More Than A Number

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A few months ago I began teaching classes at the Baltimore City jail for a brand new program focusing on rehabilitation.  I saw how often inmates were defined by their offenses, and I wondered more about their lives. I wondered if anyone had even asked about them.

A friend of mine hosts a pocast. A while back he told me how it gave him the opportunity to talk with, and ask questions to strangers that he otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to speak with. As a Sociology major, I’m familiar with the social, political, and economic disadvantages that communities with high crime and incarceration rates face. Originally, I wanted to hear the stories from the men in my class, but the politics behind getting approval for releasing their stories in autobiographical format were complicated. There was the potential for an inmate to bad-mouth the system, and no one wanted to take responsibility for that.

So I focused outside of the jail. I have been working in Baltimore restaurants for years, and know plenty of former inmates who have done time ranging from days to decades. I intern for the Director of the Public Safety Compact (PSC) which paroles men early who are doing lengthy sentences for substance abuse. In Baltimore City, it’s not hard to find someone who has experience with the system. Most interviews will be with men in PSC, but others include friends, coworkers, or people who just want to tell their stories.

I was surprised at how willing PSC members were to share their stories. They eagerly wanted to take part in the project, and shared more than I expected them to about their experiences. It was difficult interviewing people I didn’t know personally, because discussing such personal experiences made me feel uncomfortable. I constantly felt unsure if the questions I was asking were offensive, or too personal. Interviewing people I knew was difficult, also, but only because the conversations became less structured (as we moved off-script often).

My idea of activism before this project was that I would have to pioneer something. But podcasts have been done, and so have interviews about the justice system. But by recording the unique stories of the people most affected, I hope it’s clear that the people we often read about as statistics are far more like us than not. I hope it makes empathy a little more popular. If you’d like to read up a little more about Baltimore City and it’s jails is a great read.

My first interview is with a man, James Lawrence, whose story is frighteningly similar to that of former Freddie Gray. A couple of years ago, he told me about a time he was beat by the police, and I remembered it well after news of Freddie Gray’s arrest began popping up on the television. The episode is about an hour. I hope you listen, stay tuned for more, and practice empathy often!

Here is your link to stream:


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