I visited the Thompson Center this week, to stand up in the white system for the character of a black man I met in peace circles training three years ago. The seat next to me was empty, until he filled it. Stephen was the last to enter the circle, bringing along a stack of journals as his contribution to our sacred space. Immediately, I knew I had to know his story. And so it has been my privilege these past three years to learn the story of Stephen Jackson. On Thursday, I proudly accompanied him, along with dozens of fellow community members, to his Executive Clemency Board Hearing. Four times a year in Chicago, a panel of mostly white people interrogate mostly black people, who are requesting relief from their social status as an ex-con. Admittedly, we entered the classroom (not a courtroom) knowing that Governor Rauner hasn’t finalized a budget yet, much less cleared an overflowing pile of clemency petitions on his desk. Still, with limited hope, we went to tell Stephen’s story. We listened to the white powers that be interrogate, intimidate and insist that Stephen endlessly serve his sentence. In other words, it was definitely “not fair,” in the words of my inner child.
According to the National Employment Law Project, approximately 70 million people in the United States — that‘s one in four adults — have a criminal record. Unemployment is one of the driving forces behind recidivism. Millions are trying to navigate a world with endless roadblocks including limited employment with a criminal record, trying to increase the chances they’ll succeed in society and lessen the chances they’ll return to prison. We don’t make it easy for them. According to the ABA, we have more than 45,000 laws restricting people with criminal records: they can’t get public housing, they can’t vote, and they can’t apply for certain jobs. As one ex-con said, “It’s so easy to get into trouble, but so hard to get out of it.”
Despite the odds, my friend Stephen (39) is a proud father, husband, circle leader, community member who has found work, created his own business and community; he is a transformed man. As his high school teacher shared, the person he was at 18 is long gone. He served his time, he repented, he contributes to society daily by keeping other teens in school, out of prison. One of my favorite experiences is to walk with a person in their shoes, to see how they see the world and witnessing how they show up in it. When I walk down Lake Street in Oak Park with Stephen, I watch him make his magic with every teen we meet. He is respected, regarded and making a powerful impact on the streets of our town. (Read more about his work here: http://www.oakpark.com/News/Articles/11-10-2015/A-call-to-action-for-Stephen-Jackson/). Not only should we rip the Scarlet A from his chest, but actually, we need him to be unfettered so he can freely give his gifts.
I remember my dream as a young girl to become a criminal justice lawyer. I recall that moment in Boston when I was a young law student who saw the injustice in the system and took a detour in my career as a result. I know injustice and see how we all suffer as a result. You are right, Mom, life is not fair. And I will continue to dedicate my life to creating a more just world, for all of us.