Doesn’t it make you feel foolish when something you’ve done to others comes back around to you?
In the past, I’ve been highly critical of public figures, and not just for what they do or say, but also for what I believed were their motives. What I believed was in their hearts. It didn’t matter if it was a sitting Supreme Court justice, who just handed down, in my view, a particularly detestable opinion; or, for another example, celebrities using their charity platforms for self-promotion and marketing of their branded products.
I would vilify such people as misguided, narcissistic, or wicked, or all three.
This is not unusual. In today’s world of politics, demonization is the tool of the trade.
What I did was wrong. What I’ve learned is that in most cases, you cannot judge a person by their press conference or their twitter feed. And it is even more difficult to judge a person’s heart by their public statements alone.
I will get back to why I’m now a believer in the golden rule: don’t judge others if you don’t want to be judged, yourself.
Last week, I traveled with the Post-Prison Education Project to visit and give presentations at two Washington State prisons in Walla Walla and Connell. My friend, Ari Kohn, invited me to join his crew as they presented prisoners with a dim view of what lays ahead: just about half of the prisoners released from Washington prisons will return within three years of release. And they then presented prisoners with a clear and more uplifting option: post-secondary education through the Post-Prison Education Project, which has a recidivism rate of exactly two percent.
It was strange entering that world again. But it was also quite rewarding, even though it made me somewhat physically ill (my physical response to prisons is not uncommon for people like me who’ve served over a decade; they call it post-prison PTSD).
Our goal was to encourage the prisoners there. It was a tough crowd. You see, many of these guys came from broken families or hopeless situations. Very few of them have ever been encouraged at any point in there life. They dream small dreams.
So half the battle is convincing them that they can rise from the dirty drain of life to a different world—a world where they can succeed, academically or vocationally. A place where they can find steady employment, and maybe, one day, buy a home and raise a family.
Convincing them of those things was the goal and I think we succeeded. Ari told some 300 guys, over the course of four presentations, that secondary education is the key to a new life. And June, a big gregarious Samoan guy—who still looks like he could throw down with the best of them—told them about responsibility. That if we ever expect to change this system of mass incarceration, then prisoners need to step up and become productive citizens, good fathers, and diligent students.
My job was to provide the dream. Like it or not, I am flying the prisoner flag and always will be. Which is cool and humbling, and at the same time, hefty. So, when something good happens in my life, prisoners can see that their dreams, too, are possible. And with every former-prisoner, from Michael G. Santos to Bruce Reilly, that overcomes the odds and contributes to society in ways previously thought impossible, the world will see that former prisoners are not the animals they have been portrayed as.
I told them about going to law school, speaking at Harvard, publishing a book, writing for the Seattle Times, working for a federal judge, defending clients at the Federal Defender’s office, marrying an amazing woman, raising two adorable children, and waking up every morning with the cool springs of hope to quench the thirst I first attained in federal prison. At a couple of points, they clapped and roared—more in disbelief than in honor of my accomplishments. Even I clapped at one point, wondering how in the heck I’ve been so blessed.
Sharing my story and successes and failures is basically what I’ve been doing for the past three years, ever since Adam Liptak wrote an article about my story in the New York Times.
So, you are probably wondering why I started this piece about the golden rule. It is only recently that I’ve heard mumblings from people who have questioned my motives. Wondered why I feel the need to share every success (and a few failures) on my Facebook wall, on Twitter, or on some other platform. And I’m sure that some of my classmates are probably exhausted from seeing my face plastered on the law school website, for some reason or another.
But what has been bothering me the last couple of months is the thought, among some, that my going to speak or write here or there, is my own selfish desire at self-promotion. That what I really care about is me, me, me, and no one else.
I don’t choose to do most of those things; I’m compelled to. I have this unshakeable belief that the reason I’m in the position I’m in is so that people like Ari Kohn can use me (and yes, I do believe that God has blessed with this life for the purpose of helping to end mass incarceration). So that people like federal judges and prosecutors can see that not all offenders are unreachable. So that those who believe in the inability of personal redemption have little ground to stand on.
No one really knows how many messages I receive from prisoners. Not my wife, and really not even me, because I don’t keep them all. But I receive enough to remember, and every now and then I receive a message that stays with me, much like the sound of an electric cell door closing shut.
This one arrived in my Facebook inbox about six months ago, just as we started to launch the Law Man campaign.
I don’t know how to properly say, or be politically correct (if that’s even appropriate with this next comment) so I’m just going to say it the only way I know how or can. You didn’t ask for what I’m about to say but maybe when I’m done you’ll understand. You’ve been blessed in so many ways. But I know times have been tough for you too. I really do!! What I’m getting to is this, you have to do well in school and than live a good life. You have to do that for the rest of us that will never get the opportunity that you received. Make sure everyone knows your name and your story. Be proud of what you’ve done thus far! You have inspired and given others hope to do more. That is a powerful thing. So when you get tired (if you do) press on for the rest of us, yourself and your family.
Now you know why I do what I do.
I was wrong to judge the motives of others.