March 7, 2019, Abd'Allah Lateef and Kenrya Rankin - ColorLines
Abd’Allah Wali Lateef of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth makes the case for social service, mental health and parole policy reform to help former life-sentenced children successfully return to society.
(Courtesy of the Reentry Think Tank)
African Americans have traveled a long, turbulent path in this county. Almost 11 million of our ancestors were kidnapped and enslaved in the Americas, and that shameful institution set the stage for centuries of racialized discrimination and inequality that we have yet to dismantle.
Accordingly, a word—a call, really—that has resounded throughout our history is that of “freedom.” It was what we sought during our enslavement. It was what we fought for in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. It is why we organized, marched, sat down and stood up for our civil rights more than 50 years ago. And it is what we continue to fight for in this era of mass incarceration that has disproportionately imprisoned Black Americans, ushering in what Michelle Alexander calls “The New Jim Crow.”
As someone who spent decades behind bars, freedom is a particularly poignant concept. At one time it felt like an unattainable dream—at the age of 17, I was sentenced to mandatory life without the possibility of parole and thought I would never know freedom again. Thankfully, I was resentenced and released in 2017 because of a United States Supreme Court ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana that invalidated my sentence. But while I feel fortunate to be free, freedom is not without its challenges.
Ask any formerly life-sentenced child (commonly known as a “juvenile lifer”) about the value of freedom and many of them will say some iteration of, “Freedom isn’t free, it comes with tremendous responsibility.” This isn’t just about the responsibilities that come with living in society as an adult for the first time, or becoming a law-abiding civilian—those are relatively simple adjustments. But there are other responsibilities placed upon the shoulders of newly released people that may be incomprehensible to most.
For one thing, my cohort experienced a high level of trauma entering the adult prison system as youth. In addition to living in the ever present shadow of this trauma, we are individually tasked with reclaiming our humanity and our sense of dignity, while simultaneously striving to successfully reintegrate into society. Unfortunately, many of us encounter all manner of implicit (and sometimes overt) bias and discrimination on account of our status as former life-sentenced felons. And because Black children are sentenced to life without the possibility of parole at ten times the rate of White children, most of us in this group are African American and must also deal with the pressures of systemic racism. It is not lost on us that the very racism that contributes to filtering us into prison in massive numbers continues to plague us once we come home—if we come home at all.