"We are responsible for actions performed in response to circumstances for which we are not responsible." ~ Allan Massie
I once read that the secret to life is to fall seven times and get up eight times. I have been blessed enough to have the physical, spiritual, and emotional strength to get up from the many pitfalls in my life. I was born and raised in a two-parent home in Flint, Michigan. My dad was a school teacher and my mother a homemaker. I was the oldest of five children, I was a high school track star, and good student. On the outside it looked like we had a perfect family life and home. But on the inside, I lived in a dysfunctional family marked by years of physical and mental abuse and trauma.
In the summer of 1980, I was 22-years-old and married with children of my own. The years of abuse and dysfunction came to a shocking head when my mother shot and killed my father in their marital home after 23 years of marriage. My younger brother and sister were in the home when it happened. I had to bury my father at the same time I was working to keep my mother out of prison and my younger siblings stable. Because I never properly grieved or sought counseling, my life spiraled out of control and I began to lead a “Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde” double life. During the day I was a husband and father, worked for General Motors on skilled trades as a journeyman die maker, and had a nice home, cars, etc. At night however, I lived a violent life that included selling and using drugs, seedy night clubs, and carrying a pistol.
On the day that marked the six-year anniversary of my father’s death, I walked into prison to serve a 50-year sentence after being convicted for a crime that I did not commit. After serving 27 years, the court reversed my conviction and I was subsequently released in 2012 without any reentry support or services – I received nothing more than a handshake. Unlike people who are paroled from prison, state law currently does not require that any services be offered to individuals who are released as a result of their conviction being overturned.
During my 16th year in prison, on Father’s Day 2001, I was waiting for a visit from my son and three daughters. I had talked to my son that morning, who was 21-years old at the time, and he said “Dad I’m going to pick the girls up and we are coming to visit you.” As I waited, morning turned into afternoon, and afternoon turned into evening, but they had not arrived. So, I called around to family and friends in an attempt to see what was going on. To my horror, I discovered that my son had been shot and killed by a 14-year-old juvenile.
I was devastated to say the least. However, I had reached a point in my life where I no longer believed in the concept of an “eye for an eye," or revenge. I saw no useful purpose in having this young man spend the rest of his life in an adult prison. I did not want to compound an already bad situation by taking another child away from his family and our community forever.
I recognized that even though he committed a horrible crime, the boy who killed my son was still a child, and was also the victim of the same trauma suffered by my son and most people who live in poor black communities. Because I believed that we don’t make our communities safe by creating artificial lines between “victims” and “offenders”, I advocated for fair treatment for the teen who killed my son. I wanted him tried as a youth. and placed under the juvenile justice system’s jurisdiction after his conviction to prepare him for release, because it is better designed to rehabilitate children than the adult system. The judge granted my wishes, and the young teen was sentenced in juvenile court and told that he would be released at age 21 if he met the requirements of the court and demonstrated his rehabilitation. He succeeded, and was eventually released.
There has been a lot more pain and suffering in my life than detailed here, but the point of my story is the subject of the above quote: “We are responsible for actions performed in response to circumstances for which we are not responsible.” We can choose to be angry and bitter about the trauma life has dealt us, or we can practice what we preach and live a life of redemption, second chances, and restorative justice to make our world a better place to live for all.
As a result, the last four years of my life since my release from prison have been an amazing string of opportunities and successes. I now live in Detroit, my job is in New York City, I travel all over the country speaking about criminal justice reform issues as a nationally recognized thought leader and activist in the movement to decarcerate America.
Ronald D. Simpson-Bey is a formerly incarcerated leader in the decarceration movement working as the Director of Outreach and Alumni Engagement for the New York-based organization, JustLeadershipUSA, committed to cutting the national prison population in half by 2030. He is a 2015 Leading with Conviction Fellow with JLUSA, a steering team member for both the Michigan Collaborative to End Mass Incarceration (MI-CEMI) and Nation Outside. Ronald is a co-founder and advisory board member of the Chance For Life (CFL) organization in Detroit, Michigan. Ronald is on Twitter @BeySimpson, Facebook, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.