Essay by Ibi Cole

I was asked to write about a prisoner and about Parole in Illinois. But strange as it may be, before I expound on Parole, I felt more compelled to write about you… to write to you about you.

Strange, I agree. But here goes…

From the moment the cell doors slam on a person, I always imagine that what begins there, is some form of a count down: Count down for time to be released; count down to the time to die… or count down the time to get out.

Get out. Get away. Go back home. There would be a scramble, maybe…eventually. Whether innocent or guilty, the library would be filled with those attempting to find out what happened; find an appeal, find some loophole or an escape route. Then, there would be the letters; letters and petitions; petitions to attorneys or advocates. All wanting the same thing: to get out. Letters saying: “Help me. Look what happened to me.”

And then there’s you. The person the advocates and the attorneys and politicians want. The one who has to read through the pleas and proceedings of activists and support organizations trying to get people to feel something for prisoners, because if you see them as people, then maybe you could have sympathy or empathy for them.

It’s easy to kill or forget a monster. It’s hard to torture a person.

But, I’d rather write this essay about you; a person of profound interest. The one pulled and tugged by both sides of a spectrum; the one that must be convinced. But how could anyone know for certain… that they are not all monsters? That any one of them is human? Is anyone truly themselves when they are fighting for their lives? Those charged with raising doubt would tell you: people can say just about anything when they are fighting for their own lives, right? It seems so selfish or at least disingenuous to be apologetic at such a time. How would we know they are not con men? Con men are humans too.

So, I’m looking at you and I’m thinking: Let’s put monsters and men aside for a moment and ask you about you; if you are getting what you want out of any of this. Are you getting justice? Is justice being served? When a child is born and depending on whatever womb they are born from, they may face a high-stakes, uphill battle to obtain a marginal education, craft skill or alleyway of opportunity and if by most staggering statistical odds they end up miseducated, unskilled and without opportunity, that they will stumble down a rabbit hole of self destruction that may or may not land in your back yard; in your front yard, in your parked car, in your house, on your college campus or at your child’s school. How many more scientists and economists have to write papers pointing to the same answers?

Are you happy paying for the school to prison pipeline? All of it, any of it, either way: hit or miss, in your back yard or in your neighbors back yard. Are you okay paying for everything? And if you pay for it and don’t have to look at it, does that make it go away? Has it gone away? Or is it increasingly and intriguingly more and present. The more you try to erase, the more it appears. And isn’t it expensive? Increasingly closer to you. On your television every night and lurking between the ledgers of all of your security systems.

I’ve listened to and sat on panels of conferences, boardrooms of discussions, where tens to hundreds of brilliant people deliberated over ways to seduce you; to pull you in their corner for what they want. Make you feel empathy…sympathy. This is caught somewhere between the simultaneous attempts of news stations to scare you, politicians to woo you, governments to tax you and food and drug companies to sedate you. Victims families rightfully have all of us empathizing with their hurt and anger while prisoners rake up classes and petitions asking you feel sorry. Have you noticed the words that are missing in all of this?

Has anyone gotten what they needed? Do victims get satisfaction from warehousing or state sanctioned retaliation? Does it rewind time? Are streets any safer? Or does it feel like we’re going in circles?

And if we keep doing things the way they’ve always been done, are you comfortable with that always being a roll of the dice for you? Every time you walk out your front door, or jog at night?

What’s so intriguing about you, is that through all of the dice rolling and all of the buck passing from those trying to manipulate you onto their team, you’ve not once won a single game or even seen progress. But you keep paying for it all. The real losers aren’t just the prisoners and the victims. It’s you as well. And the only people winning are the ones who built the casino.

They built an arena and profit from both sides battling each other to the death. They built a system where masses and masses of people don’t get better. They simply “get out.” Or they just try to get out. They try to get you to get them out. And then all we get, once they’ve gotten that, is another social liability that pours back into the cycle of ignorance that fuels the whole machine running on your shoulders.

Instead of asking you to care about a prisoner in order to be a proponent of Parole in Illinois, I think I’d rather ask you to care enough about yourself and the world that your children will have to grow up in to pose the real questions. To flip the chessboard over and hold the game-maker accountable for the cycle of destruction we’ve all been wrapped into: A system that is called corrections, but makes very little progress at correcting things. A system called education, but makes very little progress at educating everyone. And even still, while we talk about justice and freedom; crime and punishment, there’s still words missing that you rightfully deserve.

Prevention ProAction Progress Well-Being Redemption Atonement Restoration Reparation

If someone was actually working toward a way where you could touch those things. Not another buzz word, or heart-string; not running in circles and not just getting out; would you listen?

Ask: Andre Patterson.

And then ask yourself: What socio-economic benefit has ever arisen from establishment of decentralized education funding since the inception of the U.S. Department of Education in 1867?

Ask yourself: If crime is the result of economic instability and economic instability is the result of non-education and non-education is the result of economic instability, what incentive do the corporations or government entities that claim billions of dollars in earnings and tax revenues each year from this cycle of ignorance have to bring about or propel legislation that calls for equal education for all?

If America’s position as the number one jailer in the world, the rising recidivism rates and failed policies since the war on crime began in 1971 are no indication, ask yourself this:

Who is t,hen, incentivized to end the cycle of ignorance and incarceration? If the policy makers, corporations and prisons have found no incentive to diminish mass incarceration (except when there’s a national recession),Who is incentivized to educate the disenfranchised youth of tomorrow? Who will dare to step into forgotten schools, neighborhoods and confront the angry, mis-guided, mis-educated pipe line counterparts BEFORE they terrorize anyone’s neighborhood?

Who is the most equipped with nothing else to lose? Who has seen the pendulum swing and seen the end of the dead-end road? Who has been to the depths of hell and climbed out again to warn others to go a different way? Who has self-educated, self motivated and self demonstrated a plan to set a new course for the future?

Those Paroled from Prison.

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