The loudest voices discussing the criminal justice system often aren’t the voices we should be listening to. Three returning citizens share their stories here.
In September 2019, the 34th Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania, John Fetterman, stated plainly and clearly that his one goal for his term is to keep people from dying needlessly in prison. If we’re being honest, no one should die in prison. It’s cruel and useless to keep people isolated from society for decades at a time and this plainly shows the evils of the criminal justice system and mass incarceration. But in Pennsylvania, there are more than 5,000 people serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. Any life sentence in the state carries the caveat of no possibility of parole. And all non-capital first-degree and second-degree murder convictions carry a mandatory minimum of life.
Pennsylvania is also one of the few states that charges juveniles as adults with the possibility of life sentences. This means that the jails and prisons are filled with people that have been in prison for 40 – 50 years without hope of ever leaving. This is despite a 2016 federal ruling that states resentence and release eligible incarcerated people immediately. As of December 6, 2019, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has approved the commutations of 19 returning citizens.
In Pittsburgh, Dr. Norm Conti and the Elsinore Bennu Think Tank petitioned Duquesne University to allow five of those men to participate in a first of its kind classroom experience. As part of a joint undergraduate/graduate course, Correctional Policy, five men recently paroled through the overhauled commutation process participated in a 15-week course with traditional students. They attended (almost) all of the twice-weekly class sessions, participated in discussions, and offered their unique perspectives on the criminal justice system.
I was lucky enough to sit with several of these men throughout the fall semester and ask them questions about their experience.
Answers are edited for clarity and brevity.
Do you all have a preferred name or title?
Foster: You can just call me Foster. One thing about the penitentiary, everything is by design. However you address someone, it suggests respect and it conveys respect for the next individual. You try to be careful. It’s a long story and some things are better left unsaid, so for now, Foster works for me.
Faruq: I went in as Robbie, came out as Faruq, and now I use both. It depends on if it’s family or friends. But there’s value in both names for me. My “real” name is Robert Wideman. Sometimes I prefer that, sometimes I prefer Mr. Wideman. But, call me Faruq. Because he’s the person I grew up to be. A lot of people love Robbie, and that person is still me. Faruq means the distinguisher between truth and falsehood and I like to think I do that most of time. Sometimes I do what’s best for me because I’m just human.
Big Lou: Alex, sometimes folks say Alexander the Great.
Foster: I heard that rumour.
Big Lou: My old jawn is Alexander Louis. Big Lou. Lou. Names mean a lot. We don’t understand sometimes, your name means something. It’s supposed to have a story in itself about where you came from. We may have been given different names if the situation or environment we came up in was different. I appreciate the name my parents gave to me and I always tried to represent what it meant to be a righteous Black man with my name.
What encouraged you to participate in this class?
Faruq: First of all, because it was offered. For the credits, but mostly to give the students hoping to be judges or lawyers or those hoping to work in the justice system a better perspective than what’s written in a book. Getting the story from us gives us more humanity. There’s something lacking in the legal or justice field – they don’t see us as humans, but as statistics.
Foster: I’m happy for the opportunity to give facts, not whining, but giving the truth — favourable and unfavourable. My perspective has value.
Big Lou: I never foresaw a situation where students and returning citizens could share a classroom, getting a better understanding of life in a general sense. It’s unique because it’s invaluable to have such a wide range of books, while sharing a classroom with the subjects & authors of the books. (My Brother’s Keeper & the Think Tank Book) There isn’t a deeper way to do this. We both (students and returning citizens) gained something from this. I never foresaw us sitting down with a younger generation and having this conversation. It’s powerful to know that the students got this insight. It made me feel young again. *Laughs.* Not that I feel old, but it’s definitely something that helped me quite a bit — mentally, physically, and spiritually.
Would you take the chance and take the class again?
Faruq: Probably, for the same reasons. To give back. One of my goals is to give back. I’m a miracle, I have no business being here. According to the rules of society, I was never supposed to be here again. But I’m here, able to help young people, able to help other men in the same situation as me, just trying to give back. I found out a long time ago that nothing makes you feel better than giving back.
Foster: I agree with that. Jumping in again, trying to put more weight to what I think is important is valuable. It’s important, it can help the next individual. What I felt, what I got from it, they can add their experience, and it continues to build. The end game is keeping folk free and this makes it easier. Who doesn’t want to be free?
The day that I was arrested, I didn’t think about the impact it would have 50 years later. I’m still trying to evaluate my options. Not just what’s in front of me, but creating opportunities. This exchange makes it easier and everyone feels that they got something from it. I want to walk away feeling like we’re building towards something important with who we engage with and against.
That’s scary. Considering your friends and family and how we all end up at the same spot. How the choices we make can impact all of us 10 years from now. The people that we left behind, the ones still trying to figure their options out…this is where it starts.
I have a friend that got 10-20 [years] and he feels like everyone should get 10-20. I asked him why he felt that way and he says “They gave it to me, that’s what they should do to everyone!” Not that there’s anything wrong with that thinking, but it got me thinking. You start to do their job for them. You start to question what will work on each individual. I’m still in the appeal phase, I feel like I’m talking to my goddamned self. As your options narrow, you can’t get back into the courts, you start looking at commutation. The things that were important for defining who you are, the process doesn’t allow the same conversation. You start to re-evaluate your purpose.
I’m just grateful to be home.
Big Lou: Time plays a hell of a part in this. We’re always chasing time and there’s never enough. Time can be your enemy if you’re waiting for time to take care of everything. It’s a drag that we don’t value it when we’re younger. If we understood time better when we were younger, we would understand how precious it is.
Our ancestors, our family taught us that our family is the community, not just the people under your roof. With all that I went through, I don’t feel that I missed my calling. All of the time that others put into me, it wasn’t in vain. The opportunity to interact with younger folks…helping others helps you. The chance to work with younger folks, children, students, whatever…that’s the nitty gritty. Lot of sleepless nights in the joint about that. How could we change someone’s life? How could we stop someone from spending the rest of their life in the penitentiary?
We were always afraid that our voices would never get over the wall. That they would never touch people. I feel I have a duty and an honour to carry on the work of the original think tank.
You want to know what a man’s really about? Ask him a few questions. His life was supposed to end right here and he dedicated his life to helping others? That’s a hell of a calling. To take that time, especially when he doesn’t have much left, to dedicate it to others and the community that he left behind. That’s what we want to do. I can see it. The brother made a statement about interacting and it sticks with me all the time. We’re so busy being individuals that we forget about interacting and that’s the most important part. If we’re not interacting, we’re not going anywhere or getting anything done. Being in the class and hearing how their blinders came off, that’s the whole reason we’re here. It brings a smile to our faces. Being on this campus is something that I’ve never really dreamed of.
Anything that we’ve learned in this time is something that we can take from here. And hopefully we’ve taught the students something too. I would take a bunch of other classes, yes. I want other brothers to take it too.
Is there one thing you hope everyone took from the class?
Faruq: The old lesson that there’s very little difference between us. Empathy, gratitude, learning to deal with people that don’t look or talk like you, have the same experiences or come from the same economic background as you, but finding out that you have a lot in common. The classroom is the perfect place for those kinds of ideas to develop.
I did a lot of schooling in prison, taught for universities, sponsored a lot of people. I consider myself a people kind of person. How could I not be if I did all of those things? *Laughs* And so every time I have a class, or go through a class I feel that same kind of thing. A gain that I’ve done this and a loss that I might never see them again. But it’s not that I needed to know them forever. I might see them a year from now and not recognise them. But it’s what we get, even the relationships generally don’t last forever. What we need to carry on is those bigger principles I mentioned. That’s what makes us, and hopefully them, better and better equipped for life. In reality, we were just students too.
Foster: I know what the word confidence means to me. I know it’s one of those attributes you need from day-to-day. You’re dealing with a system that covers every aspect of humanity. When you start looking at changing, it comes down to how much you’ve honed that confidence. That spills over into everything you do. When you get up in the morning, whatever you’re doing, you’re double-checking for that little thing. You’re making sure that you’re prepared for whatever you need to do that day.
In preparing yourself, you may realise that you have more to do. It boils down to traditions. Community, family traditions. People build their lives on those traditions. If you’re conscious of it, you make sure you aren’t wasting your energy and that you’re enhancing the next individual and their confidence. And their trust. Ensuring them that you can be counted on.
Big Lou: Whenever I’m dealing with school, I remember that I never really had the time for it. When I was younger, the educational system did us a disservice. We were told by our teachers to use our hands instead of our minds. Be a carpenter or whatever, never told to be a scientist or a lawyer or a politician. I thought it was part of the system that was holding us back. It was another fight for me.
In the midst of going through this struggle, I learned to appreciate education and learning. Learning, teaching, and practising what we learned. Then we get it down. Learning to appreciate education more than I did before. And you see how much is lost in our lives if we’re not learning, if we don’t have understanding. Reading, studying…it’s all part of it.
My situation was a little bit different. I was trying to grow up to be a responsible Black man that was part of his community. I never robbed anyone in my community. That’s a hell of a thing to say, but that was another learning experience. The older people trusted me and that made me feel good. I wanted to be around the older folk. I wanted to learn from them. I was eager to sit down because I know they had something they wanted to give to me.
We’re planting seeds but when do we see these things blossom? I thought I was a master of the game, come to find out I was a pawn in the game. For me to be such a wise man, how the hell didn’t I see the penitentiary around the corner? If I’m doing so much for the community, why am I doing things that take me away from my community?
I grew up during the times of protest and armed struggles. I was ready to sacrifice my life. How I thought bank robbery was going to be the foundation of my life? It’s crazy. We get caught up in instant gratification. What I had to learn to understand is that I was given the rap that I needed. If I had followed the rap the people in my community were giving up, I probably never would have gone to the penitentiary.
I want to help other people. I want to help the young bucks so filled with rage he doesn’t know what to do with themselves. I want to be a better listener as well. So this class has been a blessing for me.
Do you feel resentful or angry that it’s taken so long for people to pay attention to how bad these systems are?
Faruq: I laugh because how could I not? Maybe not angry or resentful, but I took it for granted. We broke the law and people were hurt, some people were killed. Prisons were made for people that break the law. But there’s a lot more that goes on in prison. The dehumanisation, the strong racial animosity when I first went in. The white guys sat on one side of the chow hall and the Black guys sat on the other. You might have had a white buddy, but he didn’t sit with you and you didn’t sit with him. That changed over time because we got a little better, but the separation was so stark and unjust. It made you more angry. It made you want to strike back in some way.
Mine was to delve further into race and what it meant and to be angry. I felt, and I still feel that people didn’t know what they built with prison. Prison is just a microcosm of the larger society. All the same ills, angst, and violence exist in there but in a much more intense way because it’s so close. We’re at a good point in time where people are looking inside. What has happened has not worked and it’s gotten worse. People are finally saying “Let’s do this thing differently.”
Mass incarceration doesn’t work. Isolation from the outside world doesn’t work. 95 – 97% of these men are coming back out. If you don’t nourish them, you create more problems for them and for society. It bothers me that it’s such a blind spot for our society. “Keep them out of my neighbourhood. Let the government take care of it. We don’t want to know.” Now people want to know. “Why are we spending billions of dollars on this and it doesn’t work?” I feel like we’re in the best place we’ve been in the 50 years that I’ve been involved in this. I feel bitter about how it was, but I feel hope about where we are now. Nailing the barn door after one runs away kills all of the horses. Let’s go get him and find out what made him run in the first place.
Foster: To use the word resentful…where to begin? Is that in the context of their life or in the context of human nature? This whole song and dance of exoneration and let this person go… There’s no right or wrong answer to that question. The question is where to begin. The slave ships? No, that’s too far back. The day I was arrested? Sure, let’s start there. See, it’s about context. That question about resentment is gone.
A tool is designed for a purpose. How can you use a hammer resentfully? Look for a tool to change the situation. There’s no shame is feeling resentful but I don’t know where it’s leading to. Regardless of how you answer, it’s about what you do. Since I’ve been out, I try not to make people feel uncomfortable. Like the guy that wanted everyone else to get 10 years, I don’t justify it, but I understand it. I’m careful with what I say because people’s imagination[s] can run away with them. I’m just grateful to get pepper from the cabinet for my eggs in the morning. I don’t want to get caught up in resentment.
Big Lou: Nah. I ain’t worried about being resentful. I was worried about having a calloused, mean, mad heart. The resentful part was something I knew I had to handle and deal with. I resented the way things were done overall. At times, I felt as though we were being treated as less than men. It seemed like we were going to be treated like slaves. That’s nothing something that I went for. I struggled against that. I had a bunch of feelings I had to get a grip on. If I felt that you were disrespecting me… If you treated me like a man, with respect, I could roll with that. But I’m being held here against my will and you’re not preparing me to return? That kept me in survivor mode. But I didn’t just want to survive. I wanted to survive and be free.
I had a conversation with Kalifa, one of the original founders of the think tank, and one of my things for him was learning to take control of time which is why we’re still here. You can’t let things make you react a certain way. I wanted to change myself inside. If these men weren’t rolling the way they roll, there would be a lot more broken men. I feel like we saved some lives.
Pittsburgh being a racist town, it was like a natural resistance. We weren’t going for it. If you’re supposed to be someone of authority, you’re supposed to be held to a higher standard. I never wanted someone to think they could push my buttons. We knew we might make it, as far as making it is concerned, but to be here now and look back on that, we’re proud that we never took anything for granted. All that we’ve put into trying to make things right, it wasn’t just for us. Had we let the ills of the penitentiary take over us, we’d have come out no good to ourselves or our families. Some of the stances we took, we saved some lives. Some people never make it the first night or the first day, but this is years we’re talking about.
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Big Lou: Decades. There’s young and older guys in the prison that helped me. I appreciate the folks, not only in the street, but the ones inside that helped me. I always want to holler back at them.
Foster: Whatever conversation is on the table, it’s continuous. Whether it’s slavery or whatever, it touches me. One of the most sensitive things, the most subtle things you come out with, too many people are in prison because they were conditioned to be in there. Circumstances, but also a lack of preparation for how to respond to certain situations or opportunities. Purpose is built on good intentions. I’m better at it now. I know when not to say certain things. Finding the best way or right medium to get certain messages across, especially for the next generation.
My little brother says to me, “Man you don’t get mad about anything.” I said to him, that doesn’t mean I don’t feel it. I’ve just learned through my conditioning to respond better. Back to the resentful question, it’s an ongoing question. We’re dealing with intelligent people. Not just people along for the ride, but people prepared to change the rules for their own interest with no shame.
Faruq: One more thing I’d like to add about resentment, from a poem that I used to read every day.
“When you resent something or someone, you cause it no pain. It doesn’t get up with acid on its stomach, you do. It doesn’t get up in the middle of the night thinking about you, you wake up thinking about it. You lose sleep, not that which you resent.”
Resentment is self-punishment. It fixes nothing. It clears nothing up. It’s self-deprivation we do to ourselves, not to the people or things we hate. It’s a useless and destructive thing to do. I’m human so those things come, but when they do, I remember some of those lessons I’ve learned. I let myself be still for a moment and let it pass on. Because it’s not for me.
My Brother’s Keeper | John Edgar Wideman
Tales from Inside | The Elsinore Bennu Think Tank