It has been my privilege to know numerous people who are incarcerated. That might strike some as a strange sentiment, but it’s really true. For instance, Jesse Martinez, having served over 20 years in prison, is an intelligent, hardworking, natural leader. During his adolescence, he used his leadership skills in unfortunate ways, and people got hurt, including himself. Our actions must always bear consequences, no question. But the concept of prison, at least at its inception, was that separating persons from the community gave the people in the community a greater sense of safety and gave the individual responsible for causing harm time to learn, grow, and change. Jesse is a transformed man, and he now has a great deal to offer his community and our collective society.
Jesse is many things: a devoted father to his now grown children, a doting grandfather when he can be to his very young grandsons, a dear friend to many, a mentor to men preparing to reenter society from prison, a student whenever possible, a teacher to men attempting to achieve a GED or pursue other studies, and a leader, now in every positive sense of the word. He is creative, persistent, hardworking, optimistic, and loyal.
Would I want Jesse to live in my community once he’s released? Absolutely! And isn’t that what we need to ask ourselves? Are men like Jesse ready to give back to society in meaningful ways? Are they ready to contribute to the well-being and thriving of the human community? No doubt about it! Jesse has been working consistently, right now through mentoring, and he takes every college course he can. He has dreams of owning a business, mentoring young men on the outside, and being able to be the father and grandfather in person that he has been longing to be. His children still need him even though they are on the cusp of adulthood; we all benefit when children have their fathers (and mothers, of course) around to guide and teach them. And any community in which Jesse is a resident and worker will be grateful to know him and work beside him. We need to recognize that people change over time. None of us wants to be frozen in the midst of our misbegotten adolescence, and few of us are required to do so. Let’s put end dates on the long sentences given during the ill-conceived mandatory sentencing era and let good men come out to give back to society. Let’s reinstate parole in Illinois!