Life can show us some amazing things…
Adversity can test our faith or the lack thereof. Challenges can test both our physical and mental acumen,enabling us to accept these challenges and overcome them. Setbacks in life can test out agility to maneuver
in any storm. Hatred can test our patience and humility, creating virtue within us and knowing, that vicariously, love stands as the ultimate in any arena, the light that can never dim.
But more importantly, life can show us how to place the greatest of value in people. Yes! People. Life reminds us that we’re not some insular spec on this earth. It shows us how connected we are despite the biggest lie we’ve been taught, that titles, race, ethnicity, sex or sexual orientation and ideologies increases or decreases our value as people. Life can show us just how invaluable we are to one another, and create within us a sense of purpose.
Initially, one of these many lessons started when I enrolled as one of the Marty Tankleff Scholars – part of a higher education program extended by Georgetown University to the incarcerated men and women at the D.C. Jail. Amongst the many professors and student that participated in this program to bring a sense of purpose to those discarded
as misfits and criminals, was the spearhead of the program, Dr. Marc M Howard, a professor of Government and Law, at Georgetown. In addition, he directs the Prison and Justice Initiative; a total investment in the advancement of humanity and the acceptance to the challenge of rebuilding what many have gotten wrong.
Unfortunately, due to my abrupt transfer back into the Federal Prison Complex, I was unable to fully experience all that Georgetown was introducing in terms of academia. Nevertheless, I left receiving a lesson in the power or people. And how people committed to changing the reality of those incarcerated are far above those authoring legislation that perpetuates discrimination and the dismantling of families and communities.
I left knowing not only the meaning of Robert Dahl’s “polyarchy”, but what qualifies as a true democracy are people and their willingness to invest in others – that is, weaponizing, polarizing, and marginalizing can never establish
true democracy nationally or globally if the people viewed as meaningless and insignificant as a whole is the pretext by which this democracy is authored. Nothing within the Federal Bureau of Prison could have taught me this valuable
In fact, the BOP has made it so that social interaction with any group promoting higher education, or any other valuable resource that promotes rehabilitation that effectively addresses the dilemmas that surrounds many of the imprisoned to be a hurdle in participating in, or just negligently not offered to prisoner (especially in maximum security prisons) for obviously reasons (to keep the prison gates open).
After getting a taste of what an effective and efficient correctional administration is willing to provide (shout out to Director and Asst. Director of the D.C. Dept. of Corr., Mr. Booth and Ms. Amy Lopez), and what a few educators with vision and purpose are willing to offer, I was back in this human warehouse, dealing with a decaying system that
unequivocally provides nothing substantive that addresses the needs of the prisoners. It was devastating to know that a much needed opportunity for myself and others was lost under this carefully crafted bureaucracy that would never allow the proper remedies that are effective in curving the rate of recidivism in this country.
Efforts to stay connected to the class by means of correspondence proved very challenging for me, primarily due to the countless lock downs that hindered my already constraint ability to actually interact with professors on foreign subject and matter concerning the curriculum being taught. But above all, my continuous plight for justice distracted me. After the D.C. Superior Court denied me any relief on viable claims that amount to a miscarriage of justice, I found myself, once again fighting a system that ultimately placed me here to die (I have yet to meet a prisoner over the age of
80 in the BOP).
Either Marc’s tenacious spirit or higher intervention, he remained fully committed to me and my cause. After flying out to visit me, he left, I believe, with a better understanding of what I was facing. He submitted my case to the class of “Making An Exoneree”, as a case study in hopes that his class would pick my case as their project (cases go through rigorous selection process – not all cases submitted are selected – students alone select the cases they will work on). There were “no guarantees”, I remember Marc saying, but it was worth a try at this point; clearly, any faith in the judicial system would
be in vain.
After a series of nerve-racking months of waiting on the students to deicide if my case would be chosen, I was elated to hear that the students of “Making An Exoneree” class had selected my case as one they were willing to work on. Marc characterized the group as a “intelligent and vibrant bunch”. His words have proven to be prophetic.
Johnsenia (a recent graduate with major in Government and Psychology, and a minor in French; assertive and focused), Austin (a recent graduate with a major in Government, and a minor in Spanish – also a recently admitted into Harvard Law; humble and intelligent), and Cecily (a rising senior majoring in Government with a minor in African American Studies; a game changer in times to come), came with an immense sense of hunger. Hungry to challenge a system they quickly recognized has served injustice in these case.
JAC (or team Martinez, as the group is known) invested countless hours into a maze of legal material that may case has amass within the last sixteen years, and where experienced lawyers missed key pieces of evidence, or leads of exculpatory
evidence, JAC drew them out and are bringing them to light.
What has moved me the most is not their sense of commitment, but what fuels this commitment in them. Even the perils of COVID-19 has failed to diminish this drive. They walk tall amiss a system they are determined to change. Where many generations added layers of policies that replaced Jim Crow to perpetuate discrimination and disenfranchisement under the guise of various tittles, sub-titles, chapters and sub-chapters, this trio, I believe has accepted the challenge to dismantle this fragmented system in order to rebuild it Their piercing caveat alone will crumble the walls that hold in place decades of indignation and biasness, codified and legislated in policies against people of color.
They are champions in the coliseum designed for them to lose (Jonhsenia and Cecily are both women, and Austin is African American); modern day freedom fighters in a seemingly raging sea of oppressive institutions that take more than give to the people what is unalienable theirs – Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Thankfully, Johnsencia, Austin and Cecily understand that prisoners can feel pain; get hurt; have dreams; bear tragedy and failure; suffers from loneliness; need to cry as well we laugh – have hope and faith; are creative and ambitious. Thankfully, they understand that prisoners are men and women that are human; have made mistakes; work to correct those mistakes, and pick up the broken pieces and are looking to rebuild what others have broken. And as long as retribution and an unapologetic implantation of a punitive approach is absolute – society will become lost and isolated within a bubble where natural human instincts, such as to love, to care and give a helping hand; to build lasting bridges of compassion and empathy are non-existing.
Thankfully, JAC has proven that we are far from that place. Thankfully, their investment in change says that we may never have to reach such a place. Thankfully, in them, I see the meaning of Walking Tall.