By Devin D. Coleman
Tears almost came out of my eyes, thinking about what being justice-impacted has meant for my family and me.
Justice-impacted means waking up every day with the 20/20 vision that hindsight brings. It means knowing that decisions I made have generational consequences. Barely out of my teenage years before I thought about having a family of my own, I made a series of decisions that will follow me even after death. Convicted and sentenced harsher because of the tone of my skin.
The burden on my shoulders was heavy.
I shuffled back and forth thinking about how I would tell my mother her only son had a prison bunk with his name on it. I heard my sister, who had just begun high school, tell me in the only letter she wrote that I had left her in the world alone. My maternal grandmother had to settle for weekly phone calls instead of weekly visits due to my incarceration.
At the time, I did not know my mother would put over 100,000 miles on her car visiting me in correctional institutions across the state. I did not realize the impact of my temporary exit from my sister’s life would take twenty years to repair. I also did not know my little cousins would miss my presence. And I did not know my grandmother was battling terminal cancer.
“Tough on crime” laws and creative messaging campaigns made it easier to target and over-sentence my demographic. It appears that public officials gave little thought to the circumstances that created the opportunity for crime to exist. For some, it is more accessible to get the tools to enter a life of crime than it is to be on the straight and narrow. Instead, lawmakers gave all their thought to punishment. Maybe they gave a little to and rehabilitation (regaining skills and abilities) versus habilitation (gaining skills), too.
Nevertheless, I do not come from the bloodline of quitters. My mother told me who the men in my family were and what they endured and overcame.
We survive and thrive despite the obstacles in front of us. A wise man said if you destroy a Black man, you do not have to worry about his woman. She will spend her life mourning him. And you don’t have to worry about his children. They are lost because of his absence. I could not allow my obstacles to destroy me. So I began to rebuild. I sought out every opportunity to add value to myself, thereby adding value to those around me.
A friend of mine introduced me to an organization named the New Florida Majority during President Obama’s first Presidential run. Due to my inability to vote (at the time, Florida had a ban revoking the voting rights of returning citizens), I decided to volunteer my time to get others to exercise the right to vote.
During my tenure, I found out policies allowed my incarceration and prevented my successful reentry into society. I was a political prisoner. I learned about the True Cost of Incarceration, meaning the price my friends and family had to pay because of my absence. So I had a friend’s wife call me and tell me to stay out of trouble. Every time I did time, her husband stopped eating out of concern for me. It was an eye-opener for me. When you’re inside, you rarely see how the system impacts those that care about you and depend on you.
My naivety caused me to think once my sentence was completed, I would be able to pursue the American Dream and rebuild my life.
Even though my punishment was complete, my conviction would become a barrier to employment, despite my skillset and college degree. It also would become a disqualifier for safe and affordable housing even though I was a single father. My conviction would also eliminate me from the eligible bachelor pool.
I was technically free but perpetually punished for decisions and actions made before I was barely old enough to legally purchase a drink. Being justice-impacted means every aspect of your life changes. It means you will face obstacles. But they aren’t insurmountable. It means you have to have discipline, information, focus and commitment to adding value to yourself, your family and your community. And it means we and others have to advocate for policies that allow us to renter society and maximize the opportunities presented to us successfully.
You can hear from How to Justice’s other justice-impacted contributors in our I’ve Been In Your Shoes section. Make sure to check out our other pieces about what it means to be justice impacted, including our most recent piece from Kristine Bunch.