Black Robes, White Justice
How PTSD (Prison Traumatic Stress Disorder) Almost Made Me Commit Suicide
America. Home of the brave. Land of the free. Society of redemption. These are the principles that, in theory, we idealize and symbolize in our salute to Old Glory. We posture to be a national community that “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” We have a tendency to remarry “ex”-spouses or forgive “ex”-friends or book reservations on “Ex”pedia” in the (re)pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.... but when it comes to our returning citizen population—
Oops.... I mean, “ex offenders” (or is it “ex cons”?).
—the actual practices of those ideals are about as imbalanced as a playground see-saw. We say we believe in and support redemption, but only when it benefits our own interests; interests like when we are in desperate need to be forgiven or need to be the recipient of redemption ourselves.
Relatively recently I was the subject of justifiable criticism in a local newspaper. I won’t dignify an articulation of the article’s content, or the vitriol comments that were made by social media trolls. What I will share with you is that the few words in the lead-in for the story identified me as an “ex con.”
Granted, this is factually true. In 2000, I stood before a United States court judge and plead guilty to crimes that involved fraud, and the inadvertent injuring of a five-year-old in reprisal of men who attempted to kidnap and rob me. I was consequently sentenced to 188 months in federal prison—15 years, 8 months—of which I served 13.5 years. However, what often fails to get mentioned in public narratives of the “ex” is that individuals like myself earned dual degrees while incarcerated. It’s conspicuously omitted that, rather than capitalizing off the criminal enterprising resources that were richly at our disposals, we facilitated workshops, developed curriculum, drafted best-selling books, and demonstrated “model behavior” while there. It gets lost in the attempt to draw readers into a salacious story that the Louis L. Reed’s, Chef Jeff’s, Glenn E. Martin’s, (Mayor and gubernatorial candidate) Joe Ganim’s, and Brian Banks’ of the world only became fraternal members of change agents because we perpetuated a resolute vision to re-deposit back into the areas of life that we had previously bankrupted. That we have consulted for the White House, been sought-after thought leaders in our respective subject matter areas, won national awards for service, been (re)elected or appointed into public office(s), appeared in reputable periodicals, or make regular appearances on national television. All of those accomplishments yield to the marginalized notion of “ex” offenders being untrustworthy, unscrupulous, unsavory, and outright unqualified for “pursuits” we undertake!
When I found myself re-involved in the criminal justice system as a defendant, the notion that I had “failed,” the concept that I had proven the doubters right and given cynics ammunition to assault the progress in justice reform that I had undertaken left me deflated.
Later that night on the day that I was arrested, I found myself driving aimlessly through the city, ignoring texts and calls from more people who just wanted to be nosey than who had my best interest at heart. I watched how the Facebook shares of the article were circulating by “family” and “friends.” I read the disheartening comments from people who looked like me, came from the community that I returned to, and many of whom I attempted to help. I even had a Dear John conversation with (who I thought was) a trusted confidant that dropped me like I was hot potato. After purchasing a few bottles of over-the-counter sleep aids, I drove with a cloudy mind and misty eyes to a remote location, drafted goodbye texts to significant others, and collapsed so far under the weight of melancholy and failure, I found myself on the floor of my SUV’s back seat (I climbed in the back; for some reason I wanted to be comfortable when I died).
How did I end up here?! I tortured myself in thought, as Notorious B.I.G.’s "Suicidal Thoughts" exacerbated my feelings. How could you be stupid enough to allow a private matter to get so out of hand that it is the center of public attention?! I began to recall the prison traumatic stressors of 13.5 years of stand-up counts, strip searches, monitored phone calls, screened mail, jailhouse politics, shake-downs, and other indignities episodes of Orange is the New Black can never accurately depict. Is this what I (re)subjected myself to?! It felt like a real life Looney Tunes anvil had fallen from 30 stories onto my head to render me lifeless; as if a correctional boogie man was hauntingly thisclose behind me, eager to drag me back into the nightmare I thought I awoke from.
On that leaf-littered carpet, I wasn’t a father, I wasn’t a son, I wasn’t a brother, I wasn’t a friend, I wasn’t a spouse, I wasn’t a leader, I wasn’t an award-winning author, national writer, Forbes Coaches Council member, JLUSA fellow or anything. I was the “convict”—13959014—who (stereo-typically) “conned” people into believing he was changed, only to be right back in a current position where there was no “ex” about it.
In a quiet, small voice that became resoundingly louder in the ensuing weeks and more sensible than the ideation B.I.G was reinforcing, I heard in my spirit, your history is not your destiny! In other words, an aberration of judgment and the making of a permanent decision in a temporary situation should and would not define the sum total of my life. My story couldn’t end the way people appeared to be writing me off. While I had to accept and acknowledge my contributions to what landed me in such a head-scratching space, I also had to accept and acknowledge my contributions to land me in the space to create space for criticism to begin with—my ingenuity, passion, faith, and distinct understanding that those who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution, but furthest from resources and power!
You see, the perspicuous trait about the so-called “ex”-offender is that s/he has the resiliency of a spring in a ballpoint pen. We are cut from a different cloth, not because the more than 70,000,000 of us in the United States of America are “criminals”... but we refuse to allow the trauma from our prison experience(s) to relegate us down to the disorder of an “ex.”