Bruce with FICPM members at a recent retreat. Dorsey Nunn (Legal Services for Prisoners with Children), Pastor Kenneth Glasgow (T.O.P.S.), TTEF Board member Tina Reynolds (WORTH), and Daryl Atkinson (Southern Coalition for Social Justice).
With only a few more months of law school, it is time to contemplate what to do next. I know that I won’t take the Bar exam and won’t be a lawyer. “Why,” you ask? I knew before I started that the state Bar associations hold the power to deny membership of those who lack proper “character and fitness.” Based on my research and personal experiences, I respect the fact that it is logical to believe I lack the proper trustworthiness to enter the field, and/or I should not be given such a privilege. Some have wondered why I chose to pursue a course of study and not be licensed in that profession. But a proper education provides far more than eligibility to be licensed.
I could not have gotten into this situation if not for the amazing partnerships and supporters that have entered my life over the previous years. My hope is that those people celebrate the opportunity I am gaining to help others, rather than belabor the inability for me to practice law in a courtroom. Considering I am still serving my punishment on probation, limitations on life are to be expected and accepted.
People around me can’t understand why I would hesitate at taking the Bar. They don’t view me as any different than anyone else. What they are missing is how strangers can perceive me, especially when initially confronted by my criminal record. Those of us who go through the processes are familiar with these roadblocks. We anticipate them, and have to decide in each particular situation if this is where we push for equal treatment. People who stand as gatekeepers hold various political, philosophical, and spiritual views; yet they all typically avoid risk. It can be easy for anyone to fall into the trap of stereotypes.
Many people convicted of crimes have no victim to consider, although their actions and punishments may be part of decimating their families and neighborhoods. Very few of us will ever get out after committing a truly violent crime. I know from experience that we are often looking for chances to “make it right,” even if we never succeed. We try to make up for it as best we can, lacking spaces to talk about how we might, and overwhelmingly lacking guidance or role models. I can’t fully relate to those incarcerated for drug offenses, political crimes, or the exonerated people. Even if we outwardly are doing similar things, inwardly we are going through a different experience.
If not a lawyer, why get the education?
Education is an amazing equalizer. It is a combination of knowledge, opportunity, and connections that instills confidence and energy. I started law school with nearly two decades of legal study, knowledge that I freely shared with my community whenever I could. Unlike many others in law school, my neighbors, friends, and family typically lack close connections that are lawyers. We don’t have easy access to knowledge about our legal system, including the financial realm, and we are constantly facing exploitation of this ignorance.
My knowledge before school, however, was confined to criminal law and its close cousins. Now it extends to intellectual property (copyright, patent, and trademark) on the Internet and internationally. This has been my focus in school because I believe information, and its flow, is essential to developing a democracy and advocating for freedom. Issues such as labeling genetically modified foods, Wikileaks, and Internet Neutrality are prime examples of this tension.
Proving Our Worth
When I first went to work at Liberty Rentals, just a few days out of prison, the owner took me to coffee and said, from what he heard, I was “way overqualified” for cleaning chairs, hauling tables, and hammering in tent spikes. The owner of Liberty Rentals, Frank Jenestreet, still took a chance that I could fit in with his team. My resume has filled up since then, and yet perhaps my most prideful day of work came on that job, when I hammered in 24 of the 48 stakes to a tent. A strong work ethic and positive attitude are the only things any of us can truly control, and they are (in my opinion) leading indicators of success.
For several years after prison, I was still unproven in many people’s eyes. I expected to be a pariah for what I had done, but had no choice but to keep knocking on doors. I mistakenly believed I could get a paralegal job with an attorney. I was a grown man with too much baggage and not enough credentials, like many others striving to get a chance. Even some organizations that work on behalf of people like me appeared hesitant to let me in, so I volunteered wherever and whenever I was allowed- it kept me energized and hopeful.
The only thing I ever wanted for myself was a chance to make it right just a little bit. It motivates my work to stop discrimination on voting, housing, and employment rights. Anyone in a situation like mine should expect negative things to be said in the media. We cannot change that, nor can we change our current behavior in any way that alters the criticism. We must continue to live our lives as best we can. I’m encouraged by messages received by those who have drawn hope and strength from this journey. Whether they just got out, are parents of an incarcerated child, or are still inside: they are the ones who will not let me just go back to writing fiction and plays. I feel a duty to them, to families struggling to succeed, and families struggling to overcome violence. I came to law school to pursue a meaningful life that helps others.
Giving back is how we move forward.
Education is about connections, above all else. Motivated people can learn, by themselves, 99% of the academic knowledge. An educational institution, however, creates a pathway into the world that otherwise wouldn’t exist. It is a common ground where people meet each other, build friendships and explore interests. I’ve met amazing people at Tulane, in New Orleans, and beyond due to my educational journey. This is how we change our situation in life, by finding places to convene with productivity on our minds. It is also an opportunity for them to learn from us, to provide another perspective on the legal system that is poised to become their life’s work.
For every ten supporters I can get involved with our college scholarship program, we can give someone a jumpstart, and guidance, along their own educational journey. I look forward to being part of a community where rebuilding lives after serving punishment is normal. Where people with resources can help others receive an education. Where formerly incarcerated people have college degrees and can become people with resources. Where workplaces have people from a variety of backgrounds, including highly-policed communities and prisons. When this is the norm, people can collectively approach the questions as to why so many get arrested and go to jail; we can transform the criminal justice system. We can transform our societies in a preventive manner and reduce the causes of substance abuse, an underground economy, and violence. Transcending Through Education Foundation is not just about an individual transcending their own circumstance, it is about an entire nation transcending a system that can only thrive when people of all varieties are engaged in it.
Stepping into the unknown
I’m seeking opportunities to teach college, yet recognize that this path may also be foreclosed. I would like to sell my screenplays, but realize I may never get to make a pitch. I have many ideas that may never see the light of day no matter the merits or the timing. I recognize the potential for failure, which is why the journey itself must also be meaningful.
I am comfortable working on criminal justice policy and rebuilding communities in turmoil from a misguided drug war, waged over 40 years. Community-based organizations in Providence and New Orleans taught me so much about life itself, as we merge both the perpetrators and victims of crime, working to move forward with positive responses. It is for them that I continue to research, write, and build with other people. Creativity, law, and culture serve as daily ingredients for the mix of tasks I tend to take on. I’m trying to think ahead, connect the dots, to see evolution in a rational and equitable manner. I may say something you never thought about before, and that is my goal: to have people thinking in new ways.
Maybe someday I will try to get a law license. Maybe someday I will feel like my chances justify the expense of time, money, and negativity. But in the meantime I will take the time to appreciate the moment, with my daughter, as we earn our first college diploma. I will feel the strength of many people who, like I once did, have little more than a hope that they can find a chance to get a new opportunity.
Bruce Reilly is a third year law student at Tulane University and co-founder of TTEF. Bruce serves New Orleans through Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE), and is a co-founder of Formerly Incarcerated & Convicted People’s Movement (FICPM), a coalition of organizations working to rebuild healthy communities. He is a parent and writer, including his book “The NewJack’s Guide to the Big House,” and his blog, www.Unprison.com.