By Rahsaan Thomas
Accountability. For a person serving a life sentence in California, you must take accountability for your crimes. If you don’t take accountability, don’t expect the parole board to give you a date.
While the board appreciates hearing about your insight into the contributing factors that lead up to your bad choices, they don’t want to hear you minimizing why you committed the crime. Minimizing means blaming others, making excuses — trying to make yourself sound good or not so bad. When you have committed a horrible crime taking accountability makes sense—if you don’t acknowledge your wrong doing, you’re likely to continue that illegal conduct—hurt others because you were hurt.
Even if someone did something provocative that influenced your choice to react in violence, even if you were abused in foster homes, even if your parents were addicts, even if you grew up in a gang infested neighborhood—no matter what—you have the power to choose to do the right thing so you shouldn’t blame anyone else for your choices. You can’t control anyone else but yourself so it’s important to own your power to do the right thing in the face of life’s difficulties.
Today, I take accountability for my crimes and ownership of my power to make sure I never commit another act of violence ever again. One of the most significant problems with the criminal legal system today is that it doesn’t do the same—the powers that be do not take accountability for their role in creating and continuing cycles of violence.
We have neighborhoods where 70 percent of the Black males suffer incarceration. We have prison systems that have recidivism rates over 45 percent. In 2002, the recidivism rate in California was 66.2 percent within three years of release.
When California started taking rehabilitation programs and adding reentry services seriously, the recidivism rate dropped to 44.6 percent by 2011. This drop shows when a system does better, people do too.
Yet, largely relying on exceptionalism, we have created horrible circumstances then solely blamed the least powerful for having moral failings. However, “[m]ost violence is not just a matter of individual pathology—it is created. Poverty drives violence. Inequity drives violence. Lack of opportunities drives violence. Shame and isolation drive violence. And… violence drives violence,” wrote Danielle Sered in her book, Until We Reckon.
We created inner city crime with our redlining, employment discrimination, racism, oppression, blue wall protecting police brutality, FBI COINTELPRO program, gun show loopholes, voter suppression, mass incarceration, school-to-prison pipelines, etc. Instead of taking accountability for our failings and resolving them, we address crime with more violence that leads to more violence.
We call the police to deal with people who have mental health issues then demand murder charges when shoot to kill training takes another life. We ask cops to solve drug addiction with handcuffs and mass incarceration.
We have created laws that hand the harshest penalties to the least powerful like California’s 10-20-life gun law. The gun enhancement tacks on additional prison time as follows: 10 years for using a gun in a crime, 20 years for firing it, and 25-to-life if the gun was used to cause great bodily injury or death. Yet there is no equivalent law for gunshow loopholes. Basically, we wait until a gun gets used by a Black or Brown hand then hand out multiple life sentences like they’re Robitussin.
We warehouse people in prisons, keeping cycles of crime spinning. A child with a parent in prison is about 4 times more likely to follow that path. Prison makes it difficult to earn a living, keeping a person in poverty. Witnessing or experiencing violence can lead to carrying out violence. Isolating people from society breaks community ties which can also lead to violence. Then we give individuals who get out and return life sentences under the three strikes law for their “moral failings” without regard for how we failed them.
In order to fix the criminal legal system, we must reckon with our past and stop seeking to solve crimes with violence.
I’ve sat in circles with hundreds of men who committed crimes and heard their backstories. Knowing the shoes they have walked in has given me perspective. I hear similar stories over and over —each of them were hurt and failed by society before hurting someone themselves. As Zack Norris wrote in his book, We Keep Us Safe, “Trauma is not just the consequence of harm, but also its cause. It is people who are traumatized who commit most violent crimes.”
I’m in San Quentin, a unique prison where there are dozens of self-help groups that help men heal from their trauma. I’ve seen dozens of men take those groups, heal, and go home assets to the community. The recidivism rate for lifers is less than 2 percent according to a 2011 Stanford study. Furthermore, this prison allows volunteers from the community to enter to facilitate the programs, a much better use of a prison system than warehousing.
I met Cori Thomas when she visited San Quentin with producer Ellen Horne to interview me and Emile DeWeaver (writer, advocate and founder of Prison Renaissance now paroled) for an Audible project. Blown away by the emotionally intelligent human beings she met, Cousin Cori as I call her (same last name but no relation) decided to become a volunteer for a group called No More Tears, which addresses trauma. Addressing trauma is a much better use of prison time.
Her play Lockdown displays how a man can heal, change and help others change but sometimes the system wants your eye for the eye you took. This underscores the importance of addressing the root causes of crime so that two lives don’t get wasted in the first place.
When we don’t have the systems in place to prevent crime, when we instead invest in mutual destruction, we are also at fault. We must take accountability by acknowledging where we failed, where we can do better and change direction.
We need to start in the community with schools. Countless experts say trauma is a root cause of violent crime yet emotional intelligence isn’t taught in high schools. “In addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic, all kids need to learn self-awareness, self-regulation, and communication as part of their core curriculum,” wrote Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score. He ends his book by saying, “Trauma is now our most urgent public health issue, and we have the knowledge necessary to respond effectively. The choice is ours to act on what we know.”
I would expand van der Kolk’s statement to say we have the knowledge necessary to effectively prevent all crimes without using violence. We can invest in creating more opportunities than obstacles in our communities, teaching Financial Empowerment and Emotional Literacy, training on Restorative Justice, hiring formerly incarcerated violence prevention mentors, sending out mental health experts, teaching emotional intelligence in schools.
Will we continue to solely blame individuals then punish them with violence or will we choose to prevent crime with love and respect for the human being in all of us?
This essay was updated on January 12, 2020. Rahsaan submitted the original essay by mail to the CCCCT on December 21, 2020. His original submission can be read here. The updated original can be read here.
Rahsaan Thomas is the co-host and co-producer of the Pulitzer Prize winning podcast “Ear Hustle,” as well as a contributing writer for The Marshall Project and San Quentin News. He is currently incarcerated and has a legal campaign seeking to help secure his freedom at bit.ly/BringRahsaanHome.