On Friday, November 27, 1989, the day after Thanksgiving, a police officer from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office came to my home, and in front of my children and wife, he arrested me in a case of mistaken identity.
Ironically, the white arresting officer recognized it to be a case of mistaken identity, but the African American sergeant who arrived on the scene shortly after simply looked at me, looked at my family, looked at my home and neighborhood, and then with an unmistaken look of contempt on his face, told the white officer to take me in anyway. The white officer protested, but the African American sergeant just sneered and told him we would work it out at the station.
So, I was taken down to the city jail. I was booked. I was fingerprinted. I was photographed. And for the next twelve hours, I sat in a cell awaiting bail to be set.
When my wife picked me up from the station, she was hoarse from having yelled and screamed for twelve hours straight in the face of anyone and everyone at the city jail. But I was calm, too calm for her. So, she demanded to know why I was not angrier, why I was not absolutely infuriated at my treatment. I tried to explain it to her; I tried to articulate my emotions, but she could not be made to understand.
In a word, I felt relieved. Not relieved to have finally made it out of jail, but finally relieved to have made it into jail. You see, by the time I was arrested, I had witnessed so many young black men go to jail, and I had worked with so many young black men who, despite my and others’ greatest efforts, ended up in jail, that I actually began wondering why I was yet to go to jail.
The more I achieved, the more I realized some measure of success, the more apprehensive I got. The more frightened I became. And it all didn’t make sense because when I was growing up, prison, or as my grandmother called it—the pen, was frowned on. It was shameful. If a family member happened to go to “the pen,” then the family lied and said he was in East St. Louis or something. If he was from East St. Louis, then the family lied and said he was down South.
But my point is this: Despite my upbringing, despite my education, despite my achievements, if all that was going on around me, if all I witnessed could work to convince me that going to jail was inevitable as a young black man, what must those young African American men still stuck in inner-city, crime infested neighborhoods, those still under the thumb of poverty, feel. What do they believe their life prospects to be?
It appears to me that incarceration or having family members incarcerated has become an all too familiar part of African American lives. I read somewhere that for young African American males, going to jail has become almost a rite of passage. And remnants of prison culture are creeping into the mainstream culture, for instance the sagging pants and tattoos.
But we all know how ruinous a prison record can be, what an absolutely devastating effect a prison record can have on a young person’s future.
But the challenge then becomes to counter this normalization of deviancy with another paradigm. For all those images of deviancy we must counter with images of success and acheivement. I believe that those of us who have managed to make it out, those of us who have managed to achieve some measure of success, have an unequivocal responsibility to return and serve as role models, as mentors, for those still looking for a way out.
Have you had an experience similar to mine? What do you think can be done to reduce the number of young African American men entering the prison system?
Additional web resource: Genpop.org