What would you do if you stumbled into a room amongst a group of individuals who have been convicted of robbery, murder, gang activity, and using firearms? How would you react? Most people would likely perceive that group as some outlaw clique of thugs and gangsters, and they’d zoom out of that room faster than sonic the hedgehog. This is why, as a convicted felon, one of the many probationary terms to which I'll be subjected after I’m released from prison is that I won’t be allowed to affiliate with any other convicted felons. There’s a skewed perception among lawmakers- and maybe even society in general - That two or more felons socializing could only mean one thing… that we must be up to no good. That’s why the law was implemented, and violating it would likely land me right back behind bars.
I believe this is one of the most blatantly irrational laws ever created since, by the very function of prison, I’ve been around nothing but convicted felons for the past 11 years I’ve been incarcerated. In fact , if you were to stumble into my prison cell, you’d see exactly what I stated in the opening sentence of this essay: Me, serving my 33 year sentence for robbery; my friend “S” whose serving a 48 year sentence for murder and robbery; my friend “P,” who’s serving a 45 year sentence for murder, shooting in an occupied dwelling and malicious wounding; and my friend “Z,” whose serving a 9 year sentence for attempted carjacking and gang activity. However, what you won’t find in my cell are any outlaws, thugs, or gangsters. You’ll see four regular human beings who, for whatever reason or circumstances that personally impacted our lives, made poor choices in our youths and who, like everyone else, have since grown into better, wiser, more responsible adults.
These guys I’ve just named are who I’m around on a daily basis. They’re who I hold constructive dialogues with, laugh with, debate with, confide in, and vent my frustration to. We watch sports on the pod TV together, exercise on the recreation yard together, and eat at the same table in the dining hall. They’re who I relate to the most and consider my closest friends because they all reflect my core values. None of them are Knavish, criminally inclined, or have vices that impede their growth. They’re all such mature, responsible, positive minded, affable, success driven individuals, I can’t imagine them ever being lawbreakers. They’ve all taken the initiative to educate and rehabilitate themselves THROUGH THEIR OWN EFFORTS and they all have ambitions that extend far beyond these prison walls. They've found themselves and their talents, and want nothing more than the opportunity to reenter society so they can use what they’ve learned throughout their incarceration to live up to their potential. Take “S” for example: Like me, this is his first time incarcerated. He’s 31 years old and has been incarcerated since 2008. He’s college education, highly intelligent (by ANY standard), and has written 11 books, 3 of which have been published. He has a 10 year old daughter, with whom he’s very involved and right now, he’s in the process of creating a platform for other prisoners to express their creativity. “P” is also a first time offender, He’s 39 years old, has been incarcerated since 1997, and in the decade I’ve’ known him, he’s always kept a job and stayed out of trouble. He’s very studious in the fields of history, politics, and spirituality, and he’s and elected member of the Offender Representative Committee, which is a trusted position at the institution. Like the rest of us, “Z” is also a first time offender, He’s a 31 year old father of two young sons, (who he is constantly bragging on), and he has been incarcerated since 2014. He spends the bulk of his time attending GED prep classes, brick masonry vocational classes, and studying the doctrines of his religion, to which he maintains strict adherence.
As I look around my cell at these amazing guys that I’ve come to call my friends, the stigma that’s been placed on us due to being convicted felons isn’t lost on me. No matter our accomplishments or individual levels of progress, there will always be those who perceive us as thug and gangsters, and we’ll be seen as an even bigger threat as a collective than individually. Because of those assumptions, outside of these prison walls, “S” and I would be allowed to exchange ideas on our writing endeavors, “P” and I wouldn’t be allowed to engage in our healthy debates about history or politics and I would no longer be allowed to tutor “Z” on his GED prep studies or talk with him about the best ways we both can be effective fathers to our sons. Does that probationary restriction really help us or is it in place to simply quell society’s irrational fear of us coming together and forming a league of super villains?
No one knows your struggle more than the people around you on a daily basis. Isn’t that the root of why humans form the social bonds we call friendships? We do it from the time we’re toddlers playing in sandboxes all the way through school to our places of employment to our religious gatherings and most other group aspects of our lives. It’s no different for our prisoners. I know that the friends I’ve made in here are positive influences on me, and each have said I’m a positive influence on them as well. Our potential affiliation in the free world may be perceived as a threat to public safety; But for now, in this prison cell, behind these concrete walls and barbed wire fences that separate us from society, that very affiliation is what’s pushing each of us to be and do better.
-Marqui Clardy Sr.