As an emerging journalist serving time at Everglades Correctional Institution in Miami, I spend most of my days following leads, conducting interviews and writing down details from the inside that most on the outside can't — or don’t want to — understand. Last October, when I covered the 4th Annual Gang Prevention Summit for the prison newsletter, I expected to come out with a basic story. Instead, I left with something much more meaningful.
I immediately recognized the name of the first speaker: It was Desmond Meade, the formerly incarcerated lawyer, voting rights activist and author. When he spoke to us in October, he’d just received the 2021 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” one of the biggest honors in the world. Standing at the podium — in front of a wall with the quote, “It's never too late to become who you might have been” painted on it — was this man who left prison, earned his law degree, successfully fought for clemency in order to take the bar exam, and was a certified genius. He had flown in that morning from Orlando just to see us, the men who stood where he once did. “Let me begin by saying that you all have value and I love you brothers,” he said before landing on the topic of his testimony — a commitment to something so strong that you're willing to sacrifice your life for it. “In the ‘90s, I was willing to die to get high,” Mr. Meade said. “I was committed to destroying myself.” His turning point came in 2005 as he stood on some railroad tracks in Miami waiting for an incoming train to end his life. The train was delayed, and Mr. Meade, who had been incarcerated four times, went to a homeless shelter instead. My quickly scribbled notes outlined what came next: “Treatment center.” “Miami Dade College, law school.” “Recognition and respect.” “Family.”
“That train didn't come for a reason,” Mr. Meade continued. “Now I'm committed to something greater than myself. Everything I have is because I was willing to lay my life on the line to do God's work and help others.”
Meade held nothing back. By talking directly to us, he spoke to the soul of this broken addict who had also felt suicidal. Suddenly, all of the days and nights that I’d spent writing and fighting to get more bylines seemed more worthwhile, because I'd seen what a higher purpose looked like. Walking back from the event, I looked up at the chain link fence topped with sharp wire. I got harassed by a guard who didn’t see my humanity, headed past a chapel that didn’t accept my philosophies, and arrived at the cell that holds me captive. But instead of seeing those things as oppressive, I looked at them as mere obstacles.
I can get around obstacles. I know that next year, when I get out of prison, I will be one of the millions of formerly incarcerated people who can still do great things. Words like “junkie,” “destitute” and “criminal” have applied to me at some point in my life. But seeing Desmond Meade — a living example of redemption — reminded me that my sky is full of stars, my heart is full of hope, and my future is full of promise. When I approach every rising sun as an opportunity for a new beginning — even while living in a violent system — I can still find the humanity in others.
Ryan M. Moser is in recovery from drug addiction and is serving a 10-year sentence in Florida for nonviolent property crimes. Excerpted from The Marshall Project, www.themarshallproject.org, posted 2/25/2022.