by Lin Robertson
“Amazing Grace / How sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me / I once was lost / But now I’m found / Was blind / But now I see.” – John Newton, 1779
Ray had already been in jail 12 times when I met him in 1995. He was a thief, a drug addict and likely a suicidal psychotic. Crack was his only motivator. His mission was constant – the next hit. Drug court was not an option because of his history of breaking and entering.
Luckily, he never killed anyone. But he’ll put a gun to your head in a minute for whatever he needed to soothe the craving for his demanding habit. Hell, sometimes he’d rob you just for a loaf of bread and the eggs in the refrigerator if that’s all you had. Eventually the cops would pick him up at his mother’s house again, and again and again. Usually, he would be too high to notice when he was in handcuffs.
Perhaps the only time Ray would be able to detox long enough to stand trial was a few weeks after he’d lay moaning on the floor of a jail cell. His sick body didn’t want to consume food or water while it shook, sweat and defecated. It was as if he was holding on to the little buzz that he could still feel until it was finally gone, except for that occasional, menacing itch.
The conviction process didn’t take up too much time after that. The judge barely looked at him once he recognized the name and the list of charges. Ray had become a nuisance. Just lock him up. His strikes were up. He wasn’t worth the effort to rehabilitate, much less the tax dollars to do it – right?
One day a Pastor John showed up at the prison, talking about healing. Perhaps Ray was desperate enough this time. He listened, and – yes – he even hoped. Instead of scoffing off the notion of prayer, he started reading specific verses that seemed intended just for him, singing in the prison choir, believing there could be another way to live.
Unlike other preacher men that Ray ran into over the years, Pastor John also talked about spiritual steps of humility, remorse, honesty, making amends whenever possible and probably most importantly, step 12, which could be summed up in one word: grace.
“Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics (and/or addicts) and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”
For some, awakening leads to a commitment to stay clean and serve others. After all, Ray could choose to become another Paster John, who was a former inmate himself. But what were the chances of that? It couldn’t hurt if the system you called home most of your life provided the needed support to prepare you to be a “regular” member of society, a father, a son or a mentor, especially to our young, heading where they do not want to go because they know not what they do.
What do you have to look forward to when the odds are stacked up against you? Why should you believe you could get a fair shake after you’ve done your time? Where would you end up without family, shelter or work to survive out here?
Perhaps we should be the ones to ask forgiveness as we venture into a new era post-Trump.
Imagine if, on top of all of that, Ray was living with COVID-19 today – after burning all the bridges he thought he once had before they slammed shut the cage that last time. There is no help. None. Could he continue to believe in redemption? Would helping others, no matter how little he could, keep him honest while serving the remainder of his time?
Most in today’s prison confinement are forgotten, while we “suffer” the inconvenience of wearing a mask and watching Netflix while waiting for the vaccine in the comfort of our own home. We “social distance” voluntarily. We pump our gas with gloves on. We choose between roast chicken or tri-tip on Sundays. We Facetime whenever we want to, just to complain about not being free enough. We barely acknowledge how much we should be grateful for.
It’s a new year, brothers and sisters. But might I suggest that, unless we are willing to help the least among us, especially today, we may continue to reap what we sow as a society. Nonstop and inhumane jail is not just a point of view or a distant debate to argue. It remains the reality for prisoners trapped in institutions built to keep them there, especially if you are a poor non-white.
Sometimes, you are doomed to fail even after release. The mentally ill on skid row are often previous inmates who should have been recovering in a rehab center while doing their time, rather than chasing daemons in a cell the size of a small bathroom, losing their minds.
We seem to pay more attention to the high-profile people with their large platforms and money enough to settle the score and avoid prison time. But even if a Black man today escapes living behind bars because he has the money to pay for a Johnny Cochran, most times his life is over anyway. Discrimination through defamation may not make him an inmate like Ray, but the sting of shame stinks up our community just the same. Even worse if he is actually guilty.
Perhaps we should be the ones to ask forgiveness as we venture into a new era post-Trump. Getting locked up should not be the only alternative to getting shot. Let’s at least try to teach Ray how to fish. Educate him not just to escape “justice,” but also to recover from addictions that took him down to eventually hit bottom. With the right help, success may reveal how we all should serve and protect our targeted communities in distress. Listen to the prayer. Free us from despair.
Also consider this: Reform not just how we make police officers who were given the green light to abuse us in the first place accountable, but also the system that keeps men and women suffering in cages without enough protection to survive the pandemic. Prepare for freedom in 2021 and beyond. Time is of the essence. It may already be too late for the old and dying in the penal system, overcrowded and with little hope for change. The consensus seems to be that they are already done.
By the way, I don’t know where Ray is today. The last time I saw him, he was on another street corner doing the hustle. In that instance when we locked eyes, he looked away.
Lin Robertson began her career by launching the Aruba Foreign Investment Agency in her native Aruba, a Caribbean island nation off the coast of Venezuela. Coming to California in 1998, she worked with the San Jose Office of Equality Assurance and in 2005 founded The Labor Compliance Managers, where she is managing director. She is also senior producer for International Media TV. Lin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.