Source: The Progressive
When I was one year old, my father went to prison for a drug-related crime; he served eight years and died when I was 12. I am currently incarcerated for murder and attempted manslaughter that occurred during a drug deal — crimes far worse than my father’s. I can say from experience that my father’s incarceration did nothing to protect society. Instead, It was an ingredient which only created bigger problems.
We can’t incarcerate our problems away.
Growing up in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, with an incarcerated father made it six times more likely that I would go to prison myself. From 1980 to 2000, the number of children with a father in prison or jail increased by 500%. I am part of that statistic.
When I lost my trial in 2003, I called my sons Brandon and Nicholas to tell them about my 55-years-to-life sentence. I called from a phone attached to the dorm wall in the Los Angeles County jail. Their mother handed the phone to Nicholas, who was eight at the time. I could hear the sniffles of my child crying on learning that his father was never coming home.
“Sad for you, Daddy,” he whispered. My sniffles joined his as I thought, “Sad for me?”.
I made the criminal decisions. And I was the only one to blame. Because of me, my sons’ lives would be harder. I felt I didn’t deserve my son’s empathy. Now I realize that many members of society feel that about people in prison — they are there because they committed terrible acts, so they do not deserve empathy.
On April 5, the group Dream Corps JUSTICE held its sixth annual Day of Empathy for people in prison and those impacted by the criminal justice system. It included an art show created entirely by incarcerated and justice-impacted people that I helped curate.
One aim of the empathy movement is to build support for the EQUAL Act (Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law Act), making the penalty for crack and powder cocaine equal.
Everyone should care about this bill and the thousands of incarcerated people it could bring home. If we don’t care, nothing will ever change. Without empathy, we cannot achieve meaningful policy changes in criminal justice reform that keep our communities safe and families whole.
A criminal justice system without empathy amounts to dumping societal problems behind prison walls. An individual is punished, but the systemic issues that help create criminal behavior go unaddressed.
For example, the War on Drugs disproportionately affected people accused of low-level, nonviolent crimes, such as possession of — or simply being with someone in possession of —- drugs. Federal penalties for crack cocaine are 18 times higher than sentences for powder cocaine (the same drug in a different form). If the EQUAL Act were to pass Congress, it would make the sentences the same for each.
When a person who sells drugs goes to prison, crack continues being sold on the street. The only thing that harsh sentences change is the name of the person dealing.
Meanwhile, taxpayers foot the bill, estimated at $80 billion per year, for this losing system, while the prison industrial complex profits from harsh sentences. There are 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States, more than any other nation. Meanwhile, low-income families rack up bills for phone calls, care packages, communication tools such as tablets, and travel costs for loving someone behind bars.
We can’t incarcerate our problems away. We must look at ways to create a better world, where people don’t feel the need to turn to drugs and crime.
Turning empathy into action will make our communities safer.
This column was produced for Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.