This essay was written in 2012 for the opening session of the Garnett-Nabritt Lecure Series at American Baptist College in Nashville, Tennessee. It is reprinted here with the permission of Mr. Miles who, along with several of his fellow insiders, asked that we tell their story.
“American Baptist College March 19, 2012, Joseph Miles, a student in a class currently being taught by Professor Janet Wolf for American Baptist College at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, has written the following essay for today:
My name is Joseph Miles; I am incarcerated at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. First, I want to thank you all for hearing my words today. I want to talk to you concerning the kids in the Black Communities across the State of Tennessee. These kids are in real trouble and as a community, we should want to step up and take a more proactive role in the lives of these kids. They really need us to get involved and bring new alternatives into their lives, as well as into their communities. In 2006 all the kids in Springfield had was the streets and the carwash for hanging out. Today in 2012 they still only have the streets and a carwash. I was at the courthouse in Springfield, TN, in May of 2006, and they brought the inmates up from the jail. The day in question they brought in seven of what I thought, were Black men and put them into a holding cell with me. As we talked I quickly realized those black men were just kids. Not one of them was older than my oldest daughter, but all seven were closest in age to my youngest daughter who is nineteen (19) years of age.
I listen to them tell me how they came to be in jail and in the streets. My heart got heavy, because I could relate to them. When I think of them today, my eyes water up, because their words touched me much deeper than they will ever know. As I was being prepared for the trip back to prison, I overheard a lawyer telling one of them about the deal that would get him out of jail, but the deal was only good for that day. This kid was strongly declaring his innocence. The lawyer said to him, “Do you want to go home today, or do you want to go back over to the jail until trial? It is your choice!” On my way out the door, I looked back to see that kid signing those papers. He had to make a decision about his innocence, his future and his freedom without the benefit of having time to think, or talk with others about the so-called deal. He had to choose then and the only thing he was really sure about in that instance, he knew he wanted out of jail and this deal gets him out today. From talking with him in that holding cell, I believe he was much too inexperienced to know that deal was not beneficial to him, but destructive to his future. But, there is nothing that can be done about that now. But, I can tell you this. When I look at the ones that come in here from eighteen to twenty-five with new life sentences that they MUST serve fifty-one (51) calendar years of before they are even eligible for parole, I believe that most of them could have been helped.
Let me ask you all a question. How many of you think about the future of the young Black man? I need you all to think about this. What type of future are we looking forward to if our kids go into a prison at the age of fifteen and don’t come out until they’re sixty-six (66) years of age? What type of future are we looking forward to when our kids are dying faster than the elders of our communities? What type of future are we looking forward to when our kids value their self-worth by the price of the shoes they wear and the designer jeans they cannot afford? Ladies and Gentlemen, our kids are in REAL TROUBLE and it is going to take the community to save them. In 2007 I read an article in the newspaper that was wrote by a professor at Princeton University, and it read, “A white man out of prison has a faster chance of getting a job than a black man who’s never been in prison.” I found that study very interesting, but not surprising. Our kids are stereotyped by the clothes they wear, the way they walk, talk, even their hairstyles. Most of them in the streets probably cannot read good enough to fill out a job application. This is called CRIMINALIZING our kids. Making them feel inferior, at the same time destroying their self-esteem. Society is good at manipulating the psyche of our kids. I pray that you all are hearing these words, because these are your children, your grand children, your nieces, your nephews, cousins and the children of your friends. People, they will not and cannot survive without their community.
Maybe some of you are asking. What can we do? First, you have got to tell yourselves that these kids are worth saving, worth loving and worth our time. Second, the community must come together, push City Hall for the recreation programs, jobs and job training that the youngsters need and deserve. Parents must take a more active involvement in their kid’s education because too many of the educators of today are only concerned with trying to suspend these kids from school, putting them in the streets when they need and should be in school. Again, manipulating their psyche to feel inferior. Third, these kids need people they can talk to. People who can help them identify the madness in their lives. I see so many kids in these prisons and prison cannot help them. They need help before it gets to this! The only way to help them and keep them from destroying themselves is to come together as a community. Bring those kids in from the streets, hug them, and say to them, “we love you,” and reinforce those words with your actions and a commitment of saving them.
For the people that may be asking. What business is this of ours? I will say this to you. You are children of God; these kids I am speaking of are also children of God. I would ask you all to read Exodus 18:19-20 and 23. From that scripture, I appeal to all people of faith on behalf of these kids. I want to share a quote from Maya Angelou. “No man is free until all men are free. No woman is healed until all women are healed.” These are more than profound statements worthy of thought. They are the clues to the moral responsibilities we all have for one another. We should think about where we would be if there were no books or people to guide us when we need it. Then with an open heart and extended hand, we can pull someone else along. Some of you may be asking yourselves, who does he think he is? I will tell you this. In May of 2006 when I met those, seven kids in that holding cell, I made a promise to myself, to help them; not knowing where to start. Thinking about them almost every day. In June of 2007, a girl was shot in the neck for hanging out at the carwash the only hangout, those kids have and the following week another child was shot in the head and died on the way to the hospital. I knew I had to say something to someone and you all are the ones to help them. Because in 2012 our Black kids are still filling the jails, prisons, and graveyards faster than any other race in America.” – Joseph Miles
19Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You should represent the people before God, and you should bring their cases before God; 20teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do.23If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace.” Exodus 18:19-20,23 NRSV
These words echo those of Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age of Colorblindness”, when she says that “the core challenge to ending mass incarceration is dispelling the myth that some of us are not worthy of genuine care concern and compassion.”
We are ALL children of God! Thank you for reminding us Mr. Miles!!
Make A Difference . . . . . . . . For Life!!!