In just a few short months you will have served your time. Coming home will be no joke. In fact, it will be the next phase of your sentence, a sentence designed to keep on giving for the rest of your life. Employers and landlords can openly discriminate against felons. You can't vote. You can't get financial aid to go to college for that education to help you get ahead. It is a system designed for you to fail. Apparently there is good money in keeping prisons full.
Some call our country's lust to incarcerate so many people the new slavery, the new Jim Crow, or the prison industrial complex. Here's why: The situation is so dire for Black men like yourself that on any given day, one in eight African American men in their twenties is in prison. Let's pause for a moment and let that sink in. One in eight. One of them is you.
So now let's overlay the circumstances of your identity as a young Black man on the circumstances you will face as a felon upon your release. You know too well what it means to be Black in this country. Even though Obama became president, the doors are far from wide open for you to find success. Back on the street it's the same old same old. People will fear you and hate you for how you look, completely ignorant of your fine and lovely soul, your intelligent and witty mind, and the generous heart that beats just inside your skin.
It's true there is more opportunity than ever for you to succeed, but you will have to fight the powers that be to not get sucked back in. To get up out of that damn hole. I hope you are up for the battle. Because son, to be blunt, right now they have you by the balls.
Generations of people who came before you fought and even died for you to have the opportunities that exist today, so don't squander them. Your dream deferred is a whole people's dream deferred.
I don't know how much you've been paying attention to the news, but it's ugly out here. The recession has taken its toll, especially on poor people and people of color. President Obama's election unleashed an ugly racist backlash led by white right wing conservatives that is stirring up fear and hatred. I'll show you some stories and clips on You Tube when you have access to the Internet again. You'll need to be up to speed on what's happening.
So trust that there will be no chorus, except from your family, welcoming you back. I'm going to start singing right now by offering up a little advice since the odds are so stacked against you. I taught you to respect what I have to say. So it's time to listen up son.
1. Be humble. Before you were locked up, your arrogance about what job you would take, the quality of jeans you *had* to wear, the size of the apartment you needed, the kind of car you would drive, all helped to get you where you are now. Your success will depend on being humble and working lousy jobs for low pay, taking the bus, living in my basement, wearing cheap clothes, etc. -- at least for a while so you can get your game plan together and get ahead.
2. Be patient. You are right that as a felon you will serve yourself well by owning your own business and home, but that will take time. You have to build your life back brick by brick, one step at a time. Impatience is the road of fools and prison inmates.
3. Get support. I don't care what form it takes, but you will need help to succeed. If the system is designed for you to fail, you need to create your own community of people -- something akin to the underground railroad of your ancestors -- to help you on your journey to freedom.
4. Make new friends. A true no-brainer. Most of your friends were a factor in you being where you are today and they will not be on the team rooting for your success when you get out. Go to church or someplace where you can find others who are making good choices and living everyday lives. Work, family, home. Shoot for that.
5. Admit there is something wrong with you. This is related to number three. You and I both know you got into this mess because you made a stupid choice. One that I still can't fathom. A choice that led to this terrible consequence and heartbreak for all who love you. It was a choice you would not have made in your right mind. So assume something is wrong and get help. Please.
6. Love yourself. This is by far the most important thing you can do. People who overcome obstacles, who beat the odds, who have the courage to go after and achieve their dreams do so because they love themselves enough to imagine their own possibilities, and then believe in themselves enough to turn those possibilities into reality. The most powerful weapon against fear, evil, and hatred -- whether they come from the outside or from within -- is love. You do not have to be a sorry statistic, one of those one-in-eight, but it's up to you. Start with love and the rest will follow.
We are counting the days until your return as I know you are, too. But let's keep it real. Prison was not the hard part. Making it on the outside will be the real test of your character. I still believe in your potential. I just hope you do, too.
Update: Just after writing this, NPR's Talk of the Nation devoted a segment to the epidemic of mass incarceration of Black men and the issues behind it. Listen to the excellent conversation here.
Aug. 28 update: If you care about the issues underlying this letter, I urge you to read this book: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander.