You gave me hope, Lou Hammond

By Megan Salmon

Image source: CBS News

By: Megan Salmon

I can’t say I’m particularly optimistic about the prison system in the United States. Again, I bring this perspective as a black woman who has seen too many lives in my community get completely overturned by the criminal justice system. Today’s class sessions reinforced for me what a mammoth of a problem this is for our black and brown brothers. The statistic Julie Reynolds Martinez shared about race in prison was truly daunting: 1 in 15 black men over the age of 18 have been in prison. I knew the rates were ridiculous, but seeing the numbers in front of my face left me a little shell-shocked.

As the presentation continued, my pessimism only really seemed to grow. There was an exact moment when I felt particularly hopeless– Julie asked us: do you think it’s possible to come out of prison a better person? The room was silent. At first, I didn’t say anything. I do think it’s possible to come out of prison a better person. In fact, I strive for any person entering the criminal justice system to exit it having learned from the experience and using that to make positive changes. But I stayed silent because I felt like I couldn’t answer that question without paying a major acknowledgement to the inequalities and privileges that our prisoners of color face and how that affects what they are like coming out of prison (if they are even lucky enough to break the cycle and get out).

We must acknowledge the privileges that white prisoners have when it comes to “coming out a better person.” Everyone loves a redemption arc when it’s white. Yet, for everyone else, the process is much more difficult. Being brown or black adds on a lot of stigmas after getting out of prison that are hard to fight. I imagine that many black and brown ex-cons see it as futile. They’ll always see me as a criminal anyway. “Coming out a better person” and contributing to society is difficult when you feel as though society will just reject you anyway. Further than that, many black and brown prisoners do not have anywhere near the amount of resources that white prisoners have. Since prisoners of color all to often have ended up in prison as a part of a spiraling poverty cycle, they enter prison lacking a lot of agency that is further reduced once they leave. White people are more likely to have access to education, (mental) health care, money and professional skills than people of color. Thus, the transition to “coming out a better person” is likely easier for white prisoners than prisoners of color.

This is rather bleak. I came out of that session feeling like I needed to make a change, but also quite defeated overall. Lou Hammond’s talk afterward was a beacon of light for my clouded sense of hope. A brown man who made it out of prison. Not only out of prison, but also out of a gang. He defied the odds and it all started by arbitrary act of kindness– a corrections officer simply tying his shoe. However, though this act of kindness was rather small and arbitrary, it was calculated in a way that made effective change possible. A CO has a lot of power over prisoners which often leads to dehumanization. Further, Lou was a notorious gangster who would often not be respected by anyone– much less any type of officer of the law.This particular CO used the power dynamics to turn the situation around reach out to Lou which triggered a him to rethink his purpose. This is not to minimize Lou; in fact, Lou’s journey to where he is today is nothing short of remarkable. It was his motivation to learn from his experience and use it make a positive change that broke the cycle. It was this very motivation that saved lives.

I am a little more optimistic now about the prison system. Lou’s story showed me that even against all odds and obstacles, it is very possible for prisoners of color to escape the cycle and even effect their own positive change because of it. I knew this was possible, but as the prison system is designed to keep our black and brown folk within its walls, sometimes the mission seems futile. Our prisoners here in the United States have so much to offer through their experiences. It is our job to give them the opportunity to do so.

Sites DOT MIISThe Middlebury Institute site network.