Redemption in Prison has Meaning Under Obama Administration

By · Monday, December 22nd, 2008

We must pass through a few more weeks before a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court will swear President Obama into office. Yet reports I have read in various newspapers indicate he is moving quickly to fill the void of wisdom in leadership for our country.

As a long-term prisoner, I am particularly interested in reforms that President Obama and a more liberal Congress will bring to our nation’s system of justice. Recently I finished reading Change We Can Believe In: Barack Obama’s Plan to Renew America’s Promise , a paperback articulating the platform positions of Obama’s campaign for the Presidency. The book mentioned on several occasions that as President, Barack Obama would ensure fairness in our nation’s criminal justice system.

I have followed the past six Presidential campaigns during my long and continuing odyssey through America’s federal prison system. President-elect Obama was the first candidate I ever heard who spoke about the need to reform sentencing disparities, about launching prison-to-work incentive programs, about reforming our nation’s correctional systems to break down barriers for ex-offenders who strive to reconcile with society.

Soon after President-elect Obama collected more votes for President than any American in history, and won an electoral landslide, I read an announcement that he had selected Eric Holder as our nation’s next Attorney General. The Attorney General has been the cabinet position that interested me most. From what I’ve read about Eric Holder, he seems an ideal candidate to usher in the reforms we need and that President-elect Obama has said our country needs.

As our nation’s first African-American Attorney General, Eric Holder brings a fresh viewpoint to the injustices that run so rampant through the criminal justice system. Mr. Holder has expressed concern in the disproportionately high number of people from minority groups who fill our nation’s jails and prisons. In a profile on Eric Holder that The New York Times published on 1 December, I read that the redemption of Malcolm X during his prison term inspired our country’s future Attorney General. That news encouraged me.

In 1987, when I began serving this lengthy sentence, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I was 23-years-old then and I was struggling to come to terms with the possibility of multiple decades in prison. My background, obviously, differed from that of Malcolm X. He was a black man with a criminal history that included violence and predatory crimes. I was an American of Hispanic heritage who had been convicted of serious drug trafficking crimes. Like Malcolm, however, I intended to educate myself during the many years I expected to serve in prison.

Although I did not become an iconic leader of a religious movement like Malcolm X, I already have served more than three times as long as he served in prison. During this journey that has kept me locked inside federal prisons of every security level for longer than 21 years, I feel blessed to have had opportunities to earn an undergraduate degree from Mercer University and a graduate degree from Hofstra University. My observations and experiences have enabled me to write about the struggles of other prisoners. Through my work, I strive to help others understand America’s prisons and the people they hold.

The redemption of Malcolm X would not have made a sliver of difference in today’s Bureau of Prisons. I know this from personal experience as well as from what I have learned through my interviews of other prisoners that number in the many hundreds. Individual efforts to reconcile with society are meaningless in today’s prison system. As one high-level administrator once admonished me, “We don’t care anything about the life you lead once you leave prison. All we care about is the security of the institution.”

Until the historic election of 2008, neither political leadership nor public administrators have paid much attention to the injustices of our nation’s prison system. Yet I am optimistic that at this defining moment in history, Americans will stand up and embrace the leadership and vision of our new President. As President-elect Obama has called out, we are one nation. We are one people. And our time for change has come.

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