I’ve hung out with a murderer.
One day, in the fall of 2016, I sat across a table from the man who took my brother’s life. We were in a prison in South Texas. Our meeting occurred in the visitation space used during the weekends. It had vending machines and institutional lighting. It was one of the few places in the entire prison that was air-conditioned and it was freezing; an unlikely place to hold the pain and reconciliation we were there for. The only people in the room that day were my brother’s murderer, the mediator, and me.
I was the only person in my family willing to take that meeting. And I participated because I believe that justice isn’t about retribution. I believe that justice is about ensuring that cycles aren’t repeated, that justice is in the balance between punishment and social retraining. The man who sat in front of me that day hadn’t known what to expect from me but do think I can say he was surprised.
I don’t know what he thought he was gonna get from me, but mostly I told him wanted him to do something. I wanted prison to mean something. This man had a few educational and vocational options in prison, but he had hadn’t used any of them. And it made me mad because I want prison and social justice to have a point. If it doesn’t then it just ends up becoming social revenge instead of rehabilitation. It’s bad enough that prisoners have shit options: they don’t get paid, they get shitty teachers and often have to survive prison itself. That’s bad enough.
I told him that day that I realized I couldn’t make him go to school, get an education or even show up to his prison job, and that I didn’t want to, but I did expect him to change.
During our mediation there was an interruption. The warden needed to speak to my mediator. It was the only time that the prisoner and I were alone at the table. He looked at me and I looked at him. I looked at the door and then leaned toward him. “Oh man,” I whispered, “that guy is just so funny. (Was it okay for me to talk to him without the mediator? I didn’t know.) My brother’s killer looked at me like I was crazy. “The warden!?,” he asked. “Yea man, he is hilarious,” I responded, and he looked at me again, shook his head and started chuckling. “Oh,” I realized belatedly, “probably not funny with you guys.”
The mediator mouthed “No” to me as he walked back toward us, shaking his head. He obviously didn’t think I was supposed to be talking to the prisoner without him, either. But for me, that moment mattered. I’ll remember it forever: two people with the murder of a human life hanging between them and a moment of utter humanity.
It’s easy to think of men like this as monsters. It’s easy to classify them as something less than human. That man, though? He is human. He had a wife and children who are growing up with him in prison.
I left that institutional room inside that prison knowing that I needed to do something. I knew that, for me, justice is served when the person who has committed a crime is given an opportunity to do something different. Regardless of the nature of the crime.
So my last and final reason for starting Code/Out is to ensure that any woman in Georgia who wants to do something different, can. The very existence of our program will mean that some of the women in the Georgia prison system will have that opportunity. For some, justice will not only be possible but inevitable.
When folks ask what kind of felons our program takes, I tell them: there’s not a felony I’m afraid of. I’ve hung out with a murderer after all. The violent graduates will be hard to employ, the sexual offenders will have a hard time finding housing and the ones convicted of fraud will have to go through endless hoops… justice isn’t for the faint of heart. But it is a worthwhile pursuit.
Join me as we seek justice, search for equity and justice in our system.