I'm 44. My incarceration started as a juvenile at age 13 and ended at 44. My parole agent's job description should be to assist me with becoming a person who does not harm the community. I'm talking to my parole officer from work and he says I need to leave work and go see him. I punch in at 8am and leave at 4pm. Conditions of my parole are to remain employed and have employment at all times on parole. To leave a job is termination or grounds for suspension. My parole condition says I must work 40 hours a week. If I'm only clocking 37.5 hours I'm in violation. Every time I go see my parole officer I wait four hours! If I don't show up you can violate me and my job can terminate me at any given time for leaving work. It's about communication. They're barking orders but not helping. The system is not really about solving the problem, it's basically about how to punish the problem. You can always punish a person but you also have to have a solution about changing the person. If there's no change then what you started with, it's what you'll end with.
I was 8 years old when I was introduced to the criminal lifestyle. After my mom was paralyzed in a car accident, our whole family broke up. I moved in with my aunt and she was into drugs, prostitution, drinking and gambling. My aunt had 12 kids of her own and we all lived in the projects, sleeping on the floor, wherever you could. I started running with my older cousin, her son, and he was into breaking the law. He
broke into cars, took out speakers. He was dragging me into a lifestyle of criminal activity. When I got to 12, I started doing things by myself, I didn't need him anymore.
It started with breaking into cars and stealing people's bikes. But then it escalated. When I was 14, I started robbing grocery stores. I was about 16 and I started getting locked up and put in juvenile camps. I would go for like six months. I was always in and out of the camp. Go in, get out for a few months and go back. When I turned 17, I got caught for armed robbery and went to jail. I spent about a year, year and a half in there. But I never got any help about how to change my life. I was completely on my own.
Then came crack cocaine, and I decided to start selling drugs. And I made a lot of money. I lost count of how many times I could have been killed. In 1989 I got 60 years for an armed robbery charge. I went to prison at the age of 19. I just got out of prison 3 months ago. I am 41 now. I gave them 19 years and eight months. People say that they stole my youth, but I still feel like I'm 21.
I always tried to break free of the prison walls in my mind, to imagine a life I never knew. I never thought of the present, of me being locked up; it would have destroyed me. In prison there are so many people who feel like they just failed at life, who give up. In prison, they treat you like you're not really alive.
When I got out, within two weeks I had a job. I taught myself mostly everything I know. I am still on my own, always have been. I work two jobs and I am trying to start my own business selling hand-designed clothing. I can paint, I do design. I live responsibly. I am all I have at this point in time. I'm on parole, 12 years. Then I can move about. I just got another job as a chef and another job at an Italian restaurant. Things could have been different if someone had been there for me to help me or guide me.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: April 1, 2009
Contact: LaWanda Johnson
New report is "a cautionary tale" for the nation's leaders
BALTIMORE, MD--Teens spending their free time comforting parents who have lost their own children to violence; a woman fighting to break the cycle of addiction while fighting to keep her family together; a man struggling to keep his job while trying to comply with parole reporting requirements; a formerly incarcerated single mother making her daughter proud by getting her degree; and a woman grappling with the murder of her son and forgiving his assailant. These are some of the people who share their experiences in a new report, Bearing Witness: Baltimore City's residents give voice to what's needed to fix the criminal justice system, released today by the Justice Policy Institute. In a brilliant blend of narratives and policy recommendations, Bearing Witness lays bare the facts around crime and punishment in Maryland's largest city, while shining a light on the hope and resiliency of those most affected by decades of failed policies. This report was supported by the Open Society Institute.
"Bearing Witness provides a glimpse not only of the impact the criminal justice system has had on communities, but also on the hope and determination of Baltimore City residents," said Shakti Belway, the author of the report. "Each person's narrative demonstrates their perseverance in the face of incredible obstacles and their willingness to provide support and opportunity for others in similar circumstances."
Compared to the rest of Maryland, Baltimore City faces a concentrated impact of the criminal justice system. Although home to roughly 600,000 people, in 2006 the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center processed nearly 100,000 arrests and detained 44,825 individuals. In 2008, 61 percent of newly-incarcerated people in Maryland prisons were from Baltimore City. This intense involvement has taken its toll over the years on people, families, and neighborhoods.
"We felt that it was important for people most affected by the criminal justice system to have their voices heard, and a chance to talk about what they believe should be done to change the system for the better," said Tracy Velázquez, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. "Their comments and conclusions underscore that more treatment, comprehensive services for families and individuals, and alternatives to incarceration--including those rooted in the principles of restorative justice--benefit people and their communities."
Bearing Witness, a collaborative effort of community members and organizations, not only documents Baltimore City's experiences, it also serves as a cautionary tale about the consequences of relying on the criminal justice system to solve social problems.The report identifies five areas that are critical to Baltimore City becoming a safer and healthier community: