Venkata: Spend our time wisely

By keeping certain ex-offenders imprisoned, we rob our communities of healing.

by Uma Venkata

If anything will break my heart, it isn’t Darnell Epps’s moving New York Time’s opinion piece about his life during and after an approximately 17-year stint in prison. It’s the comments. 

In the year 2000, the author and his brother, Darryl Epps, murdered a gang member for sexually assaulting Darryl’s wife. The brothers were respectively 20 and 21 years old. They received a prison sentence, but only 17 1/2 years each, rather than the 40-year maximum. 

Based on what Darnell describes, the brothers made the most of prison. They emerged at the end of their sentences as greater men. At the moment, the younger Darnell Epps is studying government full-time at Cornell University, and his older brother is a scholar at the Justice-in-Education Initiative at Columbia University. 

Please read Darnell Epps’s piece. At the lowest point in his life, he grew and rose through the community and faith he found in maximum-security prison. To people like me, who have never been near a prison, “community” can sound like the opposite of prison. Those connections are important.

Here are where the comments got me. Overwhelmingly, Epps’s words were disregarded — it was as if people read as far as his crime and utterly stopped. The reconstruction didn’t matter to them in the least. 

In our culture, criminals are treated with lifelong impunity — or just brushed off, based on the particular person who committed the crime. Those with the fewest resources, support, opportunities and money are the people who are at the greatest risk for committing crime and suffering the greatest consequences. I understand a crime is a crime. But how often do we stop and think about why someone committed that crime? In enough cases, crime is committed because the criminal is driven to a point of desperation. Instead of correcting the crime and ameliorating the desperation, our system often just corrects the crime. And that system is, all too often, uninterested in seeing whether the correction worked.

Epps asks why we blatantly discount good-hearted people who are locked away indefinitely. These people have demonstrated the community-building, repentance and healing that’s sorely needed on the outside. The question is: why do we keep them locked away when they could be moving mountains for youth in at-risk and violent communities? 

The good news is there are organizations that do this. Cure Violence is a wildly successful nongovernmental organization that does. It’s present in Illinois and New York State, as well as Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Orleans and other cities. But it only works if it’s allowed to work. Once Cure Violence lost funding in some areas in Chicago, shootings sprang back within weeks of the exit of Cure Violence. 

People enjoy the quip, “if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” I can count my lucky stars that I would ever think it’s that simple — it isn’t. Exploitation exists, fear exists and racism exists. These things force people into situations you can’t just defuse. Let’s fix the problem from both ends. Our responsibility as Americans is to take care of Americans. We should do it every way we can.