Reflections on Redemption

Recently, the Supreme Court ruled that prisoners sentence to life without parole for crimes they committed as teens would be given the chance to argue for their release from prison. This decision will have a huge impact on Pennsylvania, as there are currently 400 juvenile lifers serving sentences here. To be honest, this decision would have had little impact on my life a year ago. If someone had told me about this decision, I would have said “that’s interesting!” and moved on. But last semester, I took a course titled “Crime, Justice, & the Media” and now this decision means more than I could ever have imagined.

I decided to sign-up for this special topics Communications course because the title sounded cool, and because one of my favorite professors was teaching the class. I’m passionate about justice, and I love media..that much I knew. What I didn’t know was that this course would basically be split into two parts: studying the underlying theories and beliefs about crime and the media, and working through The Redemption Project. The Redemption Project was started collaboratively by my professor, Mike Lyons, and three juvenile lifers: John Pace, Kempis Songster, and Aaron Phillips. It’s mission is to document and share stories about the lives of juvenile lifers and to increase public awareness about mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles.

Taking in all of this information on the first day of class was a lot to handle, but I couldn’t have been more excited. I am passionate about social justice and learning about issues that are new to me. I had never learned exclusively about JLWOP, so I was ready for the experience.

I didn’t know what to expect on my first visit to S.C.I. Graterford. I knew that we would be able to meet some of the men that The Redemption Project was working with, but I wasn’t sure how this meeting would go. I was anxious to dive into conversation with these men, but I worried that I wouldn’t know where to start or how to begin. After a nerve-racking experience signing in and going through security, I was suddenly walking by myself into the visiting room of a maximum-security prison. After a brief “how did I get here?” moment, I was greeted by John Pace. John couldn’t have been more excited to greet me. With a huge smile on his face, he politely asked me how I was doing and led me over to where the rest of the group was meeting. I was introduced to Kempis “Ghani” Songster and about seven other men who were serving life sentences for crimes they committed as teens.

What happened next would become one of the most thoughtful, insightful, and moving conversations that I’ve ever engaged in. For the next few hours, we each took a turn introducing ourselves to each other: our names, hobbies, career goals, hopes, and dreams. We dove into discussing the work of the project and the public’s awareness regarding juvenile life without parole. I was so impressed with the ease and eloquence with which these men spoke, and their incredibly optimistic outlook on life. Many of the men had pursued education while incarcerated and received their GEDs and for some of them, Bachelor’s degrees. They were involved in peer-mentoring programs. One man passionately described his love for his work – he helps out with a program that provides young students with school supplies.

On the way back from this first visit to Graterford, we were silent. In the coming weeks we would have much to say and to ask about our experience, these men and women, the justice system, and what “redemption” truly means…but in that moment, there were no words. For me..maybe it was a “change of heart” or maybe it was a better understanding of what it means to be human and the human spirit. But I knew that I wanted to learn more about all sides of this issue and continue the “good fight” as Ghani calls it, for these men and women.

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I will continue to blog about this experience throughout the semester.