Breaking Good: How to Heal a Life Spent Behind Bars

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Photo by Hernán Piñera via Flickr

On August 15, I had my first parole hearing.

I have been confined since 1992.  At the age of 14, I murdered a convenience-store owner and wounded his business partner after one of the men finished testifying against my then-15-year-old brother.  Several months earlier, my brother had shot the man I later killed, along with another of the store’s co-owners.

In the 25 years since, I’ve obtained a college education, I have written in academic journals, and I am a regular columnist for The Crime Report.  I intend to earn my master’s degree if the parole board sets me free.  My brother (who spent four years in a juvenile detention facility for his crimes) is now a mortgage broker, a homeowner, a devoted father, and a little league coach.

Our lives illustrate that prisoners do not have to be defined by the commission of (even heinous) crimes.

As for the victims, there is no happy ending.

Those who survived the shootings were forced to abandon their convenience store. The American Dream that they pursued after immigrating to this country from war-torn Eritrea was gone.  While I was engaged in college studies, the murder victim’s family decided to return to East Africa rather than remain in America’s inner city.

Their lives powerfully illustrate victimization.

No matter my remorse and personal reform, I cannot undo this tragedy. This truth often brings the following question to my mind: What do I owe society in the event that I am freed?

I rarely hear this question posed behind prison walls.

I have watched countless men serve lengthy sentences, and the prevailing sentiment is that their imprisonment satisfies the “debt” owed to society. They believe that one’s loss of liberty serves to wipe the slate clean.

Typically, the most positive thing that I hear men express as their release dates approach is a commitment to be a “square” and make a living by working legitimately.

They pledge to forsake friends who are still “in the game,” and vow they’ll no longer abuse drugs—or rather, to only smoke marijuana occasionally.

They desire to have a relationship with a “solid female” and want to raise a family.

All of this is a perfectly fine strategy for not becoming a recidivist. But why should crime desistance be the sole measure of rehabilitation and successful reintegration?

Why do so many prisoners give little heed to the notion of restoration?

It is true that making amends to the victims of violent crimes is—all too often—impossible to achieve.  Still, there are countless ways in which we can try to improve the communities where we caused so much pain and suffering.

Last year at Stafford Creek Corrections Center, Matthew Emerzian, the founder of a California-based not-for-profit group called Every Monday Matters, illuminated ways that people can make positive changes in their community. He has carried his message of achieving positive change by setting goals every Monday of the year (“52 Mondays”) across the country to get citizens involved in his cause.

But this was the first time he had relayed it to a group of people locked away in a penitentiary.

After receiving a poignant letter from a prisoner at Stafford Creek, Emerzian pulled the necessary strings to give a presentation about his life and his program to approximately 100 men seated attentively in the visiting room.

I was among them.

On that day, we learned that the mission of Every Monday Matters is to get people to take “personal responsibility to make a difference. To matter—one day, one action at a time,” Emerzian explained.

He also summarized the 2007 book he co-authored with Kelly Bozza, which highlights “the benefits of your actions and the collective actions of many” and provides “a specific plan for exactly what you can do and where you can go to make a difference.”

Emerzian had never been imprisoned.  Still, his personal narrative on how his wealth and success could not inoculate him against depression, and that his efforts to make a difference brought new meaning to his life, was certainly compelling.

However, I must admit that I felt his message was empty rhetoric in the confines of a prison environment. In my experience, prisoners who seek to change this community find themselves transformed for the worse. They become consumed by frustration and despair.

As I sat quietly in the room, I began to feel unease when I saw the enraptured looks on the faces of the prison administrators who were listening.

I saw how easy this program could be hijacked—if Emerzian was seduced by the DOC—and morph into something purported to be reformative but devoid of transformational qualities.

This is no conspiracy theory.

Behind the pretense of rehabilitation, the object of prison is retribution and incapacitation, both of which are accomplished through coercion and compulsion. I wasn’t the only one who was skeptical.  As one commentator on the restorative justice concept noted, there are reasons to doubt whether a “constructive ethos” can be integrated “within a punishment-based social institution such as a prison.”

Such projects are often a foil “used to add legitimacy to an institution which remains essentially punitive,” according to Odillo Vidoni Guidoni, who was involved in creating a restorative justice program at a prison in Italy.

With such thoughts running through my mind as I listened to Emerzian and bore witness to administrative glee, I decided to tune out the subsequent brainstorm session on ways to transform Stafford Creek into a community where, hereto, “Every Monday Matters.”  The entire notion seemed pretentious and ridiculous.

I was having none of it.

A year later, Emerzian’s creed has come back to me and I now see the importance of his message.

My change of heart was prompted when a member of the parole board asked me during my hearing, “If you could say anything to the son of the man that you killed, what would you tell him?”

The question shook me.

I doubt that I will ever forget the feelings of self-loathing and grief that flooded me as I answered the question.

These are the emotions that I have tried mightily to subsume despite my remorse for my crimes.

As these feelings overwhelmed me I came to see why prisoners readily accept the proposition that one’s loss of liberty sets things right, for embracing this fiction is nepenthe to relieve the troubled psyche.

Pragmatically, I agree that it seems sensible for prisoners on the verge of release to focus their attention on how to get back on their feet, rather than bettering their community given the impediments to reentry.

But staying free and making a difference are not mutually exclusive.

Nor is devoting oneself to being a “square” from here forward the sole prescription for avoiding recidivism.

It may not be a novel concept, but I have come to believe that developing a social conscience can go a long way towards reducing the risk of re-offending. In fact, putting it into practice is not as difficult as it may seem.

Emerzian and Bozza highlight “52 Mondays to make a difference” by doing things as simple as donating blood, planting a tree, or treating the homeless with dignity. Some might think this is corny, but it’s a useful way to avoid  the mindset that leads two out of three former prisoners to return to the penitentiary.

When one endeavors to do something positive for society it inculcates morality. In so doing, a former prisoner’s likelihood of reoffending diminishes because he or she sees the value of being a benefit to his community.

At least that’s my theory. I hope to one day practice what I’m preaching.

The parole board will determine my destiny by September 15, 2017.  If given the opportunity to be freed, I will indeed make Every Monday Matter.

Jeremiah Bourgeois

It is the least I can do for society.

For my humanity.

I have left many victims in my wake. As have countless others behind bars. We all have a moral imperative to try to forge justice from the injustices we commit.

A weekly activity aimed at making “a difference in a small but significant way” can accomplish more than Emerzian originally conceived.  For someone like me, it is one of the few ways to make amends for all my wrongdoing.

Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to TCR, and an inmate in Washington State, where he is currently serving 25 years to life for a crime committed when he was 14. He welcomes comments from readers.

9 thoughts on “Breaking Good: How to Heal a Life Spent Behind Bars

  1. Way to go JJ. Always asking the hard questions and going below the surface to find your answers. Self-reflective, humble, passionate, brilliant, aware; you are all these things and so much more. We all wait for you out here, as you will offer these characteristics and drive to the community, wherever you land, they will be lucky to have you.

  2. JJ. Thank you for your words. Matt Leon, who is currently serving his sentence at Stafford Creek Correctional Facility just called me to let me know about it. I am humbled by your honesty and courage, and that day at Stafford Creek forever changed me and my wife. People like you, and Matt, and several others have opened my eyes and my heart to at least a small part of what is happening behind bars in America today. Yes, it sickens me, but it also gives me hope.

    I believe today, more than ever, that we need to create a society and a world where people truly embrace how much and why they matter. No, not because of fame or fortune or greed or power or aggression… not even because you somehow became our president. But because we are human and we all have the power and the privilege to make our world a better place. To use our words, our thoughts, and our actions to bring kindness, love, joy, purpose, and significance to our own lives and to the lives of those around us.

    I believe that we will have an Every Monday Matters program in prisons across the country and that you will help lead the way. I believe that you, J.J., matter just as much as I do and that knowing how much and why you matter before you were 14 years old might have inspired different choices than the one you made. But, looking forward, I believe that knowing this now will not only keep you from returning, but will also be the foundation of a beautiful life that you will live “on the outside.” You matter, my friend.

  3. Nice piece, J.J.! One of my favorite lines is, “All of this is a perfectly fine strategy for not becoming a recidivist.” It illustrates not just the short-sighted mentality of many incarcerated people with release dates, but also the myopic “keeping your head low and quietly suffering” that also afflicts many families of the incarcerated who trade away their dignity and the well-being of the larger population of families for the short-term security bootlicking will grant them with DOC. They personally remain “safe”, but their spirits and dignity are damaged, and they contribute nothing to pressuring DOC to meet higher standards of public service in the long run. But that’s a rant for another day. My absolute FAVORITE part of this article is: “As I sat quietly in the room, I began to feel unease when I saw the enraptured looks on the faces of the prison administrators who were listening.” Doesn’t it just send chills down one’s spine to see the Potemkin village erected before one’s eyes?

    • that rant is not for another day but for today tomorrow and every day. DOC needs pressure, not petitions to be a little more thoughtful. Training, said Norm Stamper , will not fix cop culture. a few tidying up changes wont change DOC culture or outcomes.

      only you and I and ground zero skins in the game can change it! just say no to co-optive business as usual.

  4. Great article jj. As one who was released by the same board you are under coming up on a year ago, reacclimating to society does get easier as time goes by. I know if release comes for you, you will be a great asset to society. I wish you well in all your endeavors.

  5. Wow JJ, you present some very deep and complex ideas. As a crime victim myself, I have often felt that time served never really “paid a debt” nor does it make a bit of difference if nothing changes. And I am well aware that our system is deeply flawed.
    I know that there are individuals who may never change and they scare me. But I still wrestle with the idea that people can and do change and struggle with a systematic societal belief and practice that some people, specifically cons, are permanently bad and irreparable. It goes against every spiritual value I hold dear. And I am still afraid yet I want to see change so I will step out in faith and hope to see what wonderful things will come of your life. Perhaps one day I might chance to meet you. I wish you only the best.

    • Thank you for your kind words. Whether or not we meet one day, I can assure you that your faith will not be displaced with respect to what the future holds for me. I intend to demonstrate that change indeed is possible and I hope that my actions will encourage policymakers to give others who are confined, and are just as remorseful and rehabilitated as I am, an opportunity to be freed.

  6. JJ you are an amazing writer and human being. This was a great piece of writing and a very moving story. I wish you the best for luck and I look forward to seeing good things happen for you.

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