After Eight Years . . . Eight Days of Gratitude - Part 2

Here’s the second installment of my “8 days of gratitude” for the people who have been part of this journey, as I wind down my time as Director of the #RMOforReturningCitizens:

Today, I am so very grateful for the essential and deeply humbling lessons I learned from the first three incarcerated people I met when I started this journey.

Jerry was the first incarcerated person I met and interviewed for Grace Goes to Prison. Grace Marie Hamilton had known Jerry for many years and she described him as “a lovely Christian gentleman.” But I also found out that Jerry had been incarcerated at that point for over 20 years and was still a long way from potential release. My very limited understanding of the criminal justice system at that point led me to conclude that the sheer length of his sentence surely indicated that Jerry must be a dangerous, violent criminal who “needed” to be locked up for a long time.

By the time I completed that initial hours-long interview with Jerry on June 25, 2008 (almost exactly 10 years ago!), I had seen the person behind the labels. And I learned that the truth of who someone is cannot and should not be defined by the worst thing they have ever done or have been accused of doing. It was also my first glimpse into the reality that the criminal justice system doesn’t necessarily do all of the things I assumed it did. I learned that there are some deep flaws in how the system works, and I started to see that there are powerful actors and forces and interests at work within the system that have absolutely nothing to do with true justice.

Shortly after that first meeting with Jerry, Bruce and I started visiting him regularly. We’ve now been visiting, corresponding and talking by phone with Jerry for nearly a decade. He is still incarcerated. He has gone in front of the Parole Board four times, and been denied parole every time, despite having only one minor misconduct in the past 30 years, and despite having completed every single required program as well as numerous additional programs while incarcerated. He has every reason in the world to be bitter and angry. Yet, Jerry has chosen to live his life, even from behind bars, with hope, with humility, with courage, and with patience. He continues to teach me – and I am so very grateful and humbled by what I’ve learned from him.

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Gene was the second incarcerated person I visited. Gene and I are the same age, and when I met him, he had been incarcerated since the year we both turned 17. Gene had been sentenced, as a teenager, to life without the possibility of parole. And under Pennsylvania law at that point, “life meant life” – in other words, Gene understood that he would spend the rest of his life in prison and would die there. Yet, despite that, Gene was continually striving to grow as a person, to learn new things, and to help others. He taught himself to read music and play the piano. He learned how to make furniture in the prison woodworking shop. He helped to organize worship services in the prison and became a widely-respected leader in the prison church. And Gene continually expressed gratitude – YES, GRATITUDE – for the opportunities he had to do these things, even behind bars.

Miraculously, thanks to two Supreme Court decisions (“Graham v. Florida” in 2010, and “Miller v. Alabama” in 2012) that ruled that sentencing juveniles to life without parole constituted “cruel and unusual punishment” and was therefore unconstitutional, Gene was released from prison in April 3, 2012, after 34 years, nine months, and 15 days of incarceration. Bruce and I got to spend some time with Gene soon after his release, and we have since followed his life and work via the powers of social media. Gene has written a book, “Unshackled” and is a much-sought-after motivational speaker. And he continues to share his message of gratitude.

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I also met Yusef early in the process of researching and writing Grace Goes to Prison. When I met Yusef, he had been incarcerated for 32 years. Yet, Yusef had chosen to use his time in prison to “give back” and to serve others, through numerous leadership roles within the prison, as a volunteer for the prison chapter of the Jaycees, and as an organizer for the PA Prison Runathons, Yusef also spearheaded organizing a day-long Victim Offender Reconciliation Forum within the prison. In addition, while in prison, Yusef helped to mediate a number of violent situations between prison gangs. He also stepped in to prevent the rapes of several female prison staff members as well as of several prisoners.

Yusef was released in June, 2010, after 34 years in prison. He was 58 years old at the time of his release – about the same age I am now. And I have tried to imagine what it would be like to be stepping out into the “real world” at this age, after being locked away from it for 34 years. It’s hard to fathom. But Yusef has navigated through his transition to freedom over the past 8 years with a steadiness, persistence, inner calm and strength that I find truly astounding. Bruce and I have gotten to visit Yusef and his wife, Grace, several times, and we have stayed in touch by phone and letters. In the 8 years since his release, Yusef has been working to create programs to help other prisoners to be accountable, to serve the community they’ve harmed, and offering them, as he described to me in one of his letters, “possibilities for redemption and restoration to full civil participation in society.” So, Yusef continues to teach me the power of giving back and of serving others.

I’m so very grateful and humbled by what these men have taught me.

Thank you, Jerry.
Thank you, Gene.
Thank you, Yusef.

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: restorative justice rmo

Next: After Eight Years . . . Eight Days of Gratitude - Part 3

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