Every hero has a past.
When we think of formerly incarcerated people, we often focus on their previous actions rather than their humanity. The term "criminal," which tends to be hurled at these people as an insult, brings to mind images of terrifying wrongdoers unworthy of respect or compassion.
But, with about 2.3 million people incarcerated, the United States has the world's largest prison population. And despite the fact that African-Americans and Hispanics make up only one quarter of the general U.S. population, combined they comprise 58% of the prison population, according to the NAACP. Given this enormous number of imprisoned individuals — and, in turn, the enormous number of now-free individuals with past convictions — the effects of these stereotypes of criminality are as far-reaching as they are close-minded.
But what if we thought of these people not as pariahs, but as full human beings with the capacity to use their experiences to change the world?
Some formerly incarcerated individuals are doing just that, and defying the odds they face in a society where it's difficult to destroy the restrictive stereotypes connected to imprisonment. Using tools like filmmaking, public policy design, mental health advocacy and community organizing, these world-changers are shifting the culture and system of incarceration in the U.S.
Their work is a reminder that jail time and criminal convictions are not the sum total of personhood. More importantly, it challenges an unjust criminal justice system that disproportionately targets racial and ethnic minorities. We need to know their names and stories because they are shattering what we think we know about criminality and the prejudices that determine who ends up behind bars or not.
Darius Clark Monroe
Darius Clark Monroe served three years of a 5-year sentence at the Jim Ferguson Unit prison in Midway, Texas, for bank robbery. Last year, he completed Evolution of a Criminal, a feature-length autobiographical documentary executive produced by Spike Lee. The film, which the New Yorker called a "terrific movie," explores the various influences that pushed Monroe to rob a bank at age 16, like the fact that he grew up in a home with parents who struggled financially and whom he wanted to help.
His decision would shape the rest of his life, and the film aims to help young people gain a sense of the ways their choices can effect the lives of many others. Monroe is currently using the film as a teaching tool, touring in high schools, juvenile detention centers and prisons across the country. In a few weeks, 14 years after his release, Monroe will return to the Ferguson Unit to screen the film and discuss the ongoing ripple effects of mass incarceration.
Jayda Rasberry is a 28-year-old from Los Angeles who works as an organizer with Dignity And Power Now. In 2006, Rasberry was arrested, sentenced and convicted to six years in the Valley State Prison for Women on two counts of armed robbery.
Rasberry left prison in 2012. She told Mic she was not thinking about the consequences of her decision when she broke the law at 18, but left prison inspired to bring awareness to what she calls the "ugly truth behind those walls." As a result, she has offered testimonies at the state capital about medical negligence inside of prisons, suicide and alternatives to prison, such as ankle bracelets, rehabilitation programs and preventative mental health services. She does outreach work three days a week in directly impacted communities, where she educates people about the realities of imprisonment — like the lack of basic provisions and physical and mental health treatment, especially for women.
Khalil A. Cumberbatch
Khalil A. Cumberbatch spent six and a half years incarcerated before being released in 2010. Today, he is a policy associate focusing on criminal justice reform at the Legal Action Center in New York. He is also the communications and development manager for the radio program On the Count.
Cumberbatch's LAC work will provide more opportunities and services for people with criminal justice involvement to be diverted from jail and prison, and also away from a lifetime of perpetual punishment that stems from having a criminal conviction. His work with On the Count gives him the opportunity to be critical of the criminal justice system from a perspective reflective of those who are directly impacted by the socioeconomic and political issues that lead to mass incarceration.
Marlon Peterson spent 10 years, two months and seven days in prison — his entire 20s. He was charged with second degree murder, but plead guilty to attempted robbery and assault in first degree. During his incarceration, Peterson not only spent time thinking about the devastating impact of gun violence in his community, but also wrote letters to young people in his hometown to engage with them on the issue.
Since his release five years ago, Peterson has designed and implemented youth empowerment programs and worked to create safer communities, free of the violence that he witnessed growing up. He also earned an undergraduate degree from New York University. A published writer, he uses his platform as co-founder of The Precedential Group to humanize social justice issues.
Monica Jones was convicted of "manifesting prostitution" in Phoenix, Arizona, in 2013. Jones asserts that she did not engage in prostitution the night of her arrest, but rather took a ride with undercover police officers whom she thought would drop her off a local bar.
Jones, a transgender woman, was harassed by correctional officers during her 15-day incarceration. Her dehumanizing experience within the correctional facility spurred her to engage in advocacy for sex workers and trans women. She now seeks to eliminate transphobia and "whorephobia" by sharing her story on school campuses and within communities around the country.
Glenn E. Martin
Glenn E. Martin served six years in a New York State prison. After being released, he founded and currently serves a president of JustLeadershipUSA, a national organization "dedicated to cutting the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030 while reducing crime." Martin told Mic that he "believes the most compelling advocates of change are those who have been directly affected by incarceration." Through targeted advocacy and leadership training for formerly incarcerated individuals, JLUSA empowers those most affected by incarceration to drive policy reform.
Renata Hill was incarcerated in 2006 for three and a half years. Before her arrest, Hill and three of her friends, all young lesbians, were verbally and physically attacked by a male perpetrator. Hill told Mic the man followed them and taunted them by saying things like, "I'll f*** you straight." A fight broke out, and the group, called a "lesbian wolf pack" by the media, was arrested.
Now, Hill is a student on the path toward an associate degree in human services at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. She is also speaking on university campuses around the country about her case and others with similar outcomes. A documentary, Out in the Night, features Hill and the rest of the "New Jersey Four," and Hill travels to speak about the film and the right to self-defense.
Patreese Johnson, a woman with Hill the night of the incident, served seven and a half years in prison. While incarcerated, she received her high school equivalency and ran a support group for female survivors of domestic violence. Johnson told Mic, "After hearing a lot of the women's stories while in Bedford Hills [Correctional Facility], I noticed so many were doing time because they were in abusive relationships. I felt it wasn't right when some men rape, kill or just violate women and get less time."
Since her release, Johnson has enrolled at Essex County Community College, where she is studying for an associate degree in liberal arts. Johnson also dreams of opening a spa one day "so that women will have a place to take a break from the everyday struggles of life." She is also featured in Out in the Night.
Terrain Dandridge, another individual featured in Out in the Night, served two years of a three-and-a-half-year sentence. Dandridge, who will be beginning college in the fall with hopes of becoming a respiratory specialist, tours nationally with the film. She also works full-time as a security guard while she continues to advocate for the right self-defense and gender equity across the country.
Hernan Carvente was incarcerated for four years and spent two on parole. He was charged as an adult for crimes he committed when he was 15 years old. He was released in 2012 and has since turned to activism based on his experiences with the justice system.
As a research assistant and program analyst at the Vera Institute of Justice, his work addresses confinement conditions, with a particular focus on formerly incarcerated youth, in facility-based and statewide juvenile justice policy reform. He also sits on numerous boards that focus on juvenile justice at the state and national levels.
CeCe McDonald is a transgender woman who made national news in 2012 after accepting a plea bargain of 41 months for second-degree manslaughter in Minnesota. McDonald and her friends were verbally attacked by a man who, before being slain, addressed the group with racist and trans antagonist language.
McDonald eventually served 19 months, including time spent in a male prison before being transferred. She also spent 13 months on parole. She currently does advocacy work around the country on behalf of trans women and continues to talk publicly about the discrimination people face within prisons. Along with Laverne Cox and Jac Gates, McDonald is filming the documentary Free CeCe. After a speaking tour, she plans to finish school and focus on her personal life.
Correction: April 2, 2015