Our Voices > Reform Debate

Don’t Join Me in Prison

Oct 19, 2023

By Rob Barton

“There is no higher priority than the safety of our residents and those who work in and visit D.C.,” said Mayor Muriel Bowser in a recent statement, after a congressman was carjacked by a teenager in the District. “We are using every tool available to reduce crime.”

So far this year, more than 222 people have been slain in D.C., including 20 under the age of 17. That’s 15 more than in all of 2022 — with three months to go. The District surpassed 200 killings on Aug. 12, the earliest point in a year since 1997. Compared with last year, carjackings are up 106%, robberies are up 66% and homicides are up 35%.  (Nationally, homicides and many other violent crimes are declining, but remain at elevated levels compared to before the COVID pandemic.)

Of even more concern: The last two years have seen a sharp increase in violent crime arrests among juveniles. D.C.’s police department reported 326 juveniles arrested for violent crimes in 2022, and 363 during the first six months of 2023. That is an approximately 47% increase.

When people are scared, they punish

People are scared. They are angry at the politicians, who are all pointing fingers. They are calling for tougher penalties. And I know that at this pace, tougher punishments are exactly what we will get. Mayor Bowser recently proposed a bill that would increase penalties for gun-related crimes, tilt the scales toward more pretrial detention, and make it more difficult for people with longer prison sentences to gain early release. Several months later, Council Member Brooke Pinto, chair of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, introduced another bill that would also increase the likelihood of pretrial detention, as well as establish several new felony offenses.

And Congress, which has veto power over District laws, wants the council to go even further.

“No section of this city can be considered safe anymore,” said Republican Andy Biggs. “The D.C. city council has emboldened criminals and hamstrung the police.”

My message to young people

I know that the young people who really need to hear these words are not reading my blog posts. I also know that my comrades who have been released from prison are out there, at their wits’ end, trying to stop them from following in our footsteps. I wish I could add my voice to theirs: Choose a different path before it’s too late. DONT END UP LIKE US!

Believe me, I know their mindset. I know these kids aren’t thinking about where they are heading. I also know they don’t really care, because, truthfully, the potential consequences of their actions probably don’t even cross their minds, since they live for today—this moment. What they don’t know is that if they continue their risky lifestyles and the crime rate keeps going up, the little support there is for decarceration reform will go out the window. And once again, those young people will be deemed incorrigible, a menace to society, super predators. And trust me, in this environment, you can lose the best years of your life in an instant, no matter how young, abused and misguided you are.

I grew up in the crack era of the 1980s and ended up in an adult prison just two months past my 16th birthday. I’m still here at the age of 44. And as I write this, I am fighting tooth and nail, literally clawing my way, trying to get out of prison after almost 29 years of incarceration. I pray daily for a reprieve, for a judge or parole board that will look past the trouble I’ve sometimes gotten into in the dysfunctional prison world, to the potential I know I have. I have changed! But it’s hard to grow up in high-security federal penitentiaries and maintain the clean record and constant programming judges and parole boards look for. (At my current “home,” the Coleman penitentiary in Florida, we’re locked down more than half of the time. What programming can we do?) And so, I am still here. 

I want to tell today’s youth: DON’T BE LIKE ME. I don’t want you in here with me, calling me “big homie” (a term of respect used by younger guys for older convicts). I’d rather you listen to me. 

I was you at one point. I didn’t care. If someone got in my way, or if I got in their way (because lots of times, I deliberately started stuff), I took care of it the only way I knew how or was taught to do — with the gun. I understand this mentality. 

Now, however, I will never allow anyone or anything to cause me to go back to prison. It isn’t worth it. I have thrown away a large part of my life: most of my teens, all of my 20s and 30s, and half of my 40s so far. Stop while you have the chance.

There is a large world out there, despite the fact that you may only know your neighborhood. If you hang in there and fight for the opportunity, you can be so many other things. Yes, it’s hard. And there are a lot of dynamics beyond your control that make it harder — your parents’ drug addiction, the violence all around you, the lack of positive role models.

But you don’t have to be a criminal. You don’t have to hurt people. There’s nothing cool about the streets. This jail shit is no kind of life. DON’T BE LIKE ME!

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