Empathy for the Incarcerated Makes Us Safer: When I was one year old, my father went to prison for a drug-related crime; he served eight years and died when I was twelve.

AuthorThomas, Rahsaan

I am currently incarcerated for murder and attempted manslaughter that occurred during a drug deal--crimes far worse than my father's. I can say from experience that my father's incarceration did nothing to protect society Instead, it was an ingredient which only created bigger problems.

Growing up in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, with an incarcerated father made it six times more likely that I would go to prison myself. From 1980 to 2000, the number of children with a father in prison or jail increased by 500 percent. I am part of that statistic.

When I lost my trial in 2003, I called my sons Brandon and Nicholas to tell them about my fiftyfive-years-to-life sentence. I called from a phone attached to the dorm wall in the Los Angeles County jail. Their mother handed the phone to Nicholas, who was eight at the time. I could hear the sniffles of my child crying on learning that his father was never coming home.

"Sad for you, Daddy," he whispered. My sniffles joined his as I thought, "Sad for me?"

I made the criminal decisions. And I was the only one to blame. Because of me, my sons' lives would be harder. I felt I didn't deserve my son's empathy. Now I realize that many members of society feel that about people in prison--they are there because they committed terrible acts, so they do not deserve empathy.

This spring, the group Dream Corps JUSTICE held its sixth annual Day of Empathy for incarcerated people and those impacted by the criminal justice system. It included an art show created entirely by incarcerated and justice-impacted people that I helped to curate.

One aim of the empathy movement is to build support for the EQUAL Act (Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law Act), making the penalty for crack and powder cocaine equal.

Everyone should care about this bill and the thousands of incarcerated people it could bring home. If we don't care, nothing will ever change. Without empathy, we cannot achieve meaningful policy changes in criminal justice reform that will keep our communities safe and families whole.

A criminal justice system without empathy amounts to dumping societal...

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