‘Young black boy’
I recently met a longtime prisoner named Ronnie Harris. The president had just urged police to not be “too nice” to suspects. His attorney general had recently instructed district attorneys to seek maximum penalties for non-violent crime. Congress, after coming close last year to passing sentencing and prison reform legislation, had introduced new harsh “law and order” bills that would add new crimes and steeper penalties under expanded control of the attorney general.
This demonstrates not only a lack of fairness in law by ruling out individual consideration, but also a lack of respect for human dignity, treating suspects and convicts as though they were less than human; in the words of the president, as “animals”.
Ronnie Harris read a poem he’d written depicting his life and three decades behind bars. It reminds of the humanity of every person, that each deserves respect and has potential for transformation. With his permission, here’s a part:
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Young black boy: Why are you poor?
Young black boy: What do you want to grow up to become?
Young black boy: Why does your mother struggle?
Young black boy: Why do you live in a shack?
Young black boy: Why are you sad so much? ...
Young black boy: Where are your friends?
Young black boy: Why is your life so different from whites’?
Young black boy: Why do you not like school anymore?
Young black boy: What are the tears for?
Young black boy: Why is there no one to help you?
Young black boy: Can anyone see you?
Young black boy: Why won’t the white teachers teach you?
Young black boy: Why are they laughing?
Young black boy: Why are you drinking so much?
Young black boy: Why don’t you care anymore?
Young black boy: Why did you commit a crime? ...
Young black boy: Why are you in prison?
Young black boy: Why do they see you now? ...
Young black boy: Why go back to school? ...
Young black boy: Where is your family now?
Young black boy: Why do you feel abandoned?
Young black boy: Dry your eyes.
Young black boy: Men don’t cry!
Young black man: Your pain and to tears have been heard
Young black man: You now have a new family and new friends.
In recent months people at the highest levels of power and wealth have been suspect or charged with a range of unlawful behavior, of “mistakes.” But they are being defended by the best attorneys money can buy. They want to be treated as individuals, their situations taken into account.
People like Ronnie Harris deserve the same individualized attention, not to be regarded as “animals.” Fortunately, he will be released soon and will have Friends [Quakers] to welcome him. Every prisoner deserves the same opportunity for support during and after incarceration enacted in law and policy.