November 2, 2015 President Barack Obama boldly, in the name of justice, released 6,000 nonviolent offenders from federal prisons across the country. This was a great first step in the unified approach in the movement to heal some of the carnage that was created by the “War on Drugs” and ensuing mass incarceration.
The campaign is a noble and necessary action. I would like to add to this campaign and broaden the lens through which we look at this. First, let’s start with the language. The safe and marketable phrase for this campaign is “nonviolent drug offenders.”
I completely support the release of the men and women who were sentenced to long terms in prison for drug-related offenses. What’s missing in this narrative is that mass incarceration is a multi-faceted problem with many dimensions.
Back to the language of “nonviolent offenders”: This language is crafty, and what this language is saying is that there is this safe group of people who deserve to be released while at the same time leaving this carefully crafted picture of this “violent” offender who needs to be in prison.
By no means am I blindly biased. I believe that there are some extreme cases of violence that the community must be kept safe from. In the same spirit of critical thinking, I would like to urge anyone reading this to not be blindly biased and believe that every person labeled as a violent offender poses a threat to the safety of the community.
Let’s look at me for example: I write this with as much empathy and sensitivity as I can for my victim and his family. I can never out-write or out-do their loss. It was a tragedy, one that I’m forever burdened with.
In 2004, a week before Christmas, I participated in an armed robbery and drug deal. During this exchange, my victim tragically lost his life. I was 18 years old trying the best I knew how to improve my living conditions. I didn’t leave my house that day with violence on my mind. I left my house poor.
What took place resulted in me being arrested, charged, and convicted of aiding and abetting second degree murder. While in prison, I have spent the last 11 years paying my debt to society. I’ve tapped into everything the prison has to offer, all in my effort to give back to my community what I have taken.
God has chosen me to be the original vessel of this revolutionary BRIDGE partnership with my dear friend Vina Kay, executive director of Voices for Racial Justice. Through our partnership some groundbreaking work has happened, and many doors will open for men in prison.
Emboldened by the God who has forgiven me and continues to use me as an instrument to fight for peace and justice, I want to pose this question: Am I a violent offender who the community needs to be kept safe from?
I ask that question for the thousands of brothers and sisters locked up around this country who also got caught up in the social construct of generational poverty, broken homes, underfunded schools, and communities desolate of resources. These conditions created very high stress and volatile moments.
The natural result is that gangs became our families, drugs became our only means of income, and the collateral damage of this was the carnage: loss of life, mass incarceration, drug addiction, and a state of arrested development. We were all once children who had dreams and believed in Santa Claus and the American Dream, just like the kids we saw on TV.
When we are talking about de-carceration, let’s not forget about these men and women. I personally view being called a “violent offender” as a violent framing of my humanity. It’s the language of the oppressor.
We are currently creating an agenda that will push legislators and the Department of Corrections administration to create a program that will better deal with these guys and their particular reentry needs. We are looking for feedback from the community. We would like to know what you see when you hear the term “violent offender”?
Kevin Reese is a participant in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the organization’s work, visit www.voicesforracialjustice.org.