The Future of Incarceration in America

How I Went from Convicted Murderer to Professional Criminal Justice Advocate

Most of my time on parole and in college was spent in self-imposed anonymity. Then I learned how to fight back and became an agent of change for a broken system.
December 8, 2016, 5:30pm
The author with his family in 2016. Photo by Taji Ameen/VICE

When I was 18 years old, I accidentally shot and killed a close friend of mine. I pleaded guilty to third-degree murder, was sentenced to eight to 20 years, and ultimately served about a decade behind bars.

There are obstacles to staying alive in such an unnatural and violent environment. Most of the correction officers I encountered seemed to be openly disdainful toward people of color. I was subjected to strip searches in front of grinning white officers who seemed to have no regard for my humanity. I felt like a black body they could do with as they pleased, one they even hoped would fail. That sensation—of a white power structure determined to keep me down—festered throughout my time inside, and came roaring back during the torturous parole process that followed.

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It also colors what I do today, helping break down the barriers between current and formerly incarcerated people and society.

Kingsley Rowe on prison, parole, and his path to reentry.

Incarcerated people are often housed nowhere near the communities they know. In my case, SCI Smithfield in central Pennsylvania—where I did most of time—was several hours from home, and I found it impossible to maintain my family ties due in part to the cost of communicating via phone. I grew terribly lonely, and did what many incarcerated people do: I spent most of my time pursuing my education and reading all the books I could get my hands on. If nothing else, I was fortunate enough to have a few mentors in prison, guys who would be locked up for the rest of their lives but cared enough to point me in the right direction at key times.

When I finally got out in 1999, I remember meeting with my parole officer (PO) for the first time, and being promptly being told to "shut the fuck up."

It was around the time my PO said, "So, you're a murderer," that I realized this wasn't going to be a great relationship.

A wave of fear washed over me that day. If the people in charge of my reintegration are the ones who have the least faith in rehabilitation, how can I expect society to change its views about formerly incarcerated people like me? Still, I was determined: My plan was to get back in school and specifically to major in computer science.

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When I first filled out my college application and came upon the dreaded question, about whether I'd ever been convicted of a felony, I was instructed to check the box marked "yes." But something in my heart would not let me. Not because I was ashamed, but because I knew what they were asking, and I knew it was not fair. I had served my sentence and was determined fit to return to society. So why were they asking me about something that happened ten years ago?

The only explanation I could think of for the criminal history question was that they were asking if I was going to hurt someone. I answered "No." Again and again on applications for everything from Macy's to housing, to my graduate degree program in social work from NYU, where I achieved honors, I checked "no" because I would not allow the criminal label to define me. I felt ashamed that I had to lie, but more afraid of what would happen if anyone ever found me out.

Most of my time on parole and in college was spent that way—in self-imposed anonymity. I didn't tell my colleagues, friends, and neighbors about my past. Even when I graduated with an MSW from an elite school like NYU, I knew it didn't matter. Being gainfully employed as a professional since my release didn't matter, either.

I was a convicted murderer in the public eye, and that was that.

The author, second from right, in prison in 1990. Photo courtesy Kingsley Rowe

None of my achievement was of any consequence in a society that saw me as a liability and someone not deserving of the full benefits of citizenship. Not to mention the compelling role race plays—in my case being African American and also convicted of a violent crime. I was free but, at the same time, handcuffed by societal constraints. One parole officer went so far as to tell me all criminals are the same—that he wasn't fooled by my college attendance or parole compliance.

That was obviously not a healthy stance to take when trying to reintegrate someone into society.

While it may seem like a technicality to people who have not been through it, that little black box on those applications became like another kind of cell for me, and it took me ten years of living a lie before I decided to fight back. I found a writer for the Huffington Post who was soliciting viewpoints on gun control, wrote him my perspective based on my crime, and he asked if he could publish it. When he did, my universe changed. The article went viral throughout my community, and the response from friends and strangers was overwhelmingly positive. I was embraced, even celebrated for my honesty, and became an instant advocate for people who have been incarcerated.

Shortly afterward, I got a call from my own alma mater, NYU. They were looking for a social worker to help launch a prison program in college, and my name came up. The interview was cathartic, as my record became a badge of honor, rather than one of shame. The most meaningful part of the hiring process came as I formalized my role by filling out the human resources packet. I looked for the box that had caused me so much misery, but it wasn't there. I came to find out that I was among the first people hired by NYU's Gallatin School under the Fair Chance Act, which eliminated that question from most hiring materials in New York City.

Since joining NYU, I've worked to help students applying to school after a period of imprisonment. Among other things, we work with the incarcerated at the Wallkill Correctional Facility upstate who want to take courses and get college credit. And I've remained outspoken about the need to remove the box for employment. By taking the question of criminal history out the official business of American life, we recognize that being sentenced to a prison does not also have to mean being remanded to a life of poverty and isolation. And we offer opportunity to people who, whether because of a single mistake, a wrongful conviction, or a lifetime of struggle, most desperately need it.

This article is part of the VICE series The Future of Incarceration. Read the rest of the package here.