African Americans have traveled a long, turbulent path in this county. Almost 11 million of our ancestors were kidnapped and enslaved in the Americas, and that shameful institution set the stage for centuries of racialized discrimination and inequality that we have yet to dismantle.
Accordingly, a word—a call, really—that has resounded throughout our history is that of “freedom.” It was what we sought during our enslavement. It was what we fought for in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. It is why we organized, marched, sat down and stood up for our civil rights more than 50 years ago. And it is what we continue to fight for in this era of mass incarceration that has disproportionately imprisoned Black Americans, ushering in what Michelle Alexander calls “The New Jim Crow.”
As someone who spent decades behind bars, freedom is a particularly poignant concept. At one time it felt like an unattainable dream—at the age of 17, I was sentenced to mandatory life without the possibility of parole and thought I would never know freedom again. Thankfully, I was resentenced and released in 2017 because of a United States Supreme Court ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana that invalidated my sentence. But while I feel fortunate to be free, freedom is not without its challenges.
Ask any formerly life-sentenced child (commonly known as a “juvenile lifer”) about the value of freedom and many of them will say some iteration of, “Freedom isn’t free, it comes with tremendous responsibility.” This isn’t just about the responsibilities that come with living in society as an adult for the first time, or becoming a law-abiding civilian—those are relatively simple adjustments. But there are other responsibilities placed upon the shoulders of newly released people that may be incomprehensible to most.
For one thing, my cohort experienced a high level of trauma entering the adult prison system as youth. In addition to living in the ever present shadow of this trauma, we are individually tasked with reclaiming our humanity and our sense of dignity, while simultaneously striving to successfully reintegrate into society. Unfortunately, many of us encounter all manner of implicit (and sometimes overt) bias and discrimination on account of our status as former life-sentenced felons. And because Black children are sentenced to life without the possibility of parole at ten times the rate of White children, most of us in this group are African American and must also deal with the pressures of systemic racism. It is not lost on us that the very racism that contributes to filtering us into prison in massive numbers continues to plague us once we come home—if we come home at all.
I interviewed several former life-sentenced children who were recently released in Pennsylvania, and like me, they are all incredibly grateful to be free. But many of them spoke quite candidly about the pressures they were experiencing. One person articulated the struggle of trying to lead a “normal” life when he feels anything but “normal,” having been imprisoned as a 16-year-old child and released as a senior citizen. Another spoke of the desire to make his life have meaning, and what it’s like trying to live under constant scrutiny of his past. Every juvenile lifer I spoke to, without exception, referenced the crushing pressure of availing themselves of every opportunity to make amends for the harm they caused. They all sought to be a catalyst for hope and healing within their communities.
Moreover, there are pressures related to forming new relationships, finding employment that pays a livable wage and meeting the expectations of family members who often view a loved one’s return as a panacea that will rescue the family from distress. And of course there is the added issue of meeting extensive parole regulations and stipulations (including monthly or biweekly check-ins, home inspections, paying for urinalysis and supervision fees and acquiring written permission to travel outside the county or state).
Then there’s the attempt to navigate a totally new or foreign terrain. Many reported returning to neighborhoods that had been gentrified and redeveloped and were no longer recognizable as the place they remembered as home. In many instances, family members, neighbors and friends had died or moved to other locations—often out of the city, if not out of the state.
There are incalculable daily challenges that range from learning social norms and etiquette, to gaining rudimentary computer, internet and cell phone literacy, to navigating technological advances in how we shop, bank and pay for goods and services. And the essence of freedom itself proves challenging whenever we’re presented with choice. For decades, almost every aspect of our lives was severely restricted, regimented and micromanaged by prison guards and a host of regulatory policies. So choice—of what to wear or what to select from the menu—sometimes creates momentary frustration and bouts of indecisiveness.
And finally, there is the pressure that we impose on ourselves in an effort to validate our humanity and prove that we are deserving of the redemption we seek. We experience a tremendous amount of guilt: we feel so much remorse for the crimes we committed when we were young. And we grapple with leaving friends and mentees behind in prison and the knowledge that our actions on this side of the wall could impact their chances of becoming free.
Research shows that chronic stress can cause mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, and physical ones like cardiovascular disease. While stakeholders, policymakers and advocacy organizations celebrate the remarkable adjustments that formerly life-sentenced children have displayed, it seems crucial that we also pay attention to lessening the stress that these returning citizens face, and that we invest in their success by reallocating essential resources that would significantly enhance our collective ability to thrive.
On the employment front, it is incumbent upon companies and business owners to consider second chance hiring and take an active role in supporting returning members of the community by giving them the opportunity to work.
It would be in all of our best interest to augment our social service, mental health and parole policies to better empower my cohort to become fully repatriated into society. We would also do well if we did not intentionally (or even unintentionally) demonize, demoralize and marginalize this group of people who—by our collective actions and resolve—demonstrate on a daily basis that society is better off having us here than it is disappearing us.
The Freedmen’s Bureau was established by an act of Congress in 1865 to help millions of formerly enslaved Black people and poor Whites transition to a free labor society during the period of Reconstruction following the Civil War. Newly freed people like myself are in need of similar structural and institutional support following decades of incarceration. Too much pressure inevitably bursts even the most durable of pipes. We need to design a relief valve today.
Abd’Allah Wali Lateef is the Pennsylvania coordinator for the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network, a project of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, headquartered in Washington, D.C. He served 31 years before he was released in the fall of 2017.