Not Fooling Around at the White House

 In blog

The email hit my Project Return inbox, and my first thought was, this is an April Fool’s joke. How else could I explain getting an invitation to the White House for April 1st!

It would be the kick-off of #SecondChanceMonth as well as a focus on criminal justice reform. Most importantly, the gathering would celebrate passage of the First Step Act, which is the much-heralded bi-partisan legislation meant to reduce sentences, provide rehabilitative programming in prison, and support successful life after incarceration.

As it turns out, they weren’t fooling around at all: it was a very special evening. Overall, for all of us who are on the front line of working with folks who’ve been incarcerated, it was a great step forward.

We were ushered into the East Room, which was jammed with chairs and ringed with reporters and their huge cameras. Then the President walked in and begin to speak. Here’s the hopeful part: the entire content was utterly about how people ought to be able to get out of prison, to be provided with opportunities to learn while they’re in, and to be restored to life once they get out. The President referenced the cycle of poverty and crime, and told us that night that “it [is] time to fix this broken system – and it’s a system of the past – and to improve the lives of so many people.”

It was all really so utterly affirming of what we at Project Return have stood for. The prospect of new policies and understanding from the highest levers of power was compelling. On that night, the President said that people who have paid their debt to society ought to come out, redeemed, to incredible futures.

The main themes of the night, in fact, were 1) redemption and “second” chances, and 2) the way in which the First Step Act is meant to only be a beginning with more to come. To that second point, the Act is of course a federal law, and there is great hope that this movement will carry on down to the state penitentiary level. Indeed, there were several governors in attendance, and meanwhile the “Second Step Act” was actually just announced on that day.

In the middle of the President’s address, he unexpectedly gave the mic, one by one, to a half dozen men and women who’d already been released under the First Step Act. The audience beamed up at these individuals, hung on their words, and gave each a standing ovation. One man told the crowd, “Two months ago, I was in a prison cell, and now I’m in the White House!” As each came to the podium, the same prevailing thought emerged, clearly front-of-mind for every one of the returnees: all the people they’d left behind, and how so many more should be freed.

And that is no joke.

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