Heights make me nervous. Even a slow ride up an escalator sends my heart racing. My perspiring right palm grips the dirty rail to help me to steady myself. Dropping my eyes, I try not to hold my breath, slowly approaching the top landing. Friends are baffled by the contradiction of my calm demeanor when I board airline flights. Maybe it’s the freedom to sleep, read or move about the aircraft cabin on longer flights that keeps me composed. I especially enjoy meeting and expressing gratitude toward the crewmembers.
On a 2015 flight from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, I greeted the flight attendant seated in the rear and thanked her for serving us. Startled, she asked, “So, what’s the purpose of your trip?” I explained I was traveling to present a series of advocacy workshops for family members of incarcerated loved ones. The moment I gauged her interest in knowing more about the subject, I asked, “Do you know the United States is the only country in the world that sends children to adult prisons to die?”
Her arched brows froze, and her eyes widened for a few seconds as her brain struggled to process my question. “What?” Her quizzical expression and head slightly tilted to the right were clues that she was interested in hearing more.
“Yes,” I continued, “right now there are over 2,500 men and women who were incarcerated as children and sentenced as juveniles to life without parole—a death sentence. They were basically told their mistakes made them unredeemable, unfit for society. My 17-year-old son was one of them.” After a brief pause and a deep breath, she asked, “But, how is that possible?” She was more surprised when I responded some states lock up children as young as ages 14 or 15 with adult prisoners. I further informed her some states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults.
The pain in her eyes suggested she might also be a mother. I did not want to overwhelm her. These were conversations I sought and prayed for. Too many people, I was convinced, were oblivious to the plight of young people who get into trouble. I was one of those people when my oldest son was arrested at age 17.
I will never forget that day in Charlotte, North Carolina, when I stepped into the house after another long workday. My cell phone started ringing continuously, interrupting my routine of locking the door, kicking off my shoes and dropping my computer bag on the floor. The frantic voice of a family friend in St. Petersburg, Florida, screamed the instant I answered the call, “They just got Rome, they got Rome!” Romeo, my mother’s youngest son, was arrested on charges of operating an illegal drug ring. My immediate concerns were for my mother and my son who lived next door to him. Within minutes of slumping on the sofa attempting to process what I had just heard, my phone rang again. The same caller forced the words through heavy tears: “They just got Ralph.” I was numb.
In what felt like an overnight frenzy, my 17-year-old son, so full of promise and potential, was arrested, tried and convicted on a nonviolent drug offense and whisked off to a federal penitentiary – an adult prison – to die. “How was that possible?”
For over a decade, I muddled through life in shocked silence about my son’s fate. I was convinced no one else on the planet lived with the pain I carried daily. Yet I refused to accept that his young life would end caged in the confines of prison.
By the grace of God, and the tireless work of advocacy organizations, my son was released in 2013, after 22 years—more than half of his life at that time.
“Do you know the United States is the only country in the world that sends children to adult prisons to die?”