. I was in need of therapy for my anguish and grief over the loss of my grandmother, but never received it.
After a bad fight with my stepdad during my senior year of high school, I left my home with resentment towards my mother and moved in with a friend. My friend was financially over-extended and had just filed for bankruptcy. Only a month after moving in with him, we were told that we were going to be evicted unless we could pay our rent. Faced with the prospect of living on the streets, as going back home was not an option, I hastily decided to commit a robbery. During the robbery, the gun that I had purchased for my own protection went off and the bullet ricocheted off of the floor and struck a man in his side; he died two days later. I was charged with felony murder and sentenced to life plus 20 years in prison.
I found myself, and my voice, while caged in prison. During the 26 years I spent there, I reached out to the victim’s family and asked for their forgiveness. I transformed my life. I also had a family reunion in prison as the impact of incarceration swept through my family. Over time, I was incarcerated alongside five of my brothers; I was cellmates with three of them.
I prayed, meditated, created educational programs, challenged my peers to hold themselves accountable, and freed myself through creativity. Prison volunteers and their compassion in solidarity with prisoners saved my life. I was healed through community love. Empowered by the resurrection of my humanity, I founded the Unheard Voices Outreach, advocating justice for juveniles and adult prisoners. On any given Wednesday these days, you’ll find me at the juvenile detention facilitating critical reading, listening, thinking, and dialogue pedagogy. When you know where pain is concentrated, behind walls and razor wire fences, you do what you can to help. I help give voice to pain in pursuit of liberty for the unheard voices. I know how important that is because my voice was once unheard, too.
Rahim Buford is an organizer for the Children’s Defense Fund and a member of the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network.