I am a former criminal. I was thrown in jail for fleeing and eluding the police after leaving the scene where drugs were involved. What I learned most was not the error of my ways, but the error of the criminal justice system’s ways, and the error of a society that treats those of us who have been incarcerated as lifelong pariahs.
I was lucky. I am white. That fact gave me immunity not extended to my black and brown brothers and sisters. While my black and brown brothers and sisters received the harshest punishment allowable by law, I could not help but notice that I, as a young white man, was given a second chance – a real second chance – to mend my ways, and enter society as a whole human being. We were all born equally but life wound up giving us disproportionate outcomes. As part of my rehabilitation, I was allowed to work under a great chef.
I have made it my life’s work to extend the same helping hand to those returning home from our criminal justice system in Ohio. I am the founder of EDWINS, a restaurant staffed entirely by those who have been incarcerated. My small team and I offer job training, and life training. We let our staff know where they can get help for drug and alcohol abuse, family issues, housing (very tricky if you are an ex-felon) and also how to be in the world. We have even created a campus with dorm rooms and library. We aim to show people how to hold up their heads again.
Why is this my life’s work? It’s simple: everywhere you look, there is a grieving cross-section of the population, funded by the state and federal governments but ignored by society, which is crying out for acknowledgment. They plead for the simple chance to their right from birth to be accepted as human beings. They are the former offenders that have done their time but to whom we don’t even give the time of day. I have chosen not to look the other way.
People who’ve been imprisoned, a disproportionate rate in this country—especially among African Americans—were not born into that condition. Listening to prior inmates over the years and trying to help them re-enter successfully, it is clear to me that they struggle with the perpetual branding of villainy. Their bondage exceeds the physical sentence completed and that is not fair to them nor is it good for the rest of society.
I believe that every human being—regardless of his or her past—has the right to a fair and equal future. As stated in the Declaration of Independence, we are all born equal. Mistakes made and misfortunes endured do not change the fact that all human beings emerge into this world with a clean slate. Once a sentence is served and one wishes to re-enter society, he or she should be empowered to do so freely. And then we all win.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often exhorted people of all backgrounds to believe in themselves, “no matter how difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour.” Frequently jailed himself, he understood the personal degradation that comes with the prison experience. The real bondage of prisoners is that they remain locked in self-contempt long after their release. Prisoners have told me of their crippling shame at having been in jail; it eats away at their pride and blankets them with loneliness.
Listen to the voices of the formerly incarcerated. There is hard-fought wisdom to be heard. There is the sound of grim experience unknown to the majority of us. There are the echoes of constant danger and harsh servitude in the timbres. The voices are overwhelmingly dark, roiled with pain, strained with humiliation, informed by regret. In many cases, these men and women should not be muted because they tell us a lot about ourselves as a nation.
They say: give us a chance and we will share what we learned from incarceration. We had a lot of time to reflect and we have survived something you could never imagine. We are strong.
They say: We are ready to succeed if given the opportunity. Do not marginalize us. We saw blood in jail and we outwitted very treacherous situations. We understand things you have never even had to consider. Help us re-enter the real world as human beings. Cast us not aside because of the terrible imagery thrust upon us because we did time. Do not simply fear us when it is the environment of prison itself that scares you more than ourselves. Remember that we born to a mother just as you were, regardless of our skin color or our heritage. We have paid with our tenure in jail; do not let history imprison us forever.
They say: We African Americans make up 13% of the population yet are six times more likely to wind up in prison than are whites. They say: we and our Hispanic brothers and sisters comprise about a quarter of the nation yet we are 58% of the prison community. We were offenders and we paid for it. Now we wish to no longer have begrudged our very right to exist with the same chance for equality that came with our births.
They say: You’ve given us time to ponder and to reconsider. Now, give us our dignity. We are proud of where we are as humans. They say: our confinement has given us an invaluable perspective. Now give us the invaluable possibility of a fair and equal second chance in return.
They say: we are your neighbors. We are among the roughly 70 million American adults, one in three, who have some kind of criminal history. We are your neighbors. We are here among you and are proud of how far we have come. Yes, I have a misdemeanor. I have a felony. I was in prison. I learned from it and I'm better today for it. I will not be afraid to tell you who I am.
We were the same as you at birth. We’ve had time to reflect and now want to resume being free like you in life.
Brandon Chrostowski is founder, president, and CEO of EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute in Cleveland. He was also one of 25 individuals in the world named a CNN hero.