A gate opens at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama on October 22, 2019. (File)
“I’ve been fighting to keep a flame ablaze within me for over 36 years. And there have been times when it nearly flickered out. Without a future, without a horizon of promise, my life would appear to have no meaning. So, I must continuously fight back through education and creative expression, and through being a positive example and a motivating force in other peoples’ lives – with the goal of one day getting out – to maintain my sanity and humanity. Or the world would never know how bright my light shines.”
The above was written October 7th, 2020, while I was serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. My hope for a future and my faith in God were flickering. I doubted my ability to survive another decade, or even a year. Yet I knew that if I didn’t stay busy doing something, I would go mad and lose that light within me that gave me the strength to smile when I really wanted to cry. I was desperately trying to make the world outside the prison walls understand the pain of tens of thousands of people they cannot see — those of us in prison.
Seventy days later, I was released. And now I’m living in my own apartment and working as the re-entry coordinator at Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.
I’ve often told people that I’m living a dream that I didn’t have the knowledge or imagination to formulate — walking a path that I felt was beyond my capabilities. As I’ve walked this path, meeting so many people far and wide, their reaction to the things I share about my life leaves me no doubt that my light still shines and is being seen. But my mission is to reflect that light towards those I left behind, so that the world can hear and feel their cries of desperation and see their bodies as they are constantly carried out of the prison back gate on stretchers.
As the State of Alabama continues to deal with an unabated human rights crisis in its prisons, my mission is to demonstrate what many in Montgomery believe isn’t possible: that second chances do work. Men and women who have spent decades incarcerated can contribute so much to society and their communities, if given the chance. And that in cases like mine, when our crimes did not even cause physical injury to anyone, sentences condemning us to die in prison are simply unfair.
My mission is to demonstrate what many in Montgomery believe isn’t possible: that second chances do work.
When state leaders fail in their duties, particularly with their decades-long indifference to the conditions of our prisons, it endangers the lives of those in confinement as well as the communities across Alabama. A generation of politicians has watched as our prisons became arenas where men are surrounded by violence and forced to fight like gladiators to survive. Government leaders say nothing as each prison becomes so drug-infested that the body count is staggering, and incarcerated people are released with untreated addiction and veins full of fentanyl. Prison leadership has overseen unprecedented declines in the rehabilitation programs that dramatically improved the mindset of prisoners and lowered recidivism. Alabama claims to put public safety first, but we fail to consider the mental and physical toll that being in such an environment has on individuals, thousands of whom are released to our communities every year. These individuals return to their families and communities without receiving the rehabilitation and correction, drug and mental health treatment, our government swore to give them.
After I was released, I yearned to soak in all the beauty of this world — art, music, nature, family. And I do make time for beauty and joy. Squirrels even fascinate me. But a part of me remains connected to the struggles in prison. I worry about the safety and sanity of the friends I left behind. And I worry about a state whose leaders cannot summon the courage to seriously and honestly confront the danger of our prison system.
I have become known for my hope and optimism. After all, I was supposed to die in prison. Over the last year I’ve traveled to New York, Washington D.C., Cincinnati, and Atlanta to share my story, seeing expressions of shock, of disbelief, and even tears. Perhaps this legislative session, our lawmakers will get serious about the prison crisis. It will take more than hope and more than my light to make change. It will take the light from a choir of voices to penetrate the hardened hearts of our state leaders. Yet I believe this can be done. Let’s begin.
Ronald McKeithen is a re-entry coordinator and advocate for Alabama Appleseed. He spent 37 years in state prisons after being convicted of an convenience store robbery under Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act. In prison, he became a barber and artist and earned a certificate in commercial foods. He was released in December 2020.
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