My Day in Prison

I wasn’t sure if I should write this, but today’s news on increased prosecution of drug crimes ( made me think it’s worth sharing.

Yesterday I spent the day at the Solano State Prison in California with Defy Ventures, a non-profit that provides support and training to persons in the criminal justice system to prepare them to become entrepreneurs when they return to society, and more broadly teach them about redemption, responsibility and self-sufficiency. Throughout the day I met dozens of men who had been in prison for years, often decades. They were sweet, polite, well-spoken, repenting and positive.

The most emotionally trying and yet insightful part of the day was an exercise in which the prisoners stood in a line on one side and we the mentors stood across them in another line. The head of the foundation read out loud statements, and we moved towards each other when the statement was true, and away when it was false. It was a way to visually grasp what connects us and what sets us apart. We had our humanity in common. Both sides moved in similar ratios when we spoke about our age or our feelings, for example. But the stark differences in our lot in life were also striking. The vast majority of them had difficult childhoods most of us have only read about. Few of them had the emotional or economic support we take for granted. My kids have never wondered if they are loved, never considered they might go hungry, or seen violence first hand in their neighborhood or home. My kids have had two loving parents, dozens of books in their house, and no drugs. And they certainly haven’t been abused in any way.

This is fairly obvious but our criminal justice system does not work equally for everyone. Does anyone believe a poor, black Brock Turner would get a 6-month sentence? I know a lovely (rich and white) kid from a great family who briefly sold pot in his private school. He still has a spotless record and a bright future ahead. This was a really dumb mistake by a kid with everything going for him. And thank goodness it was rectified easily because he will likely be a great member of our society. If he had been born to a poor black single parent would he have had the same opportunity to move past this? Shouldn’t we have more rather than less empathy for the kid that made mistakes growing up in the projects? And yet do we?

As we did the exercise on the line, we looked at each other and people acknowledged very personal challenges like alcoholic parents, getting involved with drugs, committing crimes, etc. Although much fewer of the mentors had many difficult experiences, there were always a few on our side with big issues that they had overcome as well. One particular man kept going to the line for many heartbreaking and horrible things, including losing his innocence before the age of 10 and being convicted of a violent crime. I didn’t know who he was, and had assumed he was just another venture capitalist. He was Asian and well dressed in slacks and a button-down shirt. He later told us his story. He had been in the state prison system on-and-off since he was a juvenile, a total of 22 years. His first charge was attempted murder when he shot and badly hurt several bullies who were taunting his family for their ethnicity. He was released from Solano 18 months ago, and was friends with many of the men we were with that day. He is now mending fences with his family, working three jobs, and hiring other reformed former prisoners for his own janitorial business. He acknowledges he made terrible mistakes but is now a constructive member of society, and I believe the cycle of crime that could have continued through him to his children and others has been truncated. He attributes it to the rehabilitation programs at Solano, including Defy from which he graduated before leaving. Defy graduates’ recidivism (return to jail) rate is in the low single digits, compared to 65% overall.

Most crimes have been committed in a particular context, and many people who have committed horrible, even violent crimes can repent and rehabilitate. We do not know how we would act if we had no positive role models, were taught to fight, to hide our feelings and to find social acceptance in a gang, and later had to defend ourselves on the streets. We are better off trying to see if we can re-educate people who had bad examples rather than perpetuating gang violence and illegal businesses because we do not allow released prisoners to get a paying job.

Some crimes are unforgivable, and some people are irredeemable. Had Hitler been caught, execution would have been the only logical sentence. And I don’t dispute that, on a case-by-case basis, many people deserve to spend the rest of their life in jail. But when we have millions in jail, we must question our system itself.

The statistics are horrifying. The US has more than 2 million people in jail and more than 4 million on parole. A very large percentage of men in prison had a dad in prison. The majority of men enter the criminal system before the age of 23. And recidivism is very high.

What could we all do to help? Maybe support and work with organizations like Defy. That would be amazing. But maybe you don’t have time or money or don’t want to make it a priority. What can you do that is easy? Here are three ideas: (1) Have more empathy. Going to a prison with a program like Defy is an excellent way for those of us in the bubble to see the humanity and possibility in those in jail, but if you cannot attend you can still empathize (2) Avoid considering a criminal record as a blanket ban for employment. No wonder so many fall back into criminal activity, if they cannot find a way to make ends meet legally. No one is suggesting you hire someone who committed violent crimes to babysit your kids, but to let them wash your car, clean your office or flip your burgers. Many of them also have real skills that can be put to very good use. (3) Support reasonable criminal justice reform. Let’s figure out a way to help the redeemable ones rather than write everyone off and make our society worse in the process. The newly announced “tough on drug crime” rules by Mr. Sessions are unlikely to address the structural issues and therefore are unlikely to result in a better outcome for all of us.