Another post from Mercy, about collateral consequences and a not-so-hard heart
One of the stories that most impacted me as a young attorney came from a man who had spent his life in federal law enforcement. This federal law enforcement officer spent a lifetime putting hardened “criminals” behind bars, and yet something in this law enforcement officer’s eyes still held a true look of compassion for the same people he’d spent years locking up.
I remember discussing the situation of one of my young male African American clients with this Federal law enforcement officer, who we will call Agent Smith. Agent Smith agreed with me that my client had a harsh family situation, and that my client had grown up in an impoverished neighborhood that was downright dangerous – the kind of neighborhood where you cannot sleep in the front bedroom of the house for fear of getting shot in a random drive by shooting, the kind of neighborhood where when you hear gunshots it doesn’t sound out of the ordinary because it happens so often. I could tell at some point in my discussion with Agent Smith that a memory or something had come to mind. Agent Smith’s kind light blue eyes sort of darkened like a cloud was passing through, I could see him filled with hard memory like he was re-experiencing whatever it was all over again. And then Agent Smith told me one of the things he’d witnessed that spoke volumes to him about the situations young men like my client must face.
Agent Smith described a drug raid he was involved in as a federal agent where they were busting into a house in the very neighborhood many years ago. They were ready, guns blazing and when they broke open the front door of this little house in this rough neighborhood, they did not find what they’d expected to find. Agent Smith described what they found with such detail that I can still see an image of it now in my mind and I will never forget it. He described finding a young African American boy sitting in a fairly dark room. The young boy was sitting in the middle of the floor, the room had no furniture, the floor was hard, there was no electricity on in the house. As they approached the young child and examined what the little boy had in his hands, they saw that he had a pencil and his school book down on the floor. I could see big drops forming in Agent Smith’s eyes as he told me that the young boy was sitting in an empty house trying to do his homework in the dark. His mom was not there because she was working and his father was in prison for drugs. Agent Smith communicated to me how this child’s situation left an imprint on his soul, basically one that helped him realize in a different light what some of these children are truly up against, these children who have parents that he’d put behind bars, children he was likely to put behind bars someday too.
Agent Smith’s story gives us a tangible image of the child who has parents or just one parent in prison. The children of those convicted of drug crimes and sent to prison for years are often left behind with perhaps one parent either caught up in addiction themselves or struggling to make ends meet as a single parent. The hole left in our communities and families due to the mass incarceration of individuals convicted of drug crimes leaves a much deeper and wider hole in our communities than that of just the individual person who is placed behind bars. I have heard people say plenty of times that my client’s children are “better off with them in prison.” I cannot agree with that statement. Sometimes yes, in some situations that can be true, but perhaps we should be exploring more intense and intentional measures to truly help and heal these parents so their children are not left alone in the dark doing their homework. In rethinking the impact of mass incarceration we must also consider the domino effect it has on the children of the people we put behind bars.