I have never stepped foot inside a jail cell, but the prison industrial complex has had a monumental impact on my life. Because I’m a black man in this country, the institution of racism predestined me to a prison sentence. However, I was able to beat the odds and obtain a college education.
I am not special–I’m not good at sports, not particularly talented, and I have a bad habit of procrastinating. My success is directly tied to hundreds of people that invested in my life, in one way or another. Without them, I would be nothing, and you wouldn’t know or care about my story.
Unfortunately, for every “success storyâ€ like mine, there are hundreds of other stories in which the system swallows a little black or brown boy or girl whole. Many of those kids were my friends. They were the ones I thought of while participating in the Day of Empathy presented by The Gathering for Justice, Justice League NYC, on Wednesday and Van Jones’ #cut50.
When host Carmen Perez told the story of Kalief Browder, I thought about my childhood friend, Joel. I flashed back to when we were 16, and he had just come home from Rikers. This smart kid with a great sense of humor was suddenly paranoid, and he had developed a sharp edge. He was no longer the same.
New York is one of only two states in the nation that automatically charges, tries, and incarcerates 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds as adults. The safety and welfare of hundreds of thousands are at risk, as youth incarcerated in adult facilities are exponentially more likely to be victims of sexual and physical abuse by inmates and guards. This leads to a greater likelihood for suicide, mental health problems, and reincarceration. To some people, this is a political talking point, but for many of the people I grew up with, this was a way of life.
When moderator Tamika Mallory pressed panelist and New York State Senator Gustavo Rivera about what the community needed to do to get legislation passed to raise the age of criminal responsibility individuals from 16-years-old to 18-years-old in New York, I thought about my boy Theo from Family Academy. His best friend got locked up when he was 17, and he didn’t get his freedom until he was 22. As Gustavo fed the crowd important information on how to engage, all I could do was think back to all of my friends from East New York, Brownsville, East Flatbush, and Crown Heights, who were eaten alive by this system. Their lives might have been different if someone like Sergeant Edwin Raymond had been an officer in their community. Sergeant Raymond was on the same panel as Senator Rivera, and he talked about the need for having a “rapport with your community members.â€ I took a look around the room and saw a sea of teenagers, who were not much older than my best friend Eric when he was locked up the first time. Suddenly, I felt hope in the room.
New York State has an opportunity to right the wrongs of its past and createÂ a new future for millions of teens who need support–not solitary confinement. At the Day of Empathy town hall, I found a way to make a difference. With a little empathy, we can put an end to this vicious cycle, and give our children justice instead of juries.
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