‘The Extraordinary Ordinary Prisoner’

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Jeremiah Bourgeois

On June 7, 2016, an email appeared in our inbox from someone offering to write for The Crime Report. We’ve received many similar inquiries over the years, but the last line in the message caught our attention. “I realize that submissions should include more information,” the writer said. “However, I hope you overlook that requirement in light of the fact that I am incarcerated.”

The author of the message identified himself as Jeremiah Bourgeois, Prisoner #708897, then confined to the Stafford Creek Corrections Center, a mixed medium-minimum security prison for men located five miles from Aberdeen, Wa., on the Pacific coast.

Readers of The Crime Report know the rest of the story.

Since that first tentative inquiry, Jeremiah has been a regular columnist for TCR, offering a glimpse of a reality that few Americans know.

When he wrote us, he was 38 years old—and had already spent the previous 24 years behind bars for the May 19, 1992, revenge killing of Seattle store owner Tecle Ghebremichale, who had testified against his brother in an assault case.  Aged 14 at the time of his crime, he was sentenced to life without parole in the era before the Supreme Court ruled such sentences for juveniles unconstitutional. Jeremiah had every expectation of spending the rest of his life in prison.

“It was probably the saddest case I’ve ever had,” his lawyer, Michael Trickey, told the Seattle Times in 2005, noting both Jeremiah’s age and length of sentence.

book coverJeremiah spent much of his first decade in prison in a permanent state of anger and defensiveness, frequently in conflict with corrections officers and fellow inmates. But then something changed.

Prisoner #708897, as he would later write in his columns, realized that he was on a path to self-destruction. He began reinventing and reeducating himself through long hours in the prison library.

He is not the first incarceree to write his story. Prison writing has long been a special genre, and The Crime Report has frequently published work written behind bars—by both juveniles and adults. But Jeremiah’s emergence as an independent, often contrarian, voice has been especially timely as our national debate about mass incarceration approaches a crossroads.

This week, the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College, publisher of The Crime Report, is organizing a conference that aims to explore that debate.  Entitled, “Is America ready for Prison Reform?” sessions scheduled Thursday will feature speakers who have been shaping, and in some cases, putting into practice cutting-edge ideas to transform the system—whether in designing new prison architecture, or in fashioning new structures behind bars aimed at preparing inmates for reentering civil society.

Tomorrow, on Friday, the conference will turn to our community supervision system—probation and parole—which many experts agree has evolved into a counterproductive penal strategy that has hampered the goals of cutting recidivism and preparing incarcerated populations for a productive life after completion of sentence.

The conference agenda features some of the country’s thought leaders in corrections and community supervision, such as North Dakota corrections chief Leanne Bertsch; former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey; Nicholas Turner, president of the Vera Institute of Justice; Marirosa Lamas, superintendent of the Chester State Correctional Institute in Pennsylvania; Sen. Brian Benjamin, president pro tempore of the New York State Senate; and Brian Dawe of the COPTSD coalition representing corrections officers.

Also on the list of presenters are prominent voices from the formerly incarcerated community, such as Stanley Richards of the Fortune Society; Jhody Polk of the Florida Council for Incarcerated Women and Girls; Lawrence Bartley, director of News Inside (The Marshall Project)—and Jeremiah Bourgeois.

Back in the World Again

Jeremiah was released from captivity on October 28, 2019, after multiple unsuccessful attempts to gain parole—only to begin, like thousands of others, an even more difficult process of adjustment to a world he had not seen for decades.

The edited collection of 17 of his TCR columns written during his last three years in prison—and one when he finally got out—chronicles the remarkable personal odyssey of what he described, in referring to another inmate, as an “extraordinary ordinary prisoner.”

The columns are indeed extraordinary—and thought-provoking.  Ranging from commentary on subjects such as the treatment of gay and transgender prisoners, the lack of a #MeToo movement for incarcerated women, and the hypocrisies of prison “family visitation” events, they measured the distance between the idealism of advocates “outside” and the bleak realities of day-to-day life inside.

We’re honored that Jeremiah will continue to chronicle the next steps of his journey for The Crime Report. For those of you who have been following his writing since 2016, it will be a welcome opportunity to re-engage with a unique writer. Those reading him for the first time will find inspiration.  And for all of us, Jeremiah’s prison writing is evidence that it’s possible to find redemption and rehabilitation even at the heart of the carceral state.

The collection is downloadable through Kindle at this link:

For an agenda of this week’s conference, please click here.

The conference will also be livestreamed Thursday and Friday, starting at 9:00 am EST each day. You can watch it here.

For ex-Prisoner #708897, real life is beginning again. But it is important to remember that there are two million Americans still locked behind cell bars, including more than 2,300 inmates sentenced to spend the rest of their lives imprisoned for violent crimes committed when they were juveniles like Jeremiah.

Their lives are still on hold.

This week three New York teenagers were arrested in connection with the murder last December of  Barnard student Tessa Major. Two of them—aged 14—are being charged as adults; the third, aged 13, will be tried as a juvenile.

It’s a tragic coda to a crime that has horrified New Yorkers—and also the beginning of a process that will once again put our justice system under the spotlight. Just a decade ago, youths found guilty of similar crimes could expect to be sentenced to life without parole, as Jeremiah was.

But the Supreme Court ruling in 2012 that sentencing adolescents convicted of murder to the most draconian punishment, short of execution, under our system, violates constitutional protections from cruel and unusual punishment, has also raised difficult questions.

Can our system treat young people who have been involved in even the grisliest crimes with a measure of compassion that allows for the possibility of rehabilitation?

Not every 14-year-old convicted murder will turn out to be a Jeremiah Bourgeois.

But how many are there that might?

Stephen Handelman is editor of The Crime Report

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