I have spent several days over the past few months behind the wall of different correctional facilities from coast to coast interacting with men, women and adolescents who are serving time (some of them life sentences). It was hard on my heart seeing so many lives wasted. While I have no idea what offenses precipitated such a fate, the people I met touched me and left no doubt that they deserve a chance to make amends and return to the community and to their families. It left me even more determined to do what I can to make justice system changes so that fewer people end up behind walls and bars.
For the young people, men and women that I met, this is my open letter to you. I saw you and I see you! Those who work on justice reform often hear that “hurt people, hurt people” which means that people who have been hurt, abused and neglected by life, often grow up to make the kind of mistakes that cause harm to others. But within your being, at your core, there is an individual that with love and support can grow into their best self. I saw your humanity, the mothers and fathers you wanted to be to your children, the role models you still hope to be. I saw your disappointment in hurting your families and the community from which you came. I saw your hopes and dreams to let the world know that you are a better person – that you have changed. I saw people that I would be happy to be neighbors with, or co-workers. If only for a short time, I saw some of you clinging to moments of joy, song and dance. I cling to them with you. Brief opportunities to transcend bleak surroundings and connect as people.
To the young people I met, I saw hope for a future. For some I saw disappointment in your eyes that you still have to relive and continue to pay for that terrible mistake – a mistake that happened so long ago. I see the embarrassment of having to live day in and day out in prison garb – a constant reminder of the heavy price you are paying for your actions, or being with the wrong people at the wrong time. I know you are missing family events and normal teenager rites of passage like proms and graduations. I see you young ones (even those trying to be invisible in your cells), ready to make amends and restart your journey to adulthood.
I see all of you yearning for respect, and fighting the feelings that perhaps you don’t deserve it. I acknowledge your desire to repair the harm you caused, while you carry the burden of the action that cannot be undone. I feel you wanting to connect, needing reinforcement of your humanity, and your hope that one day you can make your family (and perhaps yourself) proud.
I met a mother and father on their way to visit their son who had already spent decades incarcerated. I saw your love for your son, and a hope that others could see some good in him. During our short conversation, when I and my colleagues expressed our regard for the man that we met – the son that you raised, your tears touched me. It was evident that this is a sentiment you don’t often get to hear.
I want to hug all of you and tell you that “this too shall pass” – something my grandmother and mother always reminded us whenever we were down. I want you to know that there are many out here fighting for you, trying to correct system and community issues so that you can have the bright future you deserve. If you only knew how many of us care. No one should have to be forever judged by the worst mistake they ever made. I see you. I saw you. I am praying for you!
Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Share your thoughts at http://www.justicecorner.com