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← What prosecutors and incarcerated people can learn from each other

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Showing Revision 10 created 05/24/2019 by Oliver Friedman.

  1. When I look in the mirror today,
  2. I see a justice and education scholar
    at Columbia University,
  3. a youth mentor, an activist
  4. and a future New York state senator.
  5. (Cheering)

  6. I see all of that

  7. and a man who spent
    a quarter of his life in state prison --
  8. six years, to be exact,
  9. starting as a teenager on Rikers Island
  10. for an act that nearly cost
    a man his life.
  11. But what got me from there to here
  12. wasn't the punishment I faced
    as a teenager in adult prison
  13. or the harshness of our legal system.
  14. Instead, it was a learning
    environment of a classroom
  15. that introduced me to something
    I didn't think was possible for me
  16. or our justice system as a whole.
  17. A few weeks before my release on parole,

  18. a counselor encouraged me to enroll
    in a new college course
  19. being offered in the prison.
  20. It was called Inside Criminal Justice.
  21. That seems pretty
    straightforward, though, right?
  22. Well, it turns out,
  23. the class would be made up
    of eight incarcerated men
  24. and eight assistant district attorneys.
  25. Columbia University psychology
    professor Geraldine Downey
  26. and Manhattan Assistant DA Lucy Lang
  27. co-taught the course,
  28. and it was the first of its kind.
  29. I can honestly say

  30. this wasn't how I imagined
    starting college.
  31. My mind was blown from day one.
  32. I assumed all the prosecutors
    in the room would be white.
  33. But I remember walking into the room
    on the first day of class
  34. and seeing three black prosecutors
  35. and thinking to myself,
  36. "Wow, being a black prosecutor --
  37. that's a thing!"
  38. (Laughter)

  39. By the end of the first session,

  40. I was all in.
  41. In fact, a few weeks after my release,
  42. I found myself doing something
    I prayed I wouldn't.
  43. I walked right back into prison.
  44. But thankfully, this time
    it was just as a student,
  45. to join my fellow classmates.
  46. And this time,
  47. I got to go home when class was over.
  48. In the next session, we talked
    about what had brought each of us

  49. to this point of our lives
  50. and into the classroom together.
  51. I eventually got comfortable enough
  52. to reveal my truth to everyone in the room
  53. about where I came from.
  54. I talked about how my sisters and I
    watched our mother suffer years of abuse
  55. at the hands of our stepfather,
  56. escaping, only to find ourselves
    living in a shelter.
  57. I talked about how I swore
    an oath to my family
  58. to keep them safe.
  59. I even explained how I didn't feel
    like a teenager at 13,
  60. but more like a soldier on a mission.
  61. And like any soldier,
  62. this meant carrying an emotional
    burden on my shoulders,
  63. and I hate to say it,
  64. but a gun on my waist.
  65. And just a few days
    after my 17th birthday,
  66. that mission completely failed.
  67. As my sister and I were walking
    to the laundromat,

  68. a crowd stopped in front of us.
  69. Two girls out of nowhere
    attacked my sister.
  70. Still confused about what was happening,
    I tried to pull one girl away,
  71. and just as I did, I felt something
    brush across my face.
  72. With my adrenaline rushing,
  73. I didn't realize a man
    had leaped out of the crowd and cut me.
  74. As I felt warm blood ooze down my face,
  75. and watching him raise
    his knife toward me again,
  76. I turned to defend myself
    and pulled that gun from my waistband
  77. and squeezed the trigger.
  78. Thankfully, he didn't lose
    his life that day.
  79. My hands shaking and heart racing,
    I was paralyzed in fear.
  80. From that moment,
  81. I felt regret that would never leave me.
  82. I learned later on they attacked my sister
    in a case of mistaken identity,

  83. thinking she was someone else.
  84. It was terrifying,
  85. but clear that I wasn't trained,
    nor was I qualified,
  86. to be the soldier
    that I thought I needed to be.
  87. But in my neighborhood,
  88. I only felt safe carrying a weapon.
  89. Now, back in the classroom,
    after hearing my story,

  90. the prosecutors could tell
    I never wanted to hurt anyone.
  91. I just wanted us to make it home.
  92. I could literally see the gradual change
    in each of their faces
  93. as they heard story after story
  94. from the other incarcerated
    men in the room.
  95. Stories that have trapped many of us
  96. within the vicious cycle of incarceration,
  97. that most haven't been able
    to break free of.
  98. And sure -- there are people
    who commit terrible crimes.
  99. But the stories
    of these individuals' lives
  100. before they commit those acts
  101. were the kinds of stories
    these prosecutors had never heard.
  102. And when it was their turn
    to speak -- the prosecutors --

  103. I was surprised, too.
  104. They weren't emotionless
    drones or robocops,
  105. preprogrammed to send people to prison.
  106. They were sons and daughters,
  107. brothers and sisters.
  108. But most of all, they were good students.
  109. They were ambitious and motivated.
  110. And they believed that they could use
    the power of law to protect people.
  111. They were on a mission
    that I could definitely understand.
  112. Midway through the course,
    Nick, a fellow incarcerated student,

  113. poured out his concern
  114. that the prosecutors were tiptoeing
    around the racial bias and discrimination
  115. within our criminal justice system.
  116. Now, if you've ever been to prison,
  117. you would know it's impossible
    to talk about justice reform
  118. without talking about race.
  119. So we silently cheered for Nick
  120. and were eager to hear
    the prosecutors' response.
  121. And no, I don't remember who spoke first,
  122. but when Chauncey Parker,
    a senior prosecutor, agreed with Nick
  123. and said he was committed to ending
    the mass incarceration of people of color,
  124. I believed him.
  125. And I knew we were headed
    in the right direction.
  126. We now started to move as a team.
  127. We started exploring new possibilities
  128. and uncovering truths
    about our justice system
  129. and how real change
  130. happens for us.
  131. For me, it wasn't the mandatory
    programs inside of the prison.

  132. Instead, it was listening
    to the advice of elders --
  133. men who have been sentenced to spend
    the rest of their lives in prison.
  134. These men helped me reframe
    my mindset around manhood.
  135. And they instilled in me
    all of their aspirations and goals,
  136. in the hopes that I would never
    return to prison,
  137. and that I would serve
    as their ambassador to the free world.
  138. As I talked, I could see the lights
    turning on for one prosecutor,
  139. who said something I thought was obvious:
  140. that I had transformed
    despite my incarceration
  141. and not because of it.
  142. It was clear these prosecutors
    hadn't thought much about

  143. what happens to us
    after they win a conviction.
  144. But through the simple process
    of sitting in a classroom,
  145. these lawyers started to see
    that keeping us locked up
  146. didn't benefit our community
  147. or us.
  148. Toward the end of the course,
    the prosecutors were excited,

  149. as we talked about our plans
    for life after being released.
  150. But they hadn't realized
    how rough it was actually going to be.
  151. I can literally still see the shock
  152. on one of the junior
    ADA's face when it hit her:
  153. the temporary ID given to us
    with our freedom
  154. displayed that we were
    just released from prison.
  155. She hadn't imagined how many barriers
    this would create for us
  156. as we reenter society.
  157. But I could also see her genuine empathy
    for the choice we had to make
  158. between coming home to a bed in a shelter
  159. or a couch in a relative's
    overcrowded apartment.
  160. What we learned in the class

  161. worked its way into concrete
    policy recommendations.
  162. We presented our proposals
  163. to the state Department
    of Corrections commissioner
  164. and to the Manhattan DA,
  165. at our graduation in a packed
    Columbia auditorium.
  166. As a team,
  167. I couldn't have imagined
    a more memorable way
  168. to conclude our eight weeks together.
  169. And just 10 months
    after coming home from prison,

  170. I again found myself in a strange room,
  171. invited by the commissioner of NYPD
    to share my perspective
  172. at a policing summit.
  173. And while speaking,
  174. I recognized a familiar face
    in the audience.
  175. It was the attorney
    who prosecuted my case.
  176. Seeing him,
  177. I thought about our days in the courtroom
  178. seven years earlier,
  179. as I listened to him recommend
    a long prison sentence,
  180. as if my young life was meaningless
  181. and had no potential.
  182. But this time,
  183. the circumstances were different.
  184. I shook off my thoughts
  185. and walked over to shake his hand.
  186. He looked happy to see me.
  187. Surprised, but happy.
  188. He acknowledged how proud he was
    about being in that room with me,
  189. and we began a conversation
    about working together
  190. to improve the conditions
    of our community.
  191. And so today,

  192. I carry all of these experiences with me,
  193. as I develop the Justice Ambassadors
    Youth Council at Columbia University,
  194. bringing young New Yorkers -- some
    who have already spent time locked up
  195. and others who are still
    enrolled in high school --
  196. together with city officials.
  197. And in this classroom,
  198. everyone will brainstorm ideas
  199. about improving the lives
    of our city's most vulnerable youth
  200. before they get tried
    within the criminal justice system.
  201. This is possible if we do the work.

  202. Our society and justice system
    has convinced us
  203. that we can lock up our problems
  204. and punish our way
    out of social challenges.
  205. But that's not real.
  206. Imagine with me for a second
  207. a future where no one can become
  208. a prosecutor,
  209. a judge,
  210. a cop
  211. or even a parole officer
  212. without first sitting in a classroom
  213. to learn from and connect with
  214. the very people whose lives
    will be in their hands.
  215. I'm doing my part to promote
    the power of conversations

  216. and the need for collaborations.
  217. It is through education
  218. that we will arrive at a truth
    that is inclusive and unites us all
  219. in the pursuit of justice.
  220. For me, it was a brand-new conversation
  221. and a new kind of classroom
  222. that showed me how both my mindset
  223. and our criminal justice system
  224. could be transformed.
  225. They say the truth shall set you free.

  226. But I believe
  227. it's education
  228. and communication.
  229. Thank you.

  230. (Applause)