Humanizing the Dehumanized Faces of the Justice System
I lost one of my closest friends to suicide back in 2008. Like me, he was certified as a juvenile by a court to serve a life sentence in the adult prison system. He was sixteen. Like me, he had no previous record but he participated in one of the worst decisions of his life which led to a man losing his life. He regretted that day intensely. He told me this constantly. For years, he and I walked prison halls together. We shared everything. We laughed together, struggled together, cried together, and dreamed of freedom together.
And then he was gone.
The morning that I found out about his death began as indistinct as any other day I had served. The prison officials opened the cell doors for industry work as they would have on any other day. There was no mention of death. There was no acknowledgement of any incredible loss. I overheard a group of inmates speaking about a death that had occurred on the top tier in our unit. I shook my head and proceeded to prepare for the day. I felt bad for whoever lost their life but I was certain I didn’t know him.
Then I heard a name that froze me in my place. My heart jumped.
I raced up the stairs to the fourth tier, past dodging inmates, beyond the objections of “correctional” officers. I didn’t stop until I came face to face with an imposing “Yellow Board of Death.” The board covered his entire room. “Sammie,” I whispered. I touched the board and closed my eyes. My friend, Sammie Lamont Johnson, took his life in the wee hours of the night. He was 26 year old.
The night of his death many of us who he left behind were heartbroken. Sammie was well loved. The “world” may have seen him as a criminal but to us he was a brother, friend, teammate, confidant, and peacemaker. As I sat in my cell reminiscing on Sammie’s life, officers came to my door and ordered me to put my hands behind my back to be handcuffed. When I asked them why, they responded that they didn’t know.
Although I was confused, I complied.
I was taken to an isolation cell, stripped naked, and told to wait. After a few minutes, I began noticing others brought into other holding cells. They were all Sammie’s friends. After a long wait, a sneering lieutenant came outside the cells and barked, “What seems to be the problem.” I closed my eyes and held my tongue. He approached my cell and pounded on the Plexiglas. I opened my eyes and whispered “What,” between my teeth. He said “My officers tell me that a group of you guys are upset. What seems to be the problem?”
I fought to hold my rage.
My friend’s body wasn’t even cold yet and he was already being treated as un-noteworthy. We were both being treated like things. We were being treated like clogs with no more purpose than to hold steady in our functional place and keep everything moving. As things, we were not supposed to wobble or teeter or even feel our humanity. We were to bottle up our emotions, go out to our prison industry job, turn out a good product for “massa,” and do everything again the next day. These people don’t see our humanity. They see inmates. They see numbers. They see faceless things. They don’t see lives that matter. “Take… me … back… to… my … cell,” I whispered again and turned my back. The lieutenant chuckled nervously and walked out of the holding cell area. After an hour, we were returned to our unit and “allowed” to mourn our friend in peace. I realized that while it was true that I missed him, I was also glad that he was free from the dehumanizing existence that prison life had become for him.
Today, I’m free and Sammie is dead. Part of my duty to him is to help bring understanding and a more humanistic approach to the justice system. Doing so will ensure safer inmates, and ultimately safer streets.