I know what you may be thinking: A collection of articles on prison reform, humanity and spirituality? What’s next, mustard on a banana?
Have you ever been to those fancy ice cream shops that have exotic flavors such as salt and pepper or peanut butter curry? Concoctions that do not sound appetizing, but because you are already at the ice cream store, you give the flavors a go and…wow, you have never tasted anything so delicious. Who would have guessed? That “Aha!” moment is what I strive for you to experience through these writings.
I live my life rooting for the underdog. I defend those in the proverbial carrot suits—a slang term referring to the common orange prison jumpsuits—who are shackled behind bars and deemed evil and immoral by our society. Criminals. Monsters. Inmates. Manmade labels that give society permission to “other” those who are incarcerated. The labels give society license to articulate all the ways those in custody are different from themselves when in reality, there are many more similarities than differences. The epithets make it easy to justify discrimination.
By embracing the stereotypes of those behind bars, we as a society fail to peel back the layers of the onion. The labels effectively keep us from looking past the surface of those who are put under lock and key. We see the rough outsides. We hear the horrific stories of wrongdoings. We hear the clinking of metal shackles and the turning of the cell door key. However, we turn a blind eye to the human beings underneath the carrot suits, those souls yearning to be treated with dignity and respect and those souls yearning to be loved.
I cherish the opportunities I have to sit with people like me and have one-on-one conversations with them about our lives, our upbringings, our views, and our feelings. I get to grow as an individual through the stories we share and the lessons we teach each other. I love and care deeply for all the souls behind bars. Love does not mean I have to like everyone. Love does not mean I have to condone past actions. But what love does mean is that I can treat everyone with dignity and respect.
When people find out what I chose for my career, I invariably get the questions, “How do you defend those people? How do you represent people who you think are guilty? ” Oftentimes, these inquiries are followed by unsolicited, insensitive remarks: They are the worst of the worst. They cannot be redeemed or rehabilitated. I cannot fault the callowness of our culture; these viewpoints are what society has taught us to believe based on the use of labels and stereotypes. Just as I can love those who happen to be living in cells, I can love those with the opposite views. However, just as I do not condone the past bad actions of those incarcerated, I do not champion the majority position of society, the us and them mentality.
Let me challenge you to consider a different mindset. Let me encourage you, if only for a minute, to act as if you do not buy into the criminal stereotypes. Replace your thoughts that those incarcerated are monsters with they are human beings who have feelings, thoughts, needs, and desires.
What if I told you the starting point for reform is simple? Would you dare to believe? What if the foundation for change, for rehabilitation, is demonstrating dignity and respect? Treating each and every one of us as human beings who are worthy of love and understanding. Remember the Golden Rule you learned as a child? Treat others the way that you would like to be treated.
Through this blog, I encourage you to move outside your intellectual comfort zone. I ask that you try opening your mind to other possibilities—namely, that treating each other with decorum and reverence is the bedrock of prison reform. Just consider the possibility. After all, as Herbert Spencer once said, “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is contempt prior to investigation.”