Skenazy: Inmates leave prison to lead
We may not think of ourselves as a vindictive country, but consider this: To even get us back to the incarceration rate of 1972 — hardly ancient history — we would have to reduce the number of people in prison by 80 percent. That’s how overboard we’ve gone when it comes to locking people up.
Trying to dial us back from this hyper-incarceration is a group called JustLeadershipUSA. It teaches former prisoners how to open America’s eyes to our jail addiction. The other night, I attended the graduation for 19 fellows who’d just finished the yearlong course in leadership. They’d been chosen from 117 applicants nationwide on the basis of the good they’d been doing since they got out of prison.
Ronald Simpson-Bey spent a huge chunk of his life, 27 years, locked up in a Michigan cell until his sentence was reversed for “prosecutorial misconduct” — including the use of inadmissible evidence and false testimony against him.
Once released, he started a letter writing campaign to other long-term prisoners so that if and when they ever get out, they can adjust a little better. But even on the inside, Simpson-Bey had already become a leader. He raised $5,000 for the Special Olympics. He studied law and helped other prisoners with their appeals. And every year, he held a Kwanzaa ceremony, where he’d give a copy of the book that changed his life — “Visions for Black Men,” by Na’im Akbar — to the youngest prisoner present.
Many of those young men are still in touch with him, as are eight prisoners he helped get out — all on mistrials. But when I asked him what the best thing he ever did was, those weren’t it.
The best thing began on Father’s Day in 2001. Simpson-Bey’s only son, Ronald Jr., 21, called the prison that morning to say he was coming by to celebrate.
The day got later and later. No son.
At last, Simpson-Bey was called to the phone. Ronald Jr. had been shot. He was dead.
The murderer was a boy of 14. Ronald Sr. knew exactly what would happen to him if he were to be tried as an adult and found guilty of premeditated murder. Life in prison without parole.
From his cell, he begged for the boy to be tried as a juvenile.
The young man served seven years and is now out — and still in touch with Simpson-Bey.
It’s no surprise Simpson-Bey was chosen for the JustLeadership program, because the organization believes that decadeslong sentences, “three strikes” and the war on drugs are all squandering the human potential of entire generations.
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