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Kamala Harris, Mass Incarceration and Me

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Because senator Kamala Harris is a prosecutor and I am a felon, I have been following her political rise, with the same focus that my younger son tracks Steph Curry threes. Before it was in vogue to criticize prosecutors, my friends and I were exchanging tales of being railroaded by them. Shackled in oversized green jail scrubs, I listened to a prosecutor in a Fairfax County, Va., courtroom tell a judge that in one night I’d single-handedly changed suburban shopping forever. Everything the prosecutor said I did was true — I carried a pistol, carjacked a man, tried to rob two women. “He needs a long penitentiary sentence,” the prosecutor told the judge. I faced life in prison for carjacking the man. I pleaded guilty to that, to having a gun, to an attempted robbery. I was 16 years old. The old heads in prison would call me lucky for walking away with only a nine-year sentence.

I’d been locked up for about 15 months when I entered Virginia’s Southampton Correctional Center in 1998, the year I should have graduated from high school. In that prison, there were probably about a dozen other teenagers. Most of us had lengthy sentences — 30, 40, 50 years — all for violent felonies. Public talk of mass incarceration has centered on the war on drugs, wrongful convictions and Kafkaesque sentences for nonviolent charges, while circumventing the robberies, home invasions, murders and rape cases that brought us to prison.

The most difficult discussion to have about criminal-justice reform has always been about violence and accountability. You could release everyone from prison who currently has a drug offense and the United States would still outpace nearly every other country when it comes to incarceration. According to the Prison Policy Institute, of the nearly 1.3 million people incarcerated in state prisons, 183,000 are incarcerated for murder; 17,000 for manslaughter; 165,000 for sexual assault; 169,000 for robbery; and 136,000 for assault. That’s more than half of the state prison population.

When Harris decided to run for president, I thought the country might take the opportunity to grapple with the injustice of mass incarceration in a way that didn’t lose sight of what violence, and the sorrow it creates, does to families and communities. Instead, many progressives tried to turn the basic fact of Harris’s profession into an indictment against her. Shorthand for her career became: “She’s a cop,” meaning, her allegiance was with a system that conspires, through prison and policing, to harm Black people in America.

In the past decade or so, we have certainly seen ample evidence of how corrupt the system can be: Michelle Alexander’s best-selling book, “The New Jim Crow,” which argues that the war on drugs marked the return of America’s racist system of segregation and legal discrimination; Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us,” a series about the wrongful convictions of the Central Park Five, and her documentary “13th,” which delves into mass incarceration more broadly; and “Just Mercy,” a book by Bryan Stevenson, a public interest lawyer, that has also been made into a film, chronicling his pursuit of justice for a man on death row, who is eventually exonerated. All of these describe the destructive force of prosecutors, giving a lot of run to the belief that anyone who works within a system responsible for such carnage warrants public shame.

My mother had an experience that gave her a different perspective on prosecutors — though I didn’t know about it until I came home from prison on March 4, 2005, when I was 24. That day, she sat me down and said, “I need to tell you something.” We were in her bedroom in the townhouse in Suitland, Md., that had been my childhood home, where as a kid she’d call me to bring her a glass of water. I expected her to tell me that despite my years in prison, everything was good now. But instead she told me about something that happened nearly a decade earlier, just weeks after my arrest. She left for work before the sun rose, as she always did, heading to the federal agency that had employed her my entire life. She stood at a bus stop 100 feet from my high school, awaiting the bus that would take her to the train that would take her to a stop near her job in the nation’s capital. But on that morning, a man yanked her into a secluded space, placed a gun to her head and raped her. When she could escape, she ran wildly into the 6 a.m. traffic.

My mother’s words turned me into a mumbling and incoherent mess, unable to grasp how this could have happened to her. I knew she kept this secret to protect me. I turned to Google and searched the word “rape” along with my hometown and was wrecked by the violence against women that I found. My mother told me her rapist was a Black man. And I thought he should spend the rest of his years staring at the pockmarked walls of prison cells that I knew so well.

The prosecutor’s job, unlike the defense attorney’s or judge’s, is to do justice. What does that mean when you are asked by some to dole out retribution measured in years served, but blamed by others for the damage incarceration can do? The outrage at this country’s criminal-justice system is loud today, but it hasn’t led us to develop better ways of confronting my mother’s world from nearly a quarter-century ago: weekends visiting her son in a prison in Virginia; weekdays attending the trial of the man who sexually assaulted her.

Credit…Photo illustration by Joan Wong

We said goodbye to my grandmother in the same Baptist church that, in June 2019, Senator Kamala Harris, still pursuing the Democratic nomination for president, went to give a major speech about why she became a prosecutor. I hadn’t been inside Brookland Baptist Church for a decade, and returning reminded me of Grandma Mary and the eight years of letters she mailed to me in prison. The occasion for Harris’s speech was the annual Freedom Fund dinner of the South Carolina State Conference of the N.A.A.C.P. The evening began with the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and at the opening chord nearly everyone in the room stood. There to write about the senator, I had been standing already and mouthed the words of the first verse before realizing I’d never sung any further.

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Each table in the banquet hall was filled with folks dressed in their Sunday best. Servers brought plates of food and pitchers of iced tea to the tables. Nearly everyone was Black. The room was too loud for me to do more than crouch beside guests at their tables and scribble notes about why they attended. Speakers talked about the chapter’s long history in the civil rights movement. One called for the current generation of young rappers to tell a different story about sacrifice. The youngest speaker of the night said he just wanted to be safe. I didn’t hear anyone mention mass incarceration. And I knew in a different decade, my grandmother might have been in that audience, taking in the same arguments about personal agency and responsibility, all the while wondering why her grandbaby was still locked away. If Harris couldn’t persuade that audience that her experiences as a Black woman in America justified her decision to become a prosecutor, I knew there were few people in this country who could be moved.

Describing her upbringing in a family of civil rights activists, Harris argued that the ongoing struggle for equality needed to include both prosecuting criminal defendants who had victimized Black people and protecting the rights of Black criminal defendants. “I was cleareyed that prosecutors were largely not people who looked like me,” she said. This mattered for Harris because of the “prosecutors that refused to seat Black jurors, refused to prosecute lynchings, disproportionately condemned young Black men to death row and looked the other way in the face of police brutality.” When she became a prosecutor in 1990, she was one of only a handful of Black people in her office. When she was elected district attorney of San Francisco in 2003, she recalled, she was one of just three Black D.A.s nationwide. And when she was elected California attorney general in 2010, there were no other Black attorneys general in the country. At these words, the crowd around me clapped. “I knew the unilateral power that prosecutors had with the stroke of a pen to make a decision about someone else’s life or death,” she said.

Harris offered a pair of stories as evidence of the importance of a Black woman’s doing this work. Once, ear hustling, she listened to colleagues discussing ways to prove criminal defendants were gang-affiliated. If a racial-profiling manual existed, their signals would certainly be included: baggy pants, the place of arrest and the rap music blaring from vehicles. She said that she’d told her colleagues: “So, you know that neighborhood you were talking about? Well, I got family members and friends who live in that neighborhood. You know the way you were talking about how folks were dressed? Well, that’s actually stylish in my community.” She continued: “You know that music you were talking about? Well, I got a tape of that music in my car right now.”

The second example was about the mothers of murdered children. She told the audience about the women who had come to her office when she was San Francisco’s D.A. — women who wanted to speak with her, and her alone, about their sons. “The mothers came, I believe, because they knew I would see them,” Harris said. “And I mean literally see them. See their grief. See their anguish.” They complained to Harris that the police were not investigating. “My son is being treated like a statistic,” they would say. Everyone in that Southern Baptist church knew that the mothers and their dead sons were Black. Harris outlined the classic dilemma of Black people in this country: being simultaneously overpoliced and underprotected. Harris told the audience that all communities deserved to be safe.

Among the guests in the room that night whom I talked to, no one had an issue with her work as a prosecutor. A lot of them seemed to believe that only people doing dirt had issues with prosecutors. I thought of myself and my friends who have served long terms, knowing that in a way, Harris was talking about Black people’s needing protection from us — from the violence we perpetrated to earn those years in a series of cells.

Harris came up as a prosecutor in the 1990s, when both the political culture and popular culture were developing a story about crime and violence that made incarceration feel like a moral response. Back then, films by Black directors — “New Jack City,” “Menace II Society,” “Boyz n the Hood” — turned Black violence into a genre where murder and crack-dealing were as ever-present as Black fathers were absent. Those were the years when Representative Charlie Rangel, a Democrat, argued that “we should not allow people to distribute this poison without fear that they might be arrested” and “go to jail for the rest of their natural life.” Those were the years when President Clinton signed legislation that ended federal parole for people with three violent crime convictions and encouraged states to essentially eliminate parole; made it more difficult for defendants to challenge their convictions in court; and made it nearly impossible to challenge prison conditions.

Back then, it felt like I was just one of an entire generation of young Black men learning the logic of count time and lockdown. With me were Anthony Winn and Terell Kelly and a dozen others, all lost to prison during those years. Terell was sentenced to 33 years for murdering a man when he was 17 — a neighborhood beef turned deadly. Home from college for two weeks, a 19-year-old Anthony robbed four convenience stores — he’d been carrying a pistol during three. After he was sentenced by four judges, he had a total of 36 years.

Most of us came into those cells with trauma, having witnessed or experienced brutality before committing our own. Prison, a factory of violence and despair, introduced us to more of the same. And though there were organizations working to get rid of the death penalty, end mandatory minimums, bring back parole and even abolish prisons, there were few ways for us to know that they existed. We suffered. And we felt alone. Because of this, sometimes I reduce my friends’ stories to the cruelty of doing time. I forget that Terell and I walked prison yards as teenagers, discussing Malcolm X and searching for mentors in the men around us. I forget that Anthony and I talked about the poetry of Sonia Sanchez the way others praised DMX. He taught me the meaning of the word “patina” and introduced me to the music of Bill Withers. There were Luke and Fats; and Juvie, who could give you the sharpest edge-up in America with just a razor and comb.

When I left prison in 2005, they all had decades left. Then I went to law school and believed I owed it to them to work on their cases and help them get out. I’ve persuaded lawyers to represent friends pro bono. Put together parole packets — basically job applications for freedom: letters of recommendation and support from family and friends; copies of certificates attesting to vocational training; the record of college credits. We always return to the crimes to provide explanation and context. We argue that today each one little resembles the teenager who pulled a gun. And I write a letter — which is less from a lawyer and more from a man remembering what it means to want to go home to his mother. I write, struggling to condense decades of life in prison into a 10-page case for freedom. Then I find my way to the parole board’s office in Richmond, Va., and try to persuade the members to let my friends see a sunrise for the first time.

Juvie and Luke have made parole; Fats, represented by the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia School of Law, was granted a conditional pardon by Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam. All three are home now, released just as a pandemic would come to threaten the lives of so many others still inside. Now free, they’ve sent me text messages with videos of themselves hugging their mothers for the first time in decades, casting fishing lines from boats drifting along rivers they didn’t expect to see again, enjoying a cold beer that isn’t contraband.

In February, after 25 years, Virginia passed a bill making people incarcerated for at least 20 years for crimes they committed before their 18th birthdays eligible for parole. Men who imagined they would die in prison now may see daylight. Terell will be eligible. These years later, he’s the mentor we searched for, helping to organize, from the inside, community events for children, and he’s spoken publicly about learning to view his crimes through the eyes of his victim’s family. My man Anthony was 19 when he committed his crime. In the last few years, he’s organized poetry readings, book clubs and fatherhood classes. When Gregory Fairchild, a professor at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, began an entrepreneurship program at Dillwyn Correctional Center, Anthony was among the graduates, earning all three of the certificates that it offered. He worked to have me invited as the commencement speaker, and what I remember most is watching him share a meal with his parents for the first time since his arrest. But he must pray that the governor grants him a conditional pardon, as he did for Fats.

I tell myself that my friends are unique, that I wouldn’t fight so hard for just anybody. But maybe there is little particularly distinct about any of us — beyond that we’d served enough time in prison. There was a skinny light-skinned 15-year-old kid who came into prison during the years that we were there. The rumor was that he’d broken into the house of an older woman and sexually assaulted her. We all knew he had three life sentences. Someone stole his shoes. People threatened him. He’d had to break a man’s jaw with a lock in a sock to prove he’d fight if pushed. As a teenager, he was experiencing the worst of prison. And I know that had he been my cellmate, had I known him the way I know my friends, if he reached out to me today, I’d probably be arguing that he should be free.

But I know that on the other end of our prison sentences was always someone weeping. During the middle of Harris’s presidential campaign, a friend referred me to a woman with a story about Senator Harris that she felt I needed to hear. Years ago, this woman’s sister had been missing for days, and the police had done little. Happenstance gave this woman an audience with then-Attorney General Harris. A coordinated multicity search followed. The sister had been murdered; her body was found in a ravine. The woman told me that “Kamala understands the politics of victimization as well as anyone who has been in the system, which is that this kind of case — a 50-year-old Black woman gone missing or found dead — ordinarily does not get any resources put toward it.” They caught the man who murdered her sister, and he was sentenced to 131 years. I think about the man who assaulted my mother, a serial rapist, because his case makes me struggle with questions of violence and vengeance and justice. And I stop thinking about it. I am inconsistent. I want my friends out, but I know there is no one who can convince me that this man shouldn’t spend the rest of his life in prison.

My mother purchased her first single-family home just before I was released from prison. One version of this story is that she purchased the house so that I wouldn’t spend a single night more than necessary in the childhood home I walked away from in handcuffs. A truer account is that by leaving Suitland, my mother meant to burn the place from memory.

I imagined that I had singularly introduced my mother to the pain of the courts. I was wrong. The first time she missed work to attend court proceedings was to witness the prosecution of a kid the same age as I was when I robbed a man. He was probably from Suitland, and he’d attempted to rob my mother at gunpoint. The second time, my mother attended a series of court dates involving me, dressed in her best work clothes to remind the prosecutor and judge and those in the courtroom that the child facing a life sentence had a mother who loved him. The third time, my mother took off days from work to go to court alone and witness the trial of the man who raped her and two other women. A prosecutor’s subpoena forced her to testify, and her solace came from knowing that prison would prevent him from attacking others.

After my mother told me what had happened to her, we didn’t mention it to each other again for more than a decade. But then in 2018, she and I were interviewed on the podcast “Death, Sex & Money.” The host asked my mother about going to court for her son’s trial when he was facing life. “I was raped by gunpoint,” my mother said. “It happened just before he was sentenced. So when I was going to court for Dwayne, I was also going for a court trial for myself.” I hadn’t forgotten what happened, but having my mother say it aloud to a stranger made it far more devastating.

On the last day of the trial of the man who raped her, my mother told me, the judge accepted his guilty plea. She remembers only that he didn’t get enough time. She says her nose began to bleed. When I asked her what she would have wanted to happen to her attacker, she replied, “That I’d taken the deputy’s gun and shot him.”

Harris has studied crime-scene and autopsy photos of the dead. She has confronted men in court who have sexually assaulted their children, sexually assaulted the elderly, scalped their lovers. In her 2009 book, “Smart on Crime,” Harris praised the work of Sunny Schwartz — creator of the Resolve to Stop the Violence Project, the first restorative-justice program in the country to offer services to offenders and victims, which began at a jail in San Francisco. It aims to help inmates who have committed violent crimes by giving them tools to de-escalate confrontations. Harris wrote a bill with a state senator to ensure that children who witness violence can receive mental health treatment. And she argued that safety is a civil right, and that a 60-year sentence for a series of restaurant armed robberies, where some victims were bound or locked in freezers, “should tell anyone considering viciously preying on citizens and businesses that they will be caught, convicted and sent to prison — for a very long time.”

Politicians and the public acknowledge mass incarceration is a problem, but the lengthy prison sentences of men and women incarcerated during the 1990s have largely not been revisited. While the evidence of any prosecutor doing work on this front is slim, as a politician arguing for basic systemic reforms, Harris has noted the need to “unravel the decades-long effort to make sentencing guidelines excessively harsh, to the point of being inhumane”; criticized the bail system; and called for an end to private prisons and criticized the companies that charge absurd rates for phone calls and electronic-monitoring services.

In June, months into the Covid-19 pandemic, and before she was tapped as the vice-presidential nominee, I had the opportunity to interview Harris by phone. A police officer’s knee on the neck of George Floyd, choking the life out of him as he called for help, had been captured on video. Each night, thousands around the world protested. During our conversation, Harris told me that as the only Black woman in the United States Senate “in the midst of the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery,” countless people had asked for stories about her experiences with racism. Harris said that she was not about to start telling them “about my world for a number of reasons, including you should know about the issue that affects this country as part of the greatest stain on this country.” Exhausted, she no longer answered the questions. I imagined she believes, as Toni Morrison once said, that “the very serious function of racism” is “distraction. It keeps you from doing your work.”

But these days, even in the conversations that I hear my children having, race suffuses so much. I tell Harris that my 12-year-old son, Micah, told his classmates and teachers: “As you all know, my dad went to jail. Shouldn’t the police who killed Floyd go to jail?” My son wanted to know why prison seemed to be reserved for Black people and wondered whose violence demanded a prison cell.

“In the criminal-justice system,” Harris replied, “the irony, and, frankly, the hypocrisy is that whenever we use the words ‘accountability’ and ‘consequence,’ it’s always about the individual who was arrested.” Again, she began to make a case that would be familiar to any progressive about the need to make the system accountable. And while I found myself agreeing, I began to fear that the point was just to find ways to treat officers in the same brutal way that we treat everyone else. I thought about the men I’d represented in parole hearings — and the friends I’d be representing soon. And wondered out loud to Harris: How do we get to their freedom?

“We need to reimagine what public safety looks like,” the senator told me, noting that she would talk about a public health model. “Are we looking at the fact that if you focus on issues like education and preventive things, then you don’t have a system that’s reactive?” The list of those things becomes long: affordable housing, job-skills development, education funding, homeownership. She remembered how during the early 2000s, when she was the San Francisco district attorney and started Back on Track (a re-entry program that sought to reduce future incarceration by building the skills of the men facing drug charges), many people were critical. “ ‘You’re a D.A. You’re supposed to be putting people in jail, not letting them out,’” she said people told her.

It always returns to this for me — who should be in prison, and for how long? I know that American prisons do little to address violence. If anything, they exacerbate it. If my friends walk out of prison changed from the boys who walked in, it will be because they’ve fought with the system — with themselves and sometimes with the men around them — to be different. Most violent crimes go unsolved, and the pain they cause is nearly always unresolved. And those who are convicted — many, maybe all — do far too much time in prison.

And yet, I imagine what I would do if the Maryland Parole Commission contacted my mother, informing her that the man who assaulted her is eligible for parole. I’m certain I’d write a letter explaining how one morning my mother didn’t go to work because she was in a hospital; tell the board that the memory of a gun pointed at her head has never left; explain how when I came home, my mother told me the story. Some violence changes everything.

The thing that makes you suited for a conversation in America might be the very thing that precludes you from having it. Terell, Anthony, Fats, Luke and Juvie have taught me that the best indicator of whether I believe they should be free is our friendship. Learning that a Black man in the city I called home raped my mother taught me that the pain and anger for a family member can be unfathomable. It makes me wonder if parole agencies should contact me at all — if they should ever contact victims and their families.

Perhaps if Harris becomes the vice president we can have a national conversation about our contradictory impulses around crime and punishment. For three decades, as a line prosecutor, a district attorney, an attorney general and now a senator, her work has allowed her to witness many of them. Prosecutors make a convenient target. But if the system is broken, it is because our flaws more than our virtues animate it. Confronting why so many of us believe prisons must exist may force us to admit that we have no adequate response to some violence. Still, I hope that Harris reminds the country that simply acknowledging the problem of mass incarceration does not address it — any more than keeping my friends in prison is a solution to the violence and trauma that landed them there.


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