What an amazing year to be part of the Class of 2014. In Seattle, Shon Hopwood graduated from the University of Washington School of Law. In Miami, Desmond Meade graduated from Florida International University College of Law. In New York, Marty Tankleff graduated from Touro Law Center. Their achievements help me put my own degree from Tulane University Law School in perspective. We collectively represent over forty-two years in prison, in cages to be more accurate, and now hold certification that we “officially” understand the fundamentals of the American legal system.
We aren’t the first people to go from being subjected to the law to ultimately navigate its corridors. The list is long and varied, every one unique, and each showing the diverse paths into (and out of) the most miserable space one could be stuck inside. These people, all public with their pasts, include Dan Manville (Antioch ’81), Chris Ochoa (U. Wisconsin ’06), Daryl Atkinson (St. Thomas ’07), TTEF Founder Andres Idarraga (Yale, ’11), TTEF Founder Noah Kilroy (Roger Williams, ’13), and soon to include Jarrett Adams (Loyola-Chicago, ’15) and Pete Martell (Wayne State ’16). Some were proven innocent (Tankleff, Ochoa, Adams), but for much of their lives they were not treated as such. Many of us were practicing law while in prison as Jailhouse Lawyers, which is why I say we “officially” joined the ranks of those with a Juris Doctorate degree. I filed my first bail motion and memorandum when some of my classmates were in kindergarten and have over two decades of experience covering all aspects of the courts and prisons.
A guy in prison once told me that after I got out and made my millions of dollars, I would forget all about the past and people like him. After graduating last weekend, the guy’s point about staying grounded and not losing touch is as important as ever. Of course, I need not try hard to be reminded about who I am and where I come from. My life is overwhelmingly intertwined with the criminal justice system, and the people struggling to create healthier responses to social ills. We can’t cage everyone without a home or a job, we can’t lock up addiction, nor will a military-grade police force stop anger, greed, depression, and insanity.
Last week, I was reviewing scholarship applications for Transcending Through Education Foundation (TTEF). All of the applicants are currently incarcerated, and over half of them are teenagers trying to get some funding for a college education. One essay that truly left an impact upon me spoke about the success of getting rid of every “friend.” In his environment, all his peers were forging a negative path and success was to be entirely alone. Tragic, yet real. I want to share with him there are more levels for him to achieve.
We need to empty the container, wash it out, and refill with something pure. Prison can serve this purpose and, as they say: “you know who your friends are when you go to prison.” Friends have been essential to my journey, including those from before, during, and after prison. Who can imagine writing someone for over a decade with no guarantee to ever see each other in the free world again? Who is bold and hopeful enough to talk about college educations, business proposals, and families from cage to cage? Who is strong enough to stand by you when their loved ones are begging them to stay away? Friends are.
People who have been in prison face all sorts of hurdles, regardless of whether they are “deserved” or not. I applied to over thirty law schools. One Dean of Admissions met me at a forum in New York City: Susan Krinsky. She was the only person willing to put her neck on the line and admit me. Every other school declined. As the negative media would later play out, about a “convicted murderer in law school,” her courage should never be forgotten. The vaunted NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (NAACP-LDF), founded by none other than Thurgood Marshall, also made a decision to accept me into their family, and that too has been an honor. Similarly, two professors at Tulane (Jancy Hoeffel and Katherine Mattes) helped me through those early months of adversity along with dozens of amazing new friends who were also just trying to focus on their homework. And ultimately, being part of an organization, Voice of the Ex-Offender, (VOTE) was crucial to my keeping my footing when people try their damnedest to dislodge me. We need each other, whether you have been in prison or not.
I was at Andres Idarraga’s graduations from both Brown and Yale. Many states have rules barring parolees and probationers from interacting with any convicted felon. I gave him framed artwork from an incarcerated friend, Steven Parkhurst, who is also one of TTEF’s inaugural scholars. Last week, when I walked the aisle with my daughter, it would have been incomplete if Andres were not there, along with two other men exonerated in Louisiana, Norris Henderson and Calvin Duncan. When Andres gave me a picture Steve made for me, the tears started to flow. The journey can be overwhelming at times- both the pain and the joy of it all.
Recently, an artist remarked how he was afraid that by me going to law school, the social justice community would lose me into the corporate morass of money-making lawyers. It surprised me that anyone would think this way. As Glenn Martin, another formerly incarcerated man, once told me: ‘Success isn’t when everyone gets out of prison and becomes a full-time advocate against the current criminal justice system. We need to be successful across the entire spectrum of society.’ To a certain degree, we possibly already are; but that’s because most people aren’t “Out” in their daily lives.
I am the last of the three TTEF founders to earn a law degree: Andres in 2011 and Noah in 2013. We all came to this path from a different route and perspective. It is interesting to consider we have different ethnic backgrounds, served different stretches of time in prison, and for different crimes. Our friendship, along with others who were incarcerated with us, serves to ground and guide our paths. My twenty years of legal advocacy started with a bail motion for another prisoner and extends to all aspects of policy change across the country. This part of my work will remain whether I open a café, launch a film production company, or work for a non-profit.
In the words of Tyler Durdin, “We are not our jobs.” Our work may provide us with an opportunity to do good things, whether on the job or while off duty. Or we may need to take some stepping stones—especially for those of us not sitting on a family fortune or a vast network prepared to support an endeavor. If Jay-Z calls tomorrow and says I need you to negotiate sneaker deals for his new NBA players, that would be a gateway not a finish line. Besides, I can use a new pair of sneakers myself.
Despite the headlines, only a small part of the legal realm is criminal law. I never wanted to be a criminal defense attorney (I know plenty of great ones) and there wasn’t much more for me to learn in that area. I concentrated my studies on intellectual property (copyright, patent, and trademark) and the Internet. The future of our legal system might actually be summarized by Monsanto, Net Neutrality and Edward Snowden, as we struggle to determine who and what is under control. My contributions are likely to come with projects I do in my spare time, as we are in an age of hostility towards controversial people in academia. This has been the pattern of my entire life, as I have generally paid my bills with jobs outside the legal/policy realm.
I’m sure Shon, Desmond, and Marty get hit with the same question I get: “So what’s next?” I’m guessing they have better answers than myself. Shon is a published author with some highly esteemed supporters. Desmond has been a leading figure in the Florida re-enfranchisement campaign and found considerable support for his inspiring journey. Marty now has no criminal record and is a member of the Innocence Project network. Some of us, however, have histories that are more challenging to digest. Those who only hear about the successes are simply not privy to all the rejections, and to those who simply ignore us.
This is not the year for me to try taking the Bar and being a licensed attorney, for reasonsI have previously written. Those who push me do not realize that it is the one aspect of my life where I am forced to be pessimistic, particularly as I am still on felony probation. That status alone would likely suspend someone’s law license until it were finished, therefore it is difficult to imagine even the most forgiving panel finding me morally fit to practice law. Those who know me will realize that I’ve only made it this far due to an undaunted diet of hope and optimism, and I would rather dream about other things. I still can’t vote in Louisiana and there are many jobs I’m legally barred from holding, but I’m used to a low percentage of success. People like us just have to try more doors and spend more time doing it.
I am currently working on a book about the criminal justice system and a screenplay about wrongful convictions in New Orleans. I’m open to part-time and project work, and would like to get myself “artsy” again. I can’t speak for Shon, Desmond, and Marty but the conversation need not always be about “What’s Next” in life. Sometimes we need to pause and recognize what we just did. Who’da thunk it?