News, Views, Happiness Pursued

The Awesome Power of Forgiveness

by | Jun 5, 2020

photo/Joseph Jackson

Disclaimer for my family, loved ones, and anyone reading this who has children: What follows is a darkness and violence I never wanted to share with anyone. However, I am now compelled to shed light into the deepest corners of who I am, and what I have done, so I may be able to reach those still hiding in the shadows.  — L.H.

I have done some terrible things in this life. A few years ago, I finally realized that with every bit of harm I caused to another, I was taking life. Every careless, callous, sarcastic and spiteful word I have spoken has taken life from another human being, as “the tongue has the power of life and death” (Proverbs 18:21, New International Version). And, sadly, as some of you know, I have gone much further than taking life with my words. 

Though I have never ended anyone’s life, I have caused severe physical harm to other people who had done absolutely nothing to warrant my actions. Now I sit in Maine State Prison, branded with a new name: #70199. While there are many prisoners, staff and administrators who call me by my first name, Leo, according to the Maine Department of Corrections I am #70199.

I was speaking with my eldest nephew the other day. He too has found himself in these concrete-and-steel catacombs. As I have told him several times before, I aim to pour life into this world every day. I have taken life, so I now live to give life to all those around me.

I know I cannot atone for my evil actions by performing acts of service. There is no cosmic scale for me to balance out. All I can do is pray I am able to leave a legacy that shows the world that, regardless of the worst decision a person can make, that person is not irredeemable. There does not exist a human being unworthy of his or her inherent dignity.

This will be the focus of my monthly column for Mainer. I hope to show you that humanity still breathes in prison. Every “criminal” with whom I speak, locked in chains, behind heavy steel doors, encircled by chain-link and razor-wire fences, is also a father, a son, a brother, an uncle, or a nephew. And each is worthy of notice and appreciation for his struggles.

Don’t get me wrong — there are some people who seem determined to stay stuck on stupid. Too many to count are the faces and names of those I’ve seen come and go from jail and prison over the 12 years of my incarceration. Men who planned to do or sell drugs, or buy alcohol, as their first order of business upon release. Invariably, those are the ones I see in the news, or hear via the prison grapevine, who’ve been arrested again, are on the run, or dead.

Theirs are not the stories I will tell. Those stories flayed my heart for years, and hardened it. It is only by God’s transformative grace that my heart is not hard as stone. I stand today as a man devoid of selfishness, deceit or callousness toward my fellow man.

And yet, I am not a good person. Many tell me I am, but I refuse to go against the truth I know: “No one is good — except God alone” (Luke 18:19, NIV). I’ve been told this is a rather bleak outlook on life, but I believe that once we get away from trying to look like good people, we will finally be able to embrace the inherent goodness in each of us. It is when we stop acting good that God can fill us with authentic goodness. 

I fully understand that not everyone who reads this shares my faith, but I pray you are able to hear my sincerity. I have been waiting seven years for the opportunity to share with the world the truths of humanity I have learned during my isolation from the world. Through my societal death, I have come to truly value life in all its glorious variations.

Prison didn’t “save my life,” as I repeatedly stated in ignorance for years. Love saved my life. Sadly, it took the death of my hope, the severe harm I found myself capable of, and the loving-kindness of strangers for me to learn what real love is.

It took the eradication of my pride and arrogance, as well as the carefully tenacious guidance of the man who has become my best friend and mentor. It took God staying my hands from inflicting severe harm on a corrections officer — while my best friend stood back and laughed, unaware ofthe fury that boiled in my core. So stubborn, prideful and angry was I, it required all this pain for God to truly break me.

That, and the 50-year prison sentence handed to me at the age of 19.

photo/courtesy Maine State Prison

My Path to Incarceration

Thinking back to the first years of my life, I don’t remember all the traumatic experiences my older siblings recount to me. However, I do remember enough to trace the violent acts that led to my incarceration back to the anger and violence drilled into me as a child by the physical, mental and emotional abuse our father inflicted upon us.

He did that to “prepare” us for a life of being black and bi-racial in a predominately white state. I remember the incessant “training” intended to teach me how to protect myself and my family against anyone and everyone who was not a close family member. I also remember the anguish in my father’s voice as he howled curses upon the heads of those who’d “killed” my eldest brother (I later learned he died due to a tragic accident). I was eight years old.

Two and a half years later, I’d had enough of the anger and bitterness my father unleashed upon my remaining brother and me. My last surviving grandparent died, and within two months I was officially a ward of the State of Maine.

I ran away so often that my mother feared for my life. She witnessed me run blindly across four lanes of traffic while vehicles sped in both directions. She heard of my leaps into snowbanks from second-story rooftops to escape the tyranny of home — the depths of which she could not know, being too busy working to keep a roof over our heads and food in our stomachs. At 10 years of age, I was living from couch to couch until the cushions ran out. Then I’d curl up in the laundry rooms of apartment buildings during the winter, hide under the porches of abandoned houses to evade the searchlights of police cruisers.

Three group homes, two foster homes, two deaths in the family, one Class B state football championship, and eight years later, I committed a home invasion that I thought would help my foster brother avoid a long prison sentence — a telling example of a thought process broken by a life of trauma.

The plan had been to burglarize the home, but when the alarm sounded, my mind stopped making rational decisions and I attacked, with a machete, the man who emerged from the darkness. I thought he had a gun. I later learned from the police that he had not had the weapon until I encountered him again, after assaulting his daughter, who’d suddenly appeared before me, as though materializing from thin air.

The crime was over in minutes, but my victims, their family, and the families of many others have been irrevocably harmed. My foster brother is serving four life sentences concurrently. I have 38 years to go.

At the age of 15, I set my heart and mind to earning a PhD in psychology and opening a practice through which I could help heal children who grew up with the pain, abuse and dysfunction I did. But when my biological father died on the one-year anniversary of my foster mother’s death, I did not allow myself the opportunity to grieve, or to fully forgive my father. I lost myself in fast living, which led to a series of terrible decisions culminating in my long-term incarceration.

I had dropped out of high school to care for my ailing father at the end of his life. On the day I was to test for my GED, I was arrested, and I saw any hope of being able to help others evaporate along with my dream of a new life. Now I see hope for a future beyond this prison sentence, as well as within these walls.

I’m currently pursuing a master’s degree through George Mason University’s School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution. I want to change the criminal justice system from one that inflicts further harm upon the perpetrators of harm to a system where true healing is sought for everyone impacted by crime: victims, offenders and community members. Toward this end, I have been studying restorative and transformative justice practices, seeking help to institute them within this prison and spread them beyond these walls.

I experienced the powerful effects of restorative justice firsthand, before I even heard those two words spoken together. With the help of my best friend and mentor, I went from preparing to kill my foster brother in prison to developing a loving relationship with him — a relationship that, largely due to the destructive lifestyles we were living, was not possible before our incarceration.            

The Awesome Power of Forgiveness

Forgiveness cannot be earned. It is impossible for me to earn forgiveness from God, from myself, or from the victims of my crime. By its very nature, forgiveness is a gift. True forgiveness “cannot simply be willed or forced but must come of its own time, with God’s help,” Howard Zehr wrote in Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice. And forgiveness is a “precondition” for “genuine healing to take place.” 

I know very well the debilitating burden of hatred, bitterness and unforgiveness toward those who wrong and harm someone. More recently, I have learned the awesome power of forgiveness to heal and restore a person’s sense of wholeness and peace. Although forgiveness is not necessarily a primary goal of the restorative justice process, it is the keystone required to achieve true shalom — what Zehr calls “all rightness” or “things being as they should be.”

In order for my heart to truly heal the scars from past harm, I had to learn how to forgive. I realized along the way that the process of forgiveness is painful. For, in order to forgive, we must first remember the ways we were harmed, and how we harmed others. “Both victim and offender need to be healed,” Zehr wrote, “and this healing requires opportunities for forgiveness.”

These opportunities are presented by God every day; however, we human beings have a horrible predilection to ignore these opportunities, because we know it will take work, and we know it will hurt. That being said, as I grew in my new faith-walk with God, through Christ, I learned that “if you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15, New Living Translation).

Contrary to this truth, I’ve found an irony, in that when we wrong another person, we want to be forgiven — we know it feels good. We want to be absolved of our guilt. But when someone wrongs us, we want to hold the other person in our debt by withholding our forgiveness.

Nine years ago, at the age of 21, when I first began the process of forgiveness, I had already been incarcerated for three years and had carried my 50-year prison sentence for over a year. I wrote out a long list of those who’d harmed me and, through prayer, I forgave each one. I still struggle from time to time, but, in the years since, as I remember others, I repeat this process to rid myself of all unforgiveness.

For those I have harmed, I have written letters to the ones I am able to contact, confessing how I wronged them, accepting responsibility, and seeking their forgiveness. I still have more letters to write, but, as I am restricted by law from reaching out to the victims of my crime, I pray regularly that God will soften their hearts to enable them to forgive me someday. I also use this process for others I am unable to contact: those who have passed away or who have simply moved on from me.

Sadly, outside of church and restorative justice circles, forgiveness is largely absent from our daily lexicon. Nobody asks for forgiveness anymore. We apologize, say we’re “sorry,” and then commit the same offense again. There is no repentance, no turning around of our behavior or our lives.

In the Bible, God lays out His protocol for seeking forgiveness, as well as what to do when someone wrongs us. During Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, He says, “if you are offering your gift at the altar [praying] and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there at the altar [stop praying]. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24, NIV). If we would follow the restorative protocol Jesus proposes later on, in Matthew 18:15-17*, healing and peace would be made possible.     

“Forgiveness is the final form of love,” said Reinhold Niebuhr. I would add that it is also one of the greatest forms of love, next to laying one’s life down for one’s friends (John 15:13, NIV).

Almost 10 years ago, before I learned these truths and biblical principles, I blamed my foster brother/co-defendant for my crime, and I hated him for it. I was therefore easily guided by manipulative mouths in the segregation unit to metastasize my hurt, guilt and shame into a visceral need to murder my foster brother — a man I’d been willing to die for less than two years prior. I was informed that, according to “prison politics,” if I didn’t kill him, he would have to kill me.

At 20 years old, having faced death several times already, I was accustomed to the idea of dying, but I decided I would rather live. So I hardened my heart and mind in preparation for one more major act of violence. There was no space in my heart for forgiveness or reconciliation, and even if there had been, my mind was so broken that I wouldn’t have been willing to accept the concept.

I thank God that I was released from segregation into the general prison population. He placed the right man in the right place at the right time to stop me from ruining the pathetic excuse for a life that I had left. This man, E, mediated between me and my foster brother a way of coexisting without violence. Still, it took another three years of Bible study and strained peace between us for me to be able to forgive my foster brother, and to seek his forgiveness.

During that time, although none of us had heard of restorative justice, E facilitated that process between us. My foster brother and I had very brief conversations via E that grew over time, until E was able to step back and let us talk freely. We then came to a deeper understanding of one another, revealing what led each of us to the broken state of life that culminated in the harm of an innocent family by my hand.

Seven years ago, my brother and I shared the “final form of love.” God has healed the wounds between us. We are now honest with one another, willing to show our vulnerability, as well as to support and correct each another — and to do so with love. He and I differ in faith: he is a Muslim, and I am learning to be a follower of Christ. But we are both at a place in life where the restorative process (the biblical process) has led to true healing through forgiveness.

My Educational Journey   

I have been a ward of the State of Maine since I was 10 years old, having experienced only five weeks of freedom between my 18th birthday and the worst decision of my life. The painful irony of my story is that I’ve always wanted to help people: from babysitting and providing others an open and nonjudgmental ear, to serving as a hospice volunteer in prison, passionately advocating for legislative change, and now serving as Executive Secretary on the Maine State Prison NAACP board. This is the focus of my life: making myself fully present for the ever-changing needs of my fellow human beings and helping those who are willing to do the work necessary to receive that help.

I graduated from the University of Maine at Augusta with a bachelor’s degree in Liberal Studies (3.95 GPA) last year. I accomplished this while incarcerated, thanks to a full scholarship awarded through Doris Buffett’s Sunshine Lady Foundation. After enduring five tumultuous years behind bars, I received the blessing of attending classes held on site by passionate UMA professors who held us to the same, or higher, expectations as those to which they held their campus students.

My thirst for education is not yet slaked; I do not expect it ever will be. For some, attaininga graduate degree is merely an academic exercise or a necessary credential. For me, the degree is a manifestation of hope, both for myself and for those who look to me for counsel and support.

Meanwhile, I am working with the Warden and the Deputy Warden of Programs to enact lasting, positive social change within this institution through service on the Prisoner Advisory Council. I’m working with the Restorative Justice Institute of Maine by facilitating a Restorative and Transformative Justice educational program and serving on the Restorative Practices Steering Committee.

I have also written a piece of legislation I pray will be enacted: LD 1221, “An Act to Allow Deductions From Prison Sentences for Rehabilitative Activities.” Sponsored by Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, of Portland, it would provide earned good-time to prisoners who complete educational and vocational programs, or other work that “leads directly to the rehabilitation of that person.”

Early on, I had no desire to immerse myself in the macro aspects of social justice work. I wanted to work one-on-one with the men and women of this state who’ve made life choices that led to prison. By focusing on trauma and trauma-informed care, I wanted to help people overcome theirobstacles despite the new label society had given them: felon.

My view has changed since I began working with the NAACP, legislators and prisoners to change laws and rules that hinder the success of incarcerated people. I now see that to best utilize the gifts God has given me, I must work to change the infrastructure perpetuating the oppression of an ever-growing segment of the national population.

Systems of oppression are only allowed to exist when a society buys into a belief that the system is necessary and/or good. With every law broken, every harm inflicted upon the collective societal body, more politicians are elected by promoting “tough on crime” policies that do nothing to lower the crime rate, nor the recidivism rate. Harm continues to perpetuate itself.

I fervently hope my new monthly column for Mainer, Shining Light on Humanity, will contribute to the national awakening that is finally happening: mass incarceration does not work. Our adversarial criminal justice system will never bring true healing or peace. Restoration and transformation are necessary in the lives of those who perpetuate crime, as well as in the system that perpetuates cycles of harm.

In Closing: Eyes on the Prize

Close your eyes. Think of a night in your life that holds great significance for you. Positive or negative — does not matter. Accompanied or alone — does not matter. Picture it clearly. Close your eyes…

One night persistently follows me. I have left home for the umpteenth time, once again foregoing the comfort of heat for the comfort of freedom. The comfort of no Dad standing there, filling the doorframe to the living room, his mahogany face glistening behind that thick gray beard I used to be able to lose my hands in, suspenders tight over his growing old-man belly, the familiar doubled-over brown leather belt dangling limp from his left hand. I’ll take the sting of the icy snow pelting my face any day of the week over the thrash of Dad’s angry belt on my back. I don’t need his mean voice in my ear telling me how “bad” I am, how he “loves me,” but “hates my actions.” He might as well just go ahead and say what I already feel from him: “I hate you, son. I curse the day you were born.” He already slipped up and said the last part last summer. He might as well finish what he started.

As these thoughts flood my mind, a searing burn rises inside me to combat the frigid cold. Consumed by a loving hatred of my father, my trudge becomes a determined march. My house is now out of view, but here at the corner of the street in my familiar semi-suburban neighborhood, I still feel its eyes on my welted back. I stop and look over my shoulder. I realize, That’s stupid. My home can’t see through other buildings, especially not in this snow, and especially not at night. I resume my pace, the snow deep enough now to crunch under my Goodwill work boots.

I hesitate and glance to my left across the dirty pavement. On the corner of another side street, a sign sits in an apartment building’s doorway: “Old Gold.” I pat the front of my thighs, hoping for the best. Nothing. I curse at myself for having gotten picked up by that fat old pig earlier at the roller rink. Then I remember there’s a white van in the lot over the fence from my house that usually has a pack of Parliaments on the dash.

Turning around, I take three steps home. And stop. I’ve only been gone a few minutes, but a little bad luck could bring a cop car around the corner. I pull my jacket tighter and press forward. Through the top left pocket I can feel the red Bic I snatched off the corner store’s shelf. I smile as I look down the street, at the intermittent spots of light obscured by falling tufts of cotton. I can lose any dumb cop at night.

Crossing the street on an angle, I only see one light on in the building, and it’s near the back — facing the van. Of course. The parking lot feels like a shark-infested ocean. I cast another glance at the illuminated back window and widen my angle of approach, keeping within arm’s length of the slatted fence, freezing at the slightest sound coming over the wind between the crunching of my steps.

A shadow crosses the light. I crouch too fast and stumble into the fence, scraping the edge of my right hand on the rough wood. I can’t take my eyes off that window for a solid five minutes, though they feel like hours. Numbness sets in my feet. My toes start to hurt, my right hand starts to burn, my nose runs and my eyes water. I’m five big steps away from the goal.

I can’t take it any longer. I inch closer to the cold hunk of metal that promises heat. I put the van between me and the apartment building, hunkering eye-level with the side mirror. Catching a glimpse of my hat-less head, I quickly refocus on easing up the flat plastic lever, holding my breath, hoping for a deep click to resound. It does.

I’m in! Man, am I in luck. No overhead light comes on, and not only is there a pack on the dashboard with eight beautiful white tips looking back at me, there’s a full pack sitting pretty, right under the radio, silver cellophane band intact. That’s three or four days of heat for me. Ha-haaa! I’m good to go.

Easing back out, my left hand sinks into the soft gray cloth, cold to the touch but sheltered from the wind. It’s nice, but my eyes return to the back window. I slither to the snow-covered ground, swing the door closed, and press just enough for the latch to engage — any harder and the alarm might sound.

With this mission accomplished, I can move more freely. There’s a swish now between the crunching of my feet, faster as I make my way out of the ocean and back onto the safety of the street. Still no traffic. No need to dart between buildings or parked cars. Before going too far, I stop in the doorway of the apartment building to light up a clean white cancer stick (as Mother calls them), filling my mouth and chest with warmth. I hold the fire a few seconds longer than necessary.

Smoke billows out of my nose and mouth as I thrust my hands deep into the bottom pockets of my canvas camo jacket. I pass the cigarette sign in the doorway on the corner and smirk behind the evidence dangling between my lips.

A flash of light drives me behind a hedgerow, cupping the hot cherry in my hands. My breathing becomes fast and shallow as I anticipate the vehicle’s approach. It moves slowly. Too slow. I shift my weight to my back foot, eyes squinting, heart racing.

Then all the air in my lungs rushes out in a huge sigh. No spotlight, no roof-rack blues. I’m safe to resume walking down Green Street, cherry still glowing bright and getting hot on my lips. I cross over Chestnut before spitting the burned filter onto some schmuck’s driveway. He won’t mind; he probably smokes too.

My heater gone, I turn onto Winter and quicken my pace. Cars line this short street, providing plenty of cover for this leg of the journey. No need, though. I reach North and turn right. There’s a long stretch of open pavementahead, so I pause and survey and debate. There’s no other way.

I move out at a light jog, head swinging both ways and backwards, jealous of owls. Hearing an engine, I break into a full sprint, cut across the street and duck behind a chain-link fence. My back to a big brown house, knees growing colder by the second, hands clenched so tight that my nails are digging into my palms, I peer through the diamonds in the steel wire … at an old, rusty, broke-down granny-mobile that threw me to my knees for nothing!

I smack the snow off my wet jeans and run my hands over the small mound of wet kinks on my head, making my way back to the street. Standing just outside the fence, I chance a glance at the sign on this corner: Elm. Nice! Almost there.

About a third of the way down Elm, I have two options: go straight in through this end of the looping driveway, or walk around the building on the corner, where there’s a dumpster, and take the long way. I see a warm glow on the snow in front of my destination: Mark’s house. Stick to the plan. Remind myself, Better safe than sorry.

I remember the army lingo from days playing soldier and make sure to do my recon work. Pause. Head on a swivel. All clear. Move out!

I jog past the entrance and make it to the rusty green dumpster. My jungle-combat jacket provides perfect camouflage.

I know those pigs are really sneaky, so I can’t just go right in. I’ll give it five minutes or so. I light up another heater, cup it between drags, and keep my eyes on the glowing prize of untarnished familial warmth.

•••

These days, as I reflect on those frigid nights spent searching for warmth, I realize I was seeking then what I yearn for still: a home not marred by abuse, where love conquers evil and drives out the darkness, where tragedy is not allowed to seep into the walls, contaminating every moment of joy. I pray to God that He will permit me this modest prize someday, so I can break the cycle of brokenness in my family and leave the next generation with the belief that wholeness can, and should, be theirs. 

* “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” [NIV]

Related Posts

Subscribe

We are supported by advertisers and readers, like you, who value independent local journalism. For the cost of one pint of Maine craft beer each month, you can help us publish more content and keep it free for everyone.