We Are All Criminals

 

bridgingthegap (1)A biweekly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.

“We’ll work from inside to improve what’s outside so that there’s a fair chance for us when we come out” — Unnamed inmate from Lino Lakes

One in four people in the United States has a criminal record. (As shocking as that may be, it’s a conservative estimate: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, that number may be closer to one in three.) Criminal records often prevent or stymie employment, housing, professional licensure, education, and civic participation.

Due to profound disparities within our criminal and juvenile justice systems, that’s a burden that falls disproportionately upon poor communities, communities of color, and Native Americans. Millions of us are judged not by our true worth, but by our worst moments — forever confined and defined by what we’ve done in the past.

But that’s not true for everyone.

We Are All Criminals (WAAC) is a media-based organization that highlights the other 75 percent: those who have committed crimes but have not been caught. Participants of the Luxury to Forget stories are doctors and lawyers, policymakers and police officers, students and business owners who consider how different their lives would be had they not gotten away with it.

WAAC reminds us that while we have all done something we’re not proud of (and perhaps a few things for which we are), we are all human and some of us — perhaps one in four of us — may be in need of a second chance.

But it is also a commentary on the disparate impact of our nation’s policies, policing, and prosecution. Many of the participants benefited from belonging to a class and race that is not overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Importantly, a criminal record would have most likely taken the participants down a different path than the one they’re on today.

The “other path” is demonstrated through WAAC’s More Than My Mugshot stories. As a juxtaposition to the Luxury to Forget stories, More Than My Mugshot highlights the  difference in the lives of people who have committed similar offenses but have paid — and continue to pay — an exponentially higher price for it.

It is about the stigma that suffocates mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, students and scholars, leaders, mentors, makers, and believers. But more importantly, it is also about what the rest of society is missing when we allow a criminal record to eclipse one’s identity, one’s perseverance, resilience, and brilliance, one’s creativity and ability, one’s humanity.

We are thrilled to be a part of this movement.

I, Jarmell, have been in and out of correction institutions since I was nine, but my record doesn’t define me. At MCTC, I am learning about criminology from a psychological, sociological, political, economic, anthropological and biological view, and I’m excited to put my ideas into action to help people upon release from prison. I have a passion for change, and I know I can make a difference in the fight for second chances and equality!

I, Tholal, understand the danger of a criminal justice system run amok. I come from the Maldives and currently face three counts of criminal charges back home: contempt of court for speaking out against a 15-year-old girl’s flogging sentence; distributing copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to school children; and writing about the abuse of power by the Maldivian Supreme Court.

These charges may seem laughable when examined through the values and principles of the U.S., but so too are many of the charges I’ve seen here: Children hauled into court for acting like kids, people with mental health concerns and chemical dependencies criminalized rather than treated, people incarcerated for crimes of poverty rather than malice.

Last month I was honored to represent WAAC at the Lino Lakes Correctional Institution. Behind those walls, I met some of the most talented men I’ve met in my life. From organizers to orators, musicians to technicians, these individuals epitomize the purpose for which WAAC exists.

Amongst them was Kevin Reese, one of the organizers of BRIDGE, and I saw an amazing look of freedom inside of him in spite of the confinement. He spoke about the future, and his words had power. He focused on hope whilst in a climate of hopelessness. He refused to be shackled by his situation, and he challenged what it meant to be in prison.

He spoke with a smile and surprisingly won’t fit the stereotypical description of a felon. It makes you question the very stereotype itself. Through him and the countless others who refuse to have their minds imprisoned, it becomes possible to underscore the need to change our perception of criminality and be bold enough to look and see capable and hopeful human faces behind the stereotyped felon.

As I left, something that was said up on the podium was etched in my heart: “There is so much violence in your silence.” It made me realize how our inaction is fueling so much injustice.

 

Ahmed Tholal and Jarmell Mayweather are participants in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to info@voicesforracialjustice.org. To learn more about the organization’s work, visit www.voicesforracialjustice.org.